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The key to a more resilient organization is more resilient teams

October 13, 2020 - 6 min read

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Where to focus your resilience building efforts

How to build resilient teams

It’s time for companies to act, not simply react to unexpected crises. These events that upend the world are known as ‘Black Swans’, and while each one feels rare and unpredictable when it arrives, organizations actually face such disruptions regularly.  

To prepare, organizations must cultivate resilience, not just after the stock market crashes or a novel virus emerges, but every day and every year. Resilience provides a buffer against uncertainty and is the necessary platform upon which innovation and productivity in tough times is built. 

Our team of behavioral scientists at BetterUp recently published research that sought to uncover the impact of resilience on organizations. The report, Resilience in an Age of Uncertainty, shows that the bottomline benefit for organizations that build resilience is clear. Highly resilient employees were 31 percent more productive during the pandemic than the least resilient workers, for instance. They have fewer sleep issues, exercise more, and reported finding more meaning in their work.

Where to focus your resilience building efforts

Where to focus resilience-building efforts presents a challenge for HR leaders. How is fostering resilience in your workforce best accomplished? Individual interventions take time to scale and have an impact. But focusing on company-wide change is daunting. Any seasoned leader can tell you large organizations are like freighters, shifting direction only slowly. The solution? Focus your resilience-building efforts on the team level. This presents a number of big advantages. 

First, the impact of resilient leaders is multiplied through their teams. The direct reports of highly resilient leaders are themselves three times more resilient on average, our data shows. Teams with highly resilient leaders also experience significantly less employee burnout and turnover. If a leader copes well with challenges, his or her team is likely to do the same. 

Second, when we asked the direct reports of highly-resilient leaders to evaluate their teams, they told us their teams have higher overall performance, are more agile, and are more innovative than those headed by leaders with low resilience. One reason is that these leaders model skills like decisiveness in the face of uncertainty and setting boundaries to maintain their own wellbeing, which cascades down through their teams. 

In short, teams are a highly effective lever for increasing resilience. Company-wide initiatives can be a heavy lift often generating diffused or unsure outcomes and impact, but by focusing on teams organizations can see much greater impact in more tangible ways. 

How to build resilient teams

For business leaders, one of the most important questions we can answer is: if we know that efforts to boost resilience are exceptionally effective on the team level, what specific interventions have the greatest impact? 

Happily, data can guide us here too. Our research shows that resilience is both measurable and trainable, and that simple steps can help leaders cultivate resilience. Here are a few research-based ideas: 

  1. Be a role model. Leaders often feel an obligation to be heroes, sacrificing their own wellbeing for others or the organizations. Their intentions may be noble but the overall effect is negative. Instead, our research shows that when leaders are taught to prioritize their own wellbeing, both physical and mental, they can both better support their teams and model positive behaviors that trickle down to their direct reports. Recovery is a key ingredient in human resilience. Even the most decorated and competitive athletes take time to recover between heavy sprints.  
  2. Promote wellbeing across your teams. Prioritizing leaders’ wellbeing is essential, but organizations must offer whole-person support across teams to reap the greatest rewards. Benefits from fitness, nutrition, mindfulness, and quality sleep improve employees’ ability to weather and bounce back stronger from adversity—in the workplace and their personal lives. When teams felt highly supported by their organizations, their resilience (as measured by our Resilience Innovation Index) increased 21 percent more over a period of 3-4 months compared to teams who felt less supported. 
  3. Make change personal. No two people in your organization are alike, which means cookie cutter interventions are unlikely to be effective. Support must be tailored to the individual, his or her challenges, and growth rate. Personalized coaching and learning programs — increasingly delivered remotely thanks to the current crisis — have the greatest impact. 

The most important insights from our research is that resilience is a skill that can be taught, practiced, and developed. People do not have fixed levels of resilience throughout their lives—it needs to be sustained through self-care and practice. Our research shows that individuals who start low on resilience see an average of 125% growth in resilience with just three to four months of individualized support. One-on-one coaching works, and targeting effective interventions at the team level maximizes its impact. 

The result is a stronger, more innovative, more resilient organization that’s much better prepared to deal with current and future Black Swans. 

This article originally appeared on

Published October 13, 2020

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