SHRM Foundation Research
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SHRM Foundation Research

HR Professionals as Team Leaders: The dimensions, antecedents and consequences of team resilience

March 2007     Completed: March 2010 

Ben Rosen, Ph.D.,  Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Brad Kirkman, Ph.D., Mays Business School, Texas A&M University

Sustaining Success by Building Team Resilience:  Lessons Learned from College Sports Coaches

Executive Summary
Work teams and sports teams share many things in common, not the least of which is the desire to succeed and to sustain success over time. In sports and in business, the path to success is not without pitfalls. Sports teams sometimes lose key players to injuries, go into slumps, and lose focus. Work teams lose key members to reassignment, encounter unexpected customer demands, and encounter unexpected obstacles. Both sports teams and work teams encounter adversity—barriers, challenges, and setbacks.

Teams that encounter adversity may slide down a slippery slope of confusion, conflict, finger-pointing, and lasting failure. Yet some teams are particularly adept at dealing with adversity.  Teams that recover from all kinds of adversity are called resilient teams. Resilient teams show the capacity to bounce back, and return to or even exceed their prior levels of performance.

Benson Rosen and Bradley L. Kirkman sought to understand what it takes to build a resilient team. To do so, they collected data from almost 2,000 college coaches on how to build team resilience. Coaches’ strategies for building resilient teams were summarized into five categories.  The implications of coaches’ insights for building and sustaining resilient work teams, for each of these strategies, is detailed below.


1. Recruit resilient players.  Coaches stressed the importance of recruiting team members who have the maturity, mental toughness, work ethic, and track record to stay strong in the face of adversity. Human resource managers and team leaders can use assessment instruments to identify potential team members who demonstrate such characteristics as conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness to new experience and learning orientations, for example. Just as coaches interview prospective players, work team leaders can employ a variety of behavioral and situational interview techniques to help predict which candidates for team membership will demonstrate resilience in the face of adversity.

2. Shape the team culture to value trust, respect, and honesty.  Coaches identify the values that will guide the team through good times and bad.  For example, one sports team reported that their philosophy, “no challenge is permanent and no obstacle is unconquerable” contributed to their team's resilience. Similarly, team leaders are well positioned to shape their teams’ cultures. Leaders can ask their teams to prepare mission statements with their guiding values. The values are reinforced through mottos, stories, and rituals designed to celebrate the values. Positive values help teams work through adversity and bounce back.

3. Focus on team accountability. According to coaches, teams must accept responsibility for poor performance and demand more from themselves in the face of adversity. Leaders of work teams must also emphasize accountability, where members take responsibility for mistakes, confront underperformers, and commit to do better. For both coaches and work team leaders, personal accountability and team accountability are important enablers of team resilience.

4. Practicing responses to simulated adversities. Coaches created simulated adversities in practice sessions to help prepare their teams for the real thing. In some instances coaches held out key players to simulate injuries, practiced in adverse weather, simulated unfair officiating, and created extreme time pressures among other adversities. Work team leaders can use computer simulations or outdoor challenges to simulate team adversities including resource scarcities, key members leaving the team, or unexpected time pressures, for example. Lessons learned about how to cope with simulated adversity should better prepare teams to respond to real life setbacks.

5. Managing the external environment. Through interventions with outside stakeholders, including fans, athletic directors, and the media, coaches buffer their teams and acquire more time and resources to help teams work through difficult times. Similarly, work team leaders may work outside the team boundaries to recruit new members, negotiate deadline extensions, and acquire technological support that is needed to help the team work through difficult periods. Coaches and team leaders contribute to team resilience by actively managing the context within which their teams function.

Sports teams and work teams share many similarities. Accordingly, it would be shortsighted to ignore the insights of college coaches. The lessons learned from sports coaches provide valuable insights on how work team leaders can immunize their teams against adversity, build resilience, and sustain success.

Study Methods
The investigators conducted 15 one-on-one interviews with college coaches of men’s and women’s sports teams.  Based on interview findings, a survey was prepared and sent to a sample of 10,000 college coaches around the United States. A total of 1,987 coaches of team sports, including baseball, softball, basketball, football, volleyball, ice hockey, and field hockey, contributed to the survey.

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