Sooner or later, every team will face adversity. When challenges arise two contrasting team types emerge, resilient teams and brittle teams. Resilient teams have each others’ backs. They see adversity as an opportunity to improve: to learn, grow and create better preparedness for future set-backs. In brittle teams, adversity results in retrenching with a focus on recrimination and blame. Such teams don’t do well with change and their performance always lags as a consequence.
As teams grapple with increasing complexity and competition, it is only resilient teams that will thrive. There has been less focus on how resilience operates in teams than in individual resilience. But team resilience and individual resilience are not the same thing. It’s not enough to assemble a team of resilient individuals and assume that this equates to a resilient team.
Team resilience is created when team members use their individual and combined resources to positively adapt to challenge and adversity, before, during and after it occurs. In this article, I’ll focus on the processes that teams can use post-event to augment their capacity to move forward stronger and more resilient.
Using a retrospective to build resilience
It’s not easy to stop and reflect on what went wrong at the end of a difficult period. We can be so drained that our natural inclination is to try and forget about it and move on. But taking the time to pause, reflect, learn and regroup is a critical step in building resilience in your team. During a crisis or challenge, people are working at pace and usually with high adrenalin. When the issue is over, giving the group time to reflect and review attends to both the psychological needs within the team and the practical processes that can be improved.
There are two important conditions necessary for these retrospectives to successfully build resilience in a team. The first is that the team has a learning orientation in the review and the second is that people feel safe to honestly engage in looking at how the team performed. Let’s explore each of these in turn.
A Learning Orientation
A key difference in the way resilient teams and brittle teams reflect on periods of adversity is the mental frame they use to understand what happened. Resilient teams hold a learning frame, trying to genuinely understand what went wrong – and crucially, what went right. If the focus is on blame, complaints or self-protection, then you don’t have the conditions for learning. And if you don’t have the conditions for learning, then you can’t build resilience.
Involvement is another important condition for learning. A retrospective should be open to everyone on the team who was involved in the situation. The time immediately after an incident is a critical moment in the team’s lifecycle. Get it wrong and you can set an otherwise competent team back. But get it right and it can supercharge a team’s ability to successfully go forward. If you exclude people at this stage, you will breed distrust and cynicism.
There needs to be a dual focus on both what went right as well as what went wrong. I have coached many teams where it was the good practice within the team that averted a potential crisis. Unless the team embed what they are doing right then there’s no way of locking good practice into the team system.
For non-contentious retrospectives, it’s good practice for teams to learn how to conduct them themselves. But for bigger issues, it can help to have it facilitated by supportive, neutral outsider from the team, even if this is another person from inside your company. Everyone in the team, especially the team leader, has learning to do. It puts too much pressure on a team leader to both reflect, learn andfacilitate the process at the same time.
During a retrospective, team members need to feel safe enough to accept that there were better ways to have dealt with the issue. People who feel psychologically safe are more likely to seek feedback, speak up about mistakes and make suggestions.
Psychological safety and learning capacity are linked by strong evolutionary forces. When we experience fear of punishment or recrimination, whether by a boss, a co-worker or our team-mates, it ignites our primitive fight-or-flight response. When we are in this ‘act first, think later’ state, our brains have shut down the capacity for new learning. If we try and review a challenging situation in which there is the possibility of rejection, punishment or embarrassment, then it will be at the expense of learning.
This means that the perceived outcome from a retrospective has an important bearing on how safe your people will feel. If the consequence of open dialogue is learning, then people are more likely to engage. But if the result is punishment, then there is no incentive for your people to be open and honest. It matters less what leaders say the outcomes will be: your people will revert to their memory in these instances and look for what happened to others in the past. Therefore how poor performance is managed more generally has an impact on how psychologically safe your people feel.
When team members can ask for help without fear of recrimination, the team will foster a mindset that allows for open, healthy exchanges. And where the team are better able to learn, improved performance follows.
Conducting retrospectives is just one of many things leaders can do to build resilience. But it’s an important one. Research has shown that teams that debrief outperform those that do not by an average of 25%.
Resilient teams are more effective, more productive and more successful. When people feel safe enough to speak out, teams are more able to attend to unfavorable information, learn from past mistakes and lock-in good practice. It allows for critical information to be uncovered and to anticipate future challenges, all of which gives a team a strategic advantage.
Caniels, M. C. J., & de Jong, J. P. (2018). Guest editorial: Team learning and resilience. Team Performance Management, 24(7/8), 350-362.
Edmondson, Amy. Jun 1999. Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.Administrative Science Quarterly;44, 2 pp. 350 – 383.
Kerth, N.L. 2001. Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews. Dorset House, New York.