How Resilient Teams Prepare for Meltdowns

Their secret: learn to work through — and embrace — negative emotions long before tough challenges arrive

By Dane Jensen

 

Why is that some teams emerge stronger and more tightly bonded from setbacks, while others fracture or withdraw?

First and foremost, resilient teams understand that recovery from failure is an emotional process.

We know that negative emotion can be an intense fuel but it can also be incredibly destructive. It is highly volatile. Team resilience, therefore, requires an ability to work productively with these negative emotions.

How do resilient teams manage this process? For one, team leaders lean into negative emotions and recognize their potential as fuel as opposed to retreat or try to rescue team members and make them feel good.

The notion of leaning in to negative emotion is almost entirely absent in work teams. When someone is upset at the office, the usual the response is, “People, give her some space.” Or, “He’s pretty emotional right now. Let him figure it out.” Then they come back to the team and everyone makes as if nothing has happened. And the next time there’s conflict or disagreement, the emotions burst out.

Wise leaders help people learn to work with these emotions. They recognize that negative emotion is essential to human growth and development — dissatisfaction can push us to the next level of development. If we rescue people from feeling negative emotion, we rob them of a developmental experience and strengthen the hold that the negative emotion will have on them in the future.

Framing Negative Emotions

Resilient team members also frame negative emotions differently than non-resilient teams. The fundamental question in framing negative emotion is: What is this pain telling me or my team? Is it that I haven’t worked hard enough or that I’m not good enough? These two frames lead to very different responses. Leaders of resilient teams actively help their team members answer this question in a productive way.

Common to both leaning in and re-framing is communication. What differentiates resilient teams from other teams is that they communicate better when times are tough. Mike Krzyzewski, known as Coach K, is one of the winningest college basketball coaches of all time. He has a wonderful way of talking about communication. He says that he coaches three systems simultaneously: the offensive system, the defensive system, and the communication system. And if that third system isn’t working, neither will the other two.

Resilient teams invest a lot of time building their communication system and they do it deliberately. Team members are aware of their tendencies when it comes to communication and proactively build systems to round out or counteract the negative tendencies.

Resilient teams invest a lot of time building their communication system and they do it deliberately

One way to do this is by following a process that we use with every team we’ve ever worked with in elite sport. It’s rooted in a tool called The Attentional and Interpersonal Style Inventory and is based on the work of Robert Nideffer. Nideffer’s research showed that when we interact with other people, there are five choices we make over and over again:

  • Will I give up control or take control?
  • Will I speed things up and push for a decision or slow things down?
  • Will I become extroverted and seek out other people or be introverted and stay by myself?
  • Will I listen for other people’s ideas or express my own thoughts?
  • Will I start to critique, challenge, and say no or will I express support and be optimistic?

All of us make different choices depending on the situation in which we find ourselves but we also can identify a centre of gravity for ourselves – which will likely manifest when we’re under pressure and retreat to our strengths or biases.

So the first step toward building a team communication system is to know your own tendencies and to share your profile with other members of your team. It’s important for the person across the table from me to know that when Dane gets under pressure, he is likely to: (a) express his thoughts and (b) they’re probably going to be negative. That’s who he is as a person and I should expect this reaction. On the other side, it’s important for me to recognize that this may be a sub-optimal default and work to consciously adjust my behaviour when under pressure. This give and take of team awareness and understanding with self-awareness and self-management is at the heart of resilient teams.

What Are Team Tendencies?

The final part is to understand team tendencies. If you have a team full of people who want to take control and express their thoughts, what happens when the pressure is on? They will be very combative and start to argue. In that case, you’ll need a system in place before the pressure hits for what you’re going to do. Who will lead discussions? How will decisions be made?

Put these systems in place when times are good. Often when teams form, people try to be nice to each other and see the good in everyone. This is just the time to do something counterintuitive and look for ways the team will likely to break down under pressure, and then proactively build systems to respond to the inevitable challenge. The other thing great teams do in good times is lay the foundation for candid performance conversations. They make these conversations a normal part of team management when everything is going well so that they are normal and non-threatening when storm clouds arrive. They establish effective systems for communication because the practices you set up in the good times will be what you turn to in the bad times.

Finally, resilient teams are able to connect with a strong shared purpose. Time and again, we see the most resilient teams we work with rally around something that unites them – something that is “bigger than them.” In business, savvy leaders are all well aware of this but it can be harder in business to create a resonant purpose than it is in sport, where the maple leaf is literally on your chest and it’s clear what you’re playing for. Helping teams move beyond goals to answer the question of why the goals actually matter can pay big dividends when times get tough.

 

Dane Jensen is CEO of Third Factor. He leads the Building Resilience program offered by Queen’s Executive Education. This essay is adapted from his remarks at the Leading Resilient Teams Conference, held at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University.

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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