Resilient Teams Are Key to Emerging from the Great Resignation

Senior leaders build resilience by establishing and promoting team stability, connection and agility

By Peden Gray, Jennifer Keister, Liz Lacey and David Livingston July 21, 2022
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Resilient Teams Are Key to Emerging from the Great Resignation

​The Great Resignation of employees from the workplace during and following the COVID-19 pandemic is a historic trend that isn't slowing down. Most organizations have offered greater compensation as a solution to the crisis. While pecuniary interest is a prominent employee consideration, it's not working; there's more to the story. 

The pandemic has caused nearly two-thirds of workers surveyed by McKinsey "to reflect on their purpose in life," a purpose in part derived from their employment. Nearly 41 percent of employees surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) are still actively seeking new jobs, driven by such nonpecuniary interests as improved work/life balance, career change and advancement opportunities. 

The scale of the Great Resignation reflects the impact of factors that converged to shift the landscape and expectations of work. Employees' hunger for change persists because we have not addressed the root of the trend. The pandemic experience exacerbated extant fragilities. It was the final straw for an antiquated approach to work teams. 

The modern team requires resilience. Resilient teams absorb stress, recover critical functionality and thrive in new circumstances. The Great Resignation demonstrates that we have not built teams sufficiently resistant to the levels of stress and environmental pressure that we require employees to consistently navigate. 

How do senior leaders build resilient teams? The three building blocks of resilience are stability, connection and agility. 

Stability: Communicating Purpose 

Stability is the foundational element of a resilient team whose members are clear on who they are, what they do and why they do it. 

Communication is central to building stability. A leader must communicate the team's meaning and purpose, focusing on both language and approach as key drivers. Team members will retain their sense of purpose when it is clearly and consistently reflected in the context of their daily work. 

A wise leader regularly and proactively reinforces the team's common purpose in recognition of certain existential risks. In times of stress and crisis, for instance, members' sense of identity and value within the team can become blurred and distorted. In addition, individual employee experiences inevitably ebb and flow, especially in the context of a larger market environment (such as the one we are in now). 

Beyond articulating to members an inspiring vision and compelling mission, providing stability means that leaders must reveal the inner workings of their decision-making, making clear how the team's common purpose informs and guides their actions. 

Leaders should evaluate team decision-making with encouragement, support and coaching, which breed confidence and openness among members. Cultivating their ongoing engagement in this way imbues trust and preserves the team's common purpose. Second-guessing and interventions to substitute one's own opinion, on the other hand, will erode or eliminate any gains that a leader may have made in building team resilience. 

Connection: Sharing Information 

Members of resilient teams overcome moments of disengagement through the strength of the group, leaning and relying on each other. To harness that strength, a successful team must be tightly connected both functionally and emotionally. 

Sharing the right information is vital for building connection. Connection thrives when the team has the information necessary for making good decisions and conveys it in a timely manner to those who need it. 

A resilient team has systems and processes to navigate through information overload, recognizing what is and is not truly important. It also establishes norms to provide information and resources in relevant context, transforming them into useful, actionable knowledge. 

How frequently information is conveyed is just as important as its relevance. 

Every team has an operating rhythm—the habitual cadence of how members meet, share information, and disperse to get work done—which usually develops by accident. A resilient team actively fights passive adherence to its operating rhythm, instead monitoring its pulse and routinely fine-tuning it to match the speed of the environment. 

Agility: Adhering to Simple Rules 

A resilient team has a bias for action. It proactively shapes its environment and positions itself for effective response. Grounded in realism, team members know they will inevitably make mistakes. They also know that mistakes, leveraged effectively, can produce powerful insights. The key is to mitigate the negative impact of mistakes by sharing vital lessons learned, then pivoting appropriately to stay ahead of the competition. 

Even in the most dynamic or chaotic situations, a resilient team can function as a cohesive unit because all members are using the same playbook of simple rules. They have clear expectations and a shared understanding of what needs to be done, and so can act in a coordinated fashion. Decision-making is quicker, easier and more consistent. 

Simple rules are powerful weapons for combatting the complexity that threatens to overwhelm individuals and teams. Resilient teams regularly employ two particularly important types: boundary rules and prioritizing rules. 

Boundary rules limit the number of options one has, based on pre-determined criteria. (An example: the guideline for mountain climbers to return to camp if they don't reach the summit by a certain time of day, which helps prevent overly ambitious climbers from getting caught on the mountain after sundown.) Prioritizing rules clarify the order of importance of actions to be taken under time or resource constraints. (An example: a fire chief's directive to save people first and the burning structure last, which helps coordinate and align firefighters, enabling them to make quick decisions in the midst of chaos.) 

Learning How to Build Resilience

In these times of upheaval and uncertainty, a culture of resilience is attractive. Skilled talent is drawn to join high-performing teams that do meaningful work and function with trust and transparency.

The importance of building resilient teams is well known to Stan McChrystal, retired U.S. Army general, who has recently partnered with SHRM to develop a new leadership program. In the wake of the Great Resignation and other unforeseen or unprecedented disruptions and challenges, McChrystal says, some teams will fail or "merely survive," but other teams "will take the necessary steps to engineer true resilience—absorbing the hits, redirecting the force to bounce higher in the end—and ultimately come out on top."

The new program, Inspiring Resilient Teams, is designed for senior-level HR professionals and executives. It will be presented live online over four weeks beginning Oct. 24.

SHRM-certified attendees who complete the program will be awarded 14 professional development credits (PDCs) toward their recertification requirements.

Peden Gray is an HR generalist at McChrystal Group LLC. Jennifer Keister is a senior principal at McChrystal Group LLC. Liz Lacey is SHRM's director of education programs. David Livingston is managing partner at McChrystal Group Academy.

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