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The key to building team resilience

A global pandemic. Prolonged supply chain disruptions. The Great Resignation. The war for talent.

The last three years have brought many difficult situations and stressful events to the workplace, prompting organizations of all sizes to rethink how they can respond to unexpected challenges in a way that will better position teams for the future. Adopting these behaviors into corporate strategy and culture has become so prevalent that the World Economic Forum, in partnership with McKinsey & Co., developed “the resilience agenda” in an effort to address long-term solutions for adapting to continual disruptions.

Resilience, however, is not just for executives and corporate strategy discussions. Leaders at any rank can help develop a resilient team by better understanding the relationship between resilience and stress management. 

The relationship between stress and resilience

Resilience, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is “the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.” But when discussing this ability to bounce back from stressful events, we must also consider the relationship between resilience and stress.

This ability to bounce back is a defining characteristic of an everyday utilitarian item—the rubber band. When you stretch a rubber band, it usually withholds the pressure and returns to its original shape. But even a rubber band can be stretched too far. At that point, it is no longer resilient and it breaks. At Birkman, we think of stress reactions as the rubber band breaking. These signs of stress occur when we, like that rubber band, have lost our ability to be resilient in difficult situations. 

But it doesn’t take a pandemic for teams to feel stress. Even periodic or low-stakes disruptions represent stress factors that may negatively impact the team and hinder their resiliency. So where does personality come in? Resilience is not a personality trait, yet it can inaccurately be seen as such by leaders who overlook the role they play in helping their teams increase this skill. The Harvard Business Review notes that companies often “place sole responsibility on employees and ignore the organization’s role in providing appropriate support [rather than] fostering environments that proactively enable and support resilience.” And while resilience is not a personality trait, how we react to stress is a component of our personalities. When leaders are intentional about helping teams manage stress, they’re also moving the needle on resilience.

Potential stress factors and tips to manage them

While each team will respond to stress differently based on their unique personalities, we can explore a few issues impacted by team stress responses and how to help your team lean into more productive behaviors when signs of stress arise.

Risk tolerance

In difficult times, teams might become locked into procedures or precedents and resist taking a risk that might result in another challenging situation. Business opportunities could be lost as all efforts focus on controlling risks and outcomes to avoid the discomfort of potential challenges, with anxiety escalating and morale decreasing when change is inevitable.

In these situations, leaders can help teams manage stress by demonstrating flexibility and encouraging their teams to lean into more flexible behaviors. Clarity regarding job roles and any non-negotiable processes or rules can provide needed structure, but frequent, open conversations regarding risk and reward might uncover potential opportunities and balance the team’s stress response of becoming too rigid.

Providing a foundation of psychological safety is a key role for leaders here in developing a resilient team, as team members may connect the exploration of business risk with the probability of personal risk in terms of reputation and job security. Connecting teams to their purpose, and explaining how risk might be necessary to achieve that purpose, can also be effective for team stress management in the area of risk tolerance.

Paralysis analysis

It’s always a good idea for teams to think about what could be done differently or more effectively, but team members prone to overthinking or dwelling on an issue can easily become “stuck” and unable to progress from reflection to action. The inability to make important project decisions can accompany this “stuck” status, affecting deadlines and forward momentum for the team.

To prevent a dip in team performance due to stressful overthinking, consider allowing them time to openly and honestly reflect with you and one another, but then intentionally move team members  past unproductive and excessive reflection. Working with the team to design a practical plan of action with clear filters on steps such as decision-making and encouraging them to be assertive on matters where they possess established authority can bridge the space between stressful thought and productive action.

Emotional expression

Though historically deemed inappropriate in the workplace, the need for emotional support can be deeply rooted in certain team members. And those who possess this personality trait do not leave it at the door when they enter their office; they also need a safe space in the workplace. When there is not an opportunity to feel heard, especially in times when other stress factors such as workload are present, important issues such as judgment, mood, and morale can suffer.

Conversely, some team members have a very low need for emotional expression, favoring logical solutions over an emotional outlet. Signs of stress for these team members could include insensitivity to the emotions of others and an overemphasis on outcomes over processes, neither of which is productive for team morale or enthusiasm.

This dichotomy can be tough for leaders, who must establish a sort of “emotional equilibrium” for the team in light of team members’ different needs and arm themselves with the knowledge that the healthy expression of emotion in the workplace can have positive outcomes for team building, problem-solving, and creativity. 

Setting a standard of psychological safety for the team and fostering a culture in which a range of emotional expressions is encouraged can have a lasting impact on stress management for all team members, as they will not be sacrificing reputation or standing by either displaying or withholding their emotions.

When it comes to workplace stress and resilience, leaders need to remember the pivotal role they can play for their team. Thinking once more of the rubber band that breaks under too much stress, we should also remember the most important job of a rubber band: to hold things together. This is what leaders can help their teams do–not by removing stress altogether, but by coaching their team to manage stress. 

Though it does stretch team members, healthy stress management will ultimately provide the resilience that allows them to do something better than bounce back. It allows them to bounce forward.

Want to learn more about how your team might experience and react to stress? Check out our High-Performing Teams workshop

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