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What Resilient Teams Do Differently

May 2019 |
Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP, Founder & CEO, Stress & Resilience Institute
Professor Scott A. Westfahl, Harvard Law School

Many teams in organizations face challenges where resilience is needed in order to maintain high-performance and well-being. This is especially true for teams working on high-stakes matters, under time pressure, and in intense environments, much like the work your team is doing in the legal profession. Additionally, research suggests that the personality traits of high need for achievement professionals can make team formation, decision-making and leadership considerably more challenging within performance-driven professional organizations.

Resilience is the capacity for stress-related growth, and it exists at the individual and group level. Complex, changing, fast-paced work environments require that teams quickly adapt to missteps, failure, slow results, and challenges generally.

Resilient teams (1) resolve challenges as effectively as possible; (2) maintain team health and resources; (3) recover quickly; and (4) display the ability to handle future challenges together). Here are some common team challenges that require resilience:

  • Difficult and/or high-stakes assignments
  • High consequence work
  • Unclear team roles
  • Innovating – the process itself is full of missteps and setback
  • Angry/upset/skeptical clients
  • Poor results
  • Ambiguous direction/goals

The study of what it means to build resilience at work has thrived in the past decade, and as more organizations continue to orient their work in teams, there has been an increased interest in what it means to create a resilient work team.

Here is what we know about what resilient teams do differently:

They recognize and actively mitigate against the producer-manager dilemma. Harvard Law School’s leadership programs for law firm and law department leaders always begin with cases that illustrate how the “producer-manager dilemma” significantly impedes effective leadership and team building within our profession. The dilemma occurs and worsens as professionals gain seniority and continue to need to “produce” client/technical work, as well as take on an increasingly long list of leadership, business development and organizational responsibilities. Moving from being individual contributors to team participants and leaders requires professionals to invest more time, focus and thoughtful energy into the healthy functioning of teams. Unfortunately, the urgent crowds out the important and without a strong cultural and organizational commitment, professional teams are often dramatically under-led and less likely to achieve the full benefits that a collaborative, diverse and inclusive team effort can provide. Resilient teams are more likely to be found in organizations that provide training, tools and incentives to help professionals identify and mitigate against the effects of the producer-manager dilemma. Team leaders create resilient teams through application of more formal team processes and tools and growth mindset frameworks; personally evaluating and optimizing what, how and to whom they delegate; building and using their internal and external networks to help their teams; and establishing and supporting team norms such as those described below.

They stay motivated. Professionals choosing to work in an intense environment most often exhibit the personality traits associated with a high need for achievement. Some of these traits, such as a high need for autonomy and a fierce competitiveness, can disrupt the formation of resilient teams. Team members may resist collaboration and view team members more as rivals or roadblocks than sources of new information, ideas, talents and support.

Resilient teams stay motivated and counteract those tendencies by accessing the power of intrinsic motivation, i.e., motivation from within the work itself and how it gets done. Indeed, research shows that focusing on intrinsic goals leads to higher performance, well-being, and motivation for teams. Team members become more intrinsically motivated when they have choice or a say in how their work unfolds, feel like they belong on the team and have developed high-quality relationships with their colleagues, and feel confident in their ability to learn more challenging skills The challenge is for leaders to create a team environment that supports those valuable outcomes.

They build psychological safety & belonging. A critical foundation of resilient teams is psychological safety – a climate in which people feel comfortable expressing and being themselves. In order for teams to appropriately manage adversity, people need to feel comfortable sharing their knowledge, which means sharing concerns, questions, mistakes, and partially-formed ideas. Research has found that teams that employ more positive emotions and focus on solidifying the connectedness of the people within their teams experience more of this type of openness, and thus higher levels of team resilience. In addition, teams that are able to openly and clearly discuss both positive and negative experiences are better able to work through adversity, have higher levels of trust, and higher levels of resilience.

They take an appreciative approach. While it’s important for teams to identify areas of where they are struggling, it is also important for teams to identify, organize, and elevate their strengths on an ongoing basis in order to maintain their energy and reach their full potential. For example, teams can apply an appreciative inquiry approach by asking team members to share and openly discuss what matters most to the team, what they want the team to look like or grow into, what obstacles stand in the way, and what changes they are willing to make to achieve this vision.

They prioritize well-being. Resilient teams openly talk about stress and burnout. Burnout is a chronic process of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy caused by a disconnect or an imbalance between key job demands and job resources, and it is highly correlated with lower levels of morale, turnover and disengagement. Interestingly, structured team debriefs or after action reviews have been linked to lower levels of team member vulnerability to burnout. Why? Debriefing facilitates information exchange and elaboration (so there is less ambiguity, a known burnout accelerant), enables team member support, and increases self-reflection and self-efficacy.

Professionals – especially lawyers in top firms and legal departments – operate in an incredibly stressful, dynamic environment. Research relating to resilience has shown that it is a trait that correlates strongly with thriving in such a demanding environment. Many legal organizations are now providing training and resources relating to the building of their lawyers’ and allied professionals’ resilience. The next frontier is for legal organizations to invest significantly more resources and attention to the building of resilient teams. Here is the big picture: the markets for talent and clients have never been more global or transparent, resulting in dramatically increased competition. As technology like AI increasingly disrupts and replaces traditional service delivery, professionals will need to distinguish themselves by providing interdisciplinary and integrated legal and business solutions. The only way to do that in a dynamic, complex environment is in a team, and it had better be a resilient one.