Facing hard things together: How leaders can create the conditions for team resilience

After several months of the COVID-19 pandemic, leadership focus has shifted from surviving the immediate crisis to planning for an unpredictable future. Hear from Duke-NUS Medical School’s Jennifer Davis about why it’s important to build your team’s resiliency during this uncertain time, and how to do it.

By Jennifer Davis, Psychotherapist, Leadership Development Coach and Director of Duke-NUS Medical School’s Student Personal and Professional Development
Jennifer Davis

We’re several months into this pandemic, and our leadership focus has shifted from how do we survive the immediate crisis to how do we successfully plan for an unpredictable future. I now find that every conversation with clients, colleagues and friends leads to one question: How can I save my business and ensure employee wellbeing – all while facing enormous financial pressures?

My advice: The most essential thing for your business in this moment is your team’s resiliency. Invest in that.

In times of contraction, leaders often narrow their focus to the strategies, infrastructures, technical skills and logistics needed to save their businesses. We are not in a typical cycle. We are navigating a pandemic with no clear end in sight. And without attention to and investment in the human-centred aspects of business, leaders and their teams may be left disoriented, overwhelmed, disconnected, and suffering from burnout. Leaders now need to focus on the adaptive skills that will promote resilience and wellbeing, and define the success of their organisations.

I have identified four fundamental leadership practices to create the conditions for success and resiliency in this time: Redefine purpose. Share new expectations. Create a sustainably supportive environment. Foster a growth mindset.

  1. Redefine purpose: Teams perform at their best when united by a purpose. Employees need to know what they are working toward, believe that it matters, and understand how their contribution serves the collective purpose.

    Colleagues on the healthcare frontlines have shared that their teams are experiencing a heightened connection to purpose at this time. Even though some have not had a day off since Chinese New Year, there has been a deep sense of commitment as they continuously innovate to save lives, protect their country, and keep their colleagues safe. While a sense of purpose is inherent in the way that the healthcare sector is responding to this pandemic, leaders in other sectors are finding they need to clearly redefine their purpose and relevance for their teams in this moment.

    Organisations of every size are shifting business goals and priorities and reshuffling team members. We often underestimate the impact of this on our teams. But this scope and pace of change make teams particularly vulnerable to confusion about how to move forward, and feeling overwhelmed and disconnected from the collective purpose. Teams can easily find themselves in a state of paralysis or frenetic busyness. To prevent this, leaders need to regularly and openly share what they see as the collective organisational purpose, set the current priorities, and be clear about each individual’s role. You can anchor your team with the clarity and focus needed at this time.

  2. Create a sustainably supportive environment: Take a moment to consider what is being asked of employees: to Zoom through their days in a state of continuous peak performance for the survival of the business (and their paycheck), while also riding the emotional rollercoaster of trying to protect their families, home school their children, and face the suffering that has traversed the globe. The current professional pressure, compounded by personal emotional strain, is unprecedented. And it is understandable that coping skills that were previously effective will be insufficient in this new reality. Now, more than ever, compassionate leadership is necessary to create a workplace environment of belonging and safety, as well as equipping employees with the support and skills needed for resiliency.

    Many leaders say they are spending the majority of their time counselling staff and addressing the psychological toll that the pandemic is having. But compassionate leadership must go beyond one-to-one conversations. While well-intentioned, it will be important for leaders to recognise that compassionate leadership is not synonymous with being personally available at the risk of their business survival, or their own wellbeing.

    This is a key time for leaders to foster an environment of collective compassion by implementing more robust and sustainable employee support strategies to enable both employees and their business to weather the crisis. This can be done by implementing peer support programmes; team coaching; and bolstering employee assistance programme offerings including coaching, psychotherapy, and resilience training.  Leaders can also start team meetings with a team check-in. By formally adding check-ins to the agenda, leaders create opportunities to regularly get a pulse on how team members are coping, allowing challenges and anxieties to be voiced, and making it safe to share and be supported through the hard experiences within their organisations.

  3. Share new expectations: The illusion of job security that employees previously felt has been swept out from underneath their feet as they now face new and evolving expectations from their organisations. Employees are being asked to take pay cuts, work longer hours and weekends, take on new roles and responsibilities, and work with different teammates. And friends and clients have shared they are driven by an underlying fear that if they are not over-performing and showing their value every day, they will be seen as expendable.

    Great leaders are taking a few key actions to manage new expectations and reduce anxiety where they can. First, they are communicating new expectations regularly and with transparency. By regularly sharing the current realities and expectations of their organisations, leaders reduce the uncertainty and fear that employees face and empower them with the information they need to adapt to changes. For example, fear of losing employment is at an all-time global high. As leaders, transparent (to the degree you know) conversations about job security, or lack of security are needed. Without these conversations, we can assume employees are suffering an attentional and emotional drain of insecurity. Second, great leaders are not asking anything of their teams that they are not also willing to do. Enduring the same hardships in service of the business creates a trust that leaders and employees are in this together. Third, leaders can help their teams establish healthy working from home boundaries. Over the past few months, the expectation of leaders and their teams is to work harder, longer and more intensely.  This new normal will not be long-term sustainable, if not already causing burnout. Leaders need to understand the specific boundaries that are needed by their teams, and together explore how to effectively work within them.

  4. Foster a growth mindset: Growth during times of massive economic instability and decline is not about expansion for most businesses. It is about learning and innovating to meet current consumer needs. Organisations need to stay connected to real-time consumer behaviours and be able to evaluate business opportunities as the world changes and we learn more about what is needed and wanted. Leaders and their teams need to be nimble and ready to leap when a great idea or opportunity presents. In order to do this, we need a growth mindset. This type of mindset combines three essential ingredients – an attitude of agility, a belief in your ability to learn and innovate, and perseverance to overcome obstacles along the way. A growth mindset recognises that most successes come from repeated efforts. It shifts the focus from shame of failure to, “What can I learn from this attempt to close the gap on success?” As leaders, you can create the conditions for a growth mindset by encouraging new ideas, creating opportunities for teams to discuss the challenges faced, and celebrating progress made through continued attempts and learning. The more leaders can do this using larger platforms, such as team and department meetings, or within organisation-wide communications, the greater impact on the mindset of the organisation.

    I’m seeing a number of teams that I work with apply a growth mindset to rise to the challenge and figure out how to pivot to what is needed and wanted in their industries. For example, the education sector is making radical shifts as long-held traditions and beliefs about “the way” education should happen have been thrown out. They simply do not work in our current world. This is making space for new and creative solutions that have been waiting in the wings to leverage technology.

The coming months will redefine our relationships, our companies, our countries. As leaders, your investment in your team is your investment in your future. And these adaptive, human-centred skills that we think of as business extras, will make the difference in your team being able to sustain this on-going uncertainty and pressure, and thrive.

Get the latest news and features delivered to your inbox.