How to build a resilient team

When times are tough, we often talk about our resilience as individuals. But have you heard about team resilience? Two La Trobe University staff from The Bouverie Centre share their tips on creating a resilient team, wherever you work.

We learnt a lot about resilience during the pandemic. In tandem with soaring COVID case numbers grew a body of research about how COVID was testing our coping skills – as individuals, as families, and even as entire cities.

One area of research – team resilience – caught the eye of La Trobe alumni Nella Charles (Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences, ’87; Graduate Diploma of Family Therapy, '96; Master of Clinical Psychology, '98) and Angie Nyland (Bachelor of Social Work, '97). The pair work together at La Trobe’s Bouverie Centre, where Nella is a family therapist, teacher and workforce development trainer, and Angie is a social worker, project officer and workforce development trainer.

‘During COVID, we became increasingly interested in how we could translate these ideas about team resilience into something useful for people working in the helping professions, while also drawing on the wisdom of fellow Bouverie Centre staff,’ Nella says.

The result is an updated La Trobe professional short course called Building team resilience. Nella and Angie stopped by to share some of their insights from the course, including seven things you can do today to build a resilient team.

What is team resilience?

Team resilience is a team’s capacity to face tough times effectively as a group. It focuses on the connection between people, and our responsibility to nurture relationships within teams.

‘Connection is at the heart of team resilience. It’s about the interdependence of team members, the relationships between them that foster doing a good job, and people thriving from that,’ Angie says.

But it’s also about how a team gets through challenges – and what the impact has been. Has there been an emotional toll and what’s needed to recover from it? Has there been growth in the process? What positives have emerged?

‘If a team can pull together to face challenges, and they also come through having adapted in a positive way, with growth and new learning, and with relationships intact and strengthened, then that’s team resilience. It’s a special thing, because not only does the team benefit, the organisation and clients they’re working with also benefit,’ Nella says.

Importantly, a team’s resilience doesn’t necessarily mirror the resilience of individuals within it.

‘When people think about getting through adversity, it’s often to do with individual resilience, and what you can do personally do to look after yourself and stay strong. But you could have a team of very resilient individuals who may not function well together as a team. Rather than lacking individual resilience, they need team resilience, which is different,’ Nella says.

Why team resilience drops

There are a range of reasons why team resilience might be missing. Relationship or communication issues within a team can compromise it, as can a lack of clarity around roles. People who are used to working autonomously can feel challenged when needing to work with others. Resilience also drops in the context of stressors, compromised systems or new challenges, such as COVID.

Which is to say, team resilience can change over time.

‘Team resilience is dynamic. You can have a team that’s operating well, then something changes. Some sort of external pressure or maybe some interpersonal issues come up, and team resilience deteriorates quickly,’ Nella says.

By contrast, groups with high team resilience respond to change or adversity with psychological flexibility, and a strong focus, despite the disruption. It’s about not just bouncing back from a crisis, but bouncing forward in the process.

‘Being in a resilient team is about more than just overcoming challenges along the way. Viability and growth over time is key as well, especially as teams shift and change,’ Angie says.

If you’re in a team that’s struggling, or you lead a team whose resilience has taken a hit, here are seven things you can do to transform your team into one that’s working better.

7 things you can do to build your team’s resilience

According to Angie and Nella, the qualities of resilient teams map closely to the qualities of trauma-informed practice. Trauma-informed practice is a relational approach common in family therapy, which places the connections between people and the systems that surround them at the heart of the work.

1. Develop cohesion

You know that feeling you get when people are working together on the same goals, helping each other out and sharing tasks? That’s cohesion. It’s evident when team members are more interested in the good of the whole team than in their own individual needs. As Nella says, it’s reciprocity in action.

‘When I’ve felt a really strong sense of belonging in a team, I’m really motivated to do the work, to help everyone else in the team, and to draw on others for support when things aren’t going so well.’

Cohesion is underpinned by a sense of belonging in a team – something managers and leaders need to consciously build.

‘The person in a formal team leadership role has a responsibility for supporting the development of the sense of identity of a group, and a sense of belonging to that group. And then from that flows that cohesion – the orientation of wanting the best for the team.’

2. Approach your workmates as collaborators

In a collaborative team, everyone’s voice and experiences are valued. To see your colleagues as collaborators, Nella and Angie advise adopting a strengths-based mindset – one that assumes competence in others.

‘It’s about having knowledge and respect for someone’s experience in the fullest sense. Deferring to other people’s expertise in the team, for example, and recognising people's lived and living experience, not just their formal training,’ Nella says.

Valuing each other goes a long way. By respecting people’s differences and their unique contributions, you open the door for your team to work complementarily.

‘Differences between us can offer possibilities and be enriching for teams,’ says Angie. ‘During COVID, for example, we’ve had to really think about what’s happening for people at home. It was different for everyone. And we’ve had to build closer relationships with our teammates to understand what’s happening for each person.’

Collaboration can break down when workloads increase, or when staff on remote teams feel isolated. If you’re a leader whose team is experiencing  a lack of collaboration, Angie suggests you start the repair work by becoming invested in understanding and respecting people’s whole selves in the workplace

‘Ask: How can we be useful to one another? The more you understand about what somebody brings to a team, the more you can tap into that and ‘use’ each other. By showing you value each other, you can generate solidarity,’ Angie says.

3. Prioritise safety

Psychological safety and trust are vital to resilient teams. Without them, people are often afraid to ask questions, raise concerns or admit mistakes at work.

For Angie, a key way to create psychological safety is to consider how you create and sustain trust, and contemplate ahead of time how you react during challenges.

‘To set up a culture of safety, ask your team: What are our defaults when we’re stressed out as individuals? How do we get through together? And how do we take enough interpersonal risks for us to connect more deeply as a team?’

Safety also involves contingency planning. When managers and leaders are proactive in anticipating challenges, team members can be clear about their roles and responsibilities when the waves come. Leaders who do this are being allies to their teams and generating an environment of trust.

‘Resilient teams prepare for the waves of challenge they know they’re going to get. Leaders need to minimise the risk and the impacts before the thing happens, by asking ‘what if?’ ahead of time,’ Angie says. When challenges are unexpected, as with COVID, it’s then about asking ‘what now?’ How do we minimise the impacts and look after each other through this challenge? How do we reflect, mend and recover?’

4. Have open conversations

There isn’t a team in the world that hasn’t experienced some level of stress and burnout during the pandemic. But those who thrive can talk freely about the challenges they face.

‘During COVID, every system around us has been challenged, and continues to be. It’s been a period of crisis for everyone. Keeping conversations open during these challenging times is essential,’ Angie says.

‘If you and your team don’t know something, say so. Over-communicate rather than under-communicate. Explore difficult things, rather than ignoring them.’

Importantly, open conversations aren’t about smoothing things over and moving on. After a challenge, Angie advises you need to create opportunities for reflection, debriefing and action before moving on. Talk about what worked, what didn’t, and provide room for feedback, additions and changes.

‘Setting up systems of feedback is crucial. When feedback processes work well, a team can take enough interpersonal risks to form deeper, more trusting relationships,’ says Angie.

Finally, resilient teams also make sure they show appreciation to people around them who speak up. So, if you notice someone naming a challenge or calling in something that didn’t work well, remember to acknowledge their courage.

5. Create a learning environment

Resilient teams are constantly learning. They take a philosophical approach to work, ask questions, and listen closely for insights.

‘A learning environment is one that uses curiosity to talk about what’s happening. It’s non-blaming and encourages people to make things overt, rather than not acknowledging them,’ Angie says.

Learning underpins a team’s ability to adapt. A learning environment can help people adapt to new ways of working, such as remote or hybrid work, or adjust to a new team structure.

If you find yourself leading a team through a crisis, remind them of the learning opportunities within the adversity. Emphasise and celebrate what each team member is learning during the challenge, and make sure to acknowledge any unique strengths or skills they have that could help them rise to meet it.

6. Give people choice

Choice is another quality you can cultivate in your work relationships to build team resilience. For Angie, Nella and the team at The Bouverie Centre, the principle of ‘choice where it exists’ underpins everything they do.

‘We know when people are ‘locked in’ to something without choice, they’re more vulnerable,’ says Angie. ‘Of course, workplace policies and protocols exist and you need to follow them. But where you can, give people choice.’

During a crisis, our perception of uncertainty is heightened. Leaders who offer their teams authentic choices can amplify a sense of certainty and agency – two strong protective factors that contribute to team resilience.

‘Give your team some share or say in the direction they might need to go in order to do the best work they can do, because a sense of control can come from this,’ says Nella.

7. Become a resilient-enough team

Finally, Angie and Nella’s tips for team resilience come with a caveat: your team doesn’t have to be perfect at all of them. To be able to adapt during adversity, they say, ‘a resilient-enough team’ is just fine.

If you’d like to explore more about team resilience and learn from others, register now for La Trobe’s upcoming Building team resilience short course.