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The Sum of Its Parts: How To Build a Resilient Workspace That Bounces Back From Adversity

The Sum of Its Parts: How To Build a Resilient Workspace That Bounces Back From Adversity
November 19, 2021  |  By Michael Adkison, Adam Stoverink

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2020 and 2021 taught us many things, to say the least, but it taught us all the importance of one attribute: resilience.

Just what do we mean when we say resilience? Think of it as the ability to bounce back in the face of adversity, as researchers Adam C. Stoverink, Bradley L. Kirkman, Sal Mistry, and Benson Rosen define it in their Academy of Management Review article, “Bouncing Back Together: Toward a Theoretical Model of Work Team Resilience.” It’s a double-edged sword—you can’t be resilient without a setback—but preparing your team for these adversities can make all the difference in the long run.

“Team adversity has myriad forms,” the researchers posit, “from chronic (i.e., long-standing, cumulative) stressors, such as role overload, collective fatigue, social loafing, or pressure to meet project deadlines, to acute (i.e., sudden often high-intensity) shocks, such as team equipment or technology failures, a heated argument among teammates, or disruption to team dynamics resulting from the loss or addition of a team member.” These adversities can be all but inevitable, so how can your team, as the sum of all its parts, overcome these obstacles?

Bouncing Back

But before we can even get into those tips, let’s figure out just what it means to be resilient. The researchers note that “team resilience has been variously defined as an outcome, process, ability, belief, and capacity.” There’s not a clear answer that everyone has agreed on, but “scholars do agree on the construct’s functional outcome—bouncing back from a setback.” The researchers break that definition down, highlighting the key facets of resilience.

First, by definition, you can’t show resilience without some sort of setback. “Because a team cannot bounce back if there is nothing to recover from, a setback is a prerequisite for demonstrating resilience.” The researchers define a setback in their study as “a process loss or a breakdown in interdependent goal-directed activities.” And, of course, what does it mean to actually bounce back? The researchers define bouncing back as when “members work interdependently to return to their preadversity performance level, or beyond, via one of two paths: adaptation or persistence.” In the face of a setback, what does your team choose to do: change course and chart a new course, or stick it out and work its way through adversity?

Finally, the team must have the capacity to bounce back. “In teams the capacity to bounce back reflects an emergent state, or a dynamic team-level property that emerges from team member interactions.” It seems a difficult task, preparing your team for adversity. So how can your team do its best to prepare for the worst?

What is Resilience?

Before delving into their eight propositions, the researchers offer a couple of small but fundamental notions to the idea of resilience. First is that there is a difference between team resilience, individual resilience, and organizational resilience. For example, “Interdependence is highest in teams and is the key factor distinguishing team constructs from those at the individual level, where there is no interdependence, and the organizational level, where interdependence exists but is much weaker than in teams.” When it comes to resilience, the ability to make decisions and hear different perspectives is essential to a team—but means almost nothing on the individual level.

Second, the researchers differentiate between team resilience and adaptability. “Whereas the core activity of an adaptable team is to adapt, the core activity of a resilient team is to bounce back, and these are not synonymous.” Adaptation involves change, whether in behavior, structure, process, or strategy. Resilience is the idea of overcoming an obstacle or, as the researchers put it, “performance deficit. Even if a team chooses adaptation, this is only the start, since a team must also have the drive to perform amid difficulties. Such drive distinguishes resilient from adaptable teams, because regardless of whether a team chooses to change or stay the course, a resilient team must persevere down its chosen path.

Think about the days and weeks following the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic: it was virtually impossible not to adapt to the circumstances. Social distancing measures were certainly an adversity if there ever was one, and employers wondered if working from home would be conducive to productivity (or if their employees were just going to watch Tiger King all day). And in the face of adversity, these workplaces had to adapt to their circumstances.

Today, most businesses have been bouncing back— moving towards the normalcy of the days prior to the pandemic. Be it logistics companies facing bottlenecks in the supply chain or small businesses reconciling new safety protocols and policies, the businesses work through these problems and adversities demonstrate their resilience and their capability of bouncing back.

Eight Propositions to Build Team Resilience

From here, the researchers answer that vital question of how your business can prepare for the worst by providing eight resources for resilient teams. Stoverink, Kirkman, Mistry, and Rosen compile several other key sources, studies, and models to offer guidance on bouncing back. “It is clear from both anecdotal and rigorous scientific research that work teams will, at some point in their life cycle, experience adverse episodes that will likely harm important team processes and, ultimately goal attainment,” they write. In other words, it’s impossible to evade the inevitable adversities in the life of a business. So, what advice would the researchers give to come to terms with such inevitability? “We have added theoretical and conceptual refinement to work team resilience to help scholars and practitioners better understand how teams not only bounce back from adversity-induced process loss but also improve the ability to weather inevitable adversity that will come their way.”

  1. Team Potency.
  2. It takes wisdom to tackle such adversities head on. But, tangibly speaking, what does wisdom look like? The researchers call it “a balance between confidence and caution,” which allows teams to believe they can take on challenges they face. “Such widespread confidence is critical for work team resilience.” But, at the same time, potency is a threshold for resilient teams—overconfidence can inhibit a team. “Because of past success, overconfident teams may believe that they are invincible to risks or that no risks exist at all.” Potency is essential to resilience, but too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

  3. Team Mental Model of Teamwork.
  4. Have you ever been in a moment of panic, and it seems like nobody knows just what their role or responsibilities are? The researchers say it is essential for members to have “knowledge of roles, responsibilities, and interaction patterns and familiarity with one another’s knowledge, skills, and preferences.” When employees can visualize and understand their roles and the roles of their peers, these team mental models “contribute to work team resilience by enhancing a team’s capacity to coordinate interdependent action during difficulties.”

  5. Team Capacity to Improvise.
  6. Bouncing back requires a bit of thinking on your feet. “More than just moments of brilliance,” the researchers say, “improvisation is a deliberate process of adjusting to demands by applying past lessons, and it requires planning, since proactively rehearsing a variety of scenarios equips a team for quick and effective responding.” Improvising allows teams to cognitively process their circumstances and arrive at solutions by “combining habitual activities and knowledge in interdependent ways that enable the creation of new, situationally relevant actions.”

  7. Team Psychological Safety.
  8. Investing in office diversity, equity, and engagement fosters a healthy working environment, which makes employees more willing to vocalize their thoughts and feelings. And in these moments of adversity, such an environment is essential to bouncing back. “Sensemaking requires respectfully voicing thoughts and ideas, which not only offers a better understanding of the current predicament but also leads to more response alternatives.”

  9. Interpersonal Processes.
  10. The researchers define two different forms of interpersonal processes: social support and conflict management. When it comes to the former, “members of resilient teams can boost one another’s confidence and motivation by providing encouragement and emotional support” in the face of adversity. Conversely, these moments of adversity can certainly be high stress, so ensuring that any conflicts are resolved in a collectivistic manner, with an open and engaging dialogue and team collaboration, can make all the difference in building resilience.

  11. Minimizing Adversity in the Transition Phase.
  12. “When experiencing a setback,” the researchers say, “and faced with the choice of whether to bounce back by persisting or by adapting, a team’s capacity to make the most appropriate decision, and therefore to manage the persistence versus adaptation tension, is largely dependent on the investment of specific team resources into team decision-making processes.” Put simply, you get out what you put in; if your team takes the time to invest in these decision-making processes, the transition phase post-adversity can be a much smoother transition.

  13. Managing Adversity in the Action Phase.
  14. The Action Phase is when the bouncing back actually takes place for resilient teams. These teams are prepared to weather the adversity, quickly and effectively, in a way that brings the team together as the holistic sum of its parts. “When adversity strikes, resilient teams rely on higher team engagement, which offers the requisite perseverance to survive the critical action phase.” Using each of the aforementioned propositions, resilient teams are simply better prepared to handle whatever may come.

  15. Mending in the Transition Phase.
  16. And once the adversity is overcome, the team must transition back to its balanced nature prior to the conflict. Resilient teams are better able to analyze their circumstances, understand what worked and what didn’t, and prepare for the next time an adversity comes.

Better Together

Adversity in business is all but guaranteed, as we’ve all learned recently. In fact, our return to the workplace could bring its own set of challenges. So, preparing your team to face whatever conflicts may occur head-on will not only ease the burden on the team in the face of the conflict, it will also help the team to work better outside of adversity. Such preparation is key to bringing the teams together. “A whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” the researchers write. “Resilient teams, when facing a setback, possess not only the flexibility to adapt but also the grit to persist and persevere through adversity.”

Leadership is essential in these crises, and “team leaders positively influence teams by developing team resilience via functional leadership.” Following these eight propositions, before, during, and after an adversity, will allow your team to meet its maximum potential and help them prepare to bounce back from the next obstacle.

Post Researcher/Author:

Adam StoverinkAdam C. Stoverink is an associate professor in the Department of Management in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. He received his Ph.D. from Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, his MBA from the Chaifetz School of Business at Saint Louis University, and his Bachelor of Science degree in Management from the Trulaske College of Business at the University of Missouri. His research examines a variety of workplace phenomena including team resilience, team effectiveness and organizational justice. Stoverink teaches leadership to graduate, undergraduate and executive audiences.

Matt WallerMichael Adkison is a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas's School of Journalism's MA Program. As well as writing for Walton Insights, he reported and produced for UATV, and he worked as a manager and social media assistant for University of Arkansas Recreation. He currently serves as a multimedia journalist and reporter at KRCG in Jefferson City, Missouri.