Resilience In The Workplace: What Can A 3000 Mile Atlantic Challenge Teach Us

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Heads Together Team

Heads Together

In today’s turbulent business world, employees and their colleagues frequently face uncertainty and challenge which can have a negative impact on their performance. It has been shown that resilience is one of the most key indicators of success. Particularly,  personal and team resilience is needed to bounce back from adversity and to learn from tricky situations. Resilience is defined as the ability to cope with adversity through developing coping strategies and bounce back from failures. 

In today’s turbulent business world, employees and their colleagues frequently face uncertainty and challenge which can have a negative impact on their performance. Besides individual resilience, building team resilience requires specific strategies that enable a team to cope with and learn from adversity, and it is building processes that allow the team to absorb the strain to be able to keep on performing. 

West et al. (2009) defined team resilience as “a positive team level capacity that aids in the repair and rebound of teams when facing potentially stressful situations.”

But how do we develop both the personal and team resilience needed to bounce back from adversity and to learn from tricky situations?

To find out, Henley Business School academic Dr. Caroline Rook followed the journey of a team known as Heads Together and Row who took on one of the most extreme challenges on earth – a 3,000-mile rowing race across the Atlantic Ocean. The race began in the Canary Islands on December 12, 2018. They crossed the finish line on February 1 this year in a time of 50 days, 22 hours and 38 minutes. The team was raising funds for the mental health charities under the Heads Together campaign, namely, Mind and Combat Stress. All four team members have experience of mental health issues, either personally or through family, friends, and colleagues.

Based on the findings of this research, there are certain factors which can affect our resilience levels and offered tips for both individual employees and their teams on how to improve them. This research is based on interviews conducted with the team in the months building up to the race, regular e-diaries kept by each crew member during the 50 days they spent at sea, and a final interview with each of them after the challenge was complete. Anonymized extracts from the rowers’ diaries were used, as part of which they were asked to score their personal resilience levels from 1-10 at different points during the journey.

From this research, it has been recommended that the top five ways that employees can build personal resilience are:

 1. Get into a routine: This gives a sense of control and achievement.

2. Focus on the goal to be able to push through: While one is struggling, maintaining focus on the goal is important to help them get through the difficult times.

3. Take time out in your happy place: This is crucial for individual members to recharge and regain their mental strength.

4. Create a sense of control so you don’t feel overwhelmed: Creating safe spaces, no matter how confined a space it might be is really important.

5. Seek support from others to work things through: Communication and collaboration is key to building team spirit and a sense of togetherness and belonging.

Personal commitment to the goals of the team is important for the team to perform well. Each individual team member’s resilience and their resolution is very crucial during times of adversity as it can cross over to other team members. Dr. Caroline Rook, the primary researcher on this project says:

“A resilient team is not necessarily made up of highly resilient individuals, but is one that has a strong sense of psychological safety and clear, highly functional team processes.”

Based on the experience of the Heads Together team,  three key learning points are also offered for businesses to help them build resilient teams:

1. Prepare the whole team together to build clear roles and team processes

2. During challenging times, make sense of the challenge, encourage open dialogue and reframe adversity as an opportunity

3. After the challenge ends, give the team time to recover and capacity to learn

Stress can have a huge impact on both individual and team resilience. Stress has consequences for individual and team processes as it is distracting, it decreases attentional focus, and it creates a tunnel vision which makes solving complex tasks difficult. Stress also increases cognitive load, which makes multitasking difficult.  It also increases negative emotions (e.g. fear and anxiety) and frustrations, which leads to impairment of personal performance and to relational strain among the team.

Jeremy Reynolds, part of the Heads Together and Row team and resilience manager for London Fire Brigade, said the research also emphasized how successful individual coping mechanisms help teams to become more resilient. For him, the most effective mechanism was focusing on the goal of a team or business to be able to push through challenges.

“I think is such an important aspect certainly for me because I was the least motivated coming into [the challenge],” Reynolds said. “It wasn’t a dream of mine or life goal, but it certainly helped me so I could answer the question of ‘why’ when everything else was telling me to stop.”

And Justin Coleman, a stand-up comedian who was also part of the team, said getting into a routine to gain a sense of control and achievement was vital to ensure individuals and the team did not feel overwhelmed.

“I think you have to focus on what you can control, which is your boat and the area immediately surrounding you,” Coleman said. “The rest of it can disappear because it’s not relevant to your current situation, and you can only work on what you can control.”

High pressured environments can escalate stress and anxiety that leads to social withdrawal, which can lead to less communication among team members and therefore decreases team performance capacity. Then it becomes imperative that the team has a shared belief, and individuals are comfortable to admitting to mistakes, voicing concerns and raising divergent opinions to keep personal relationships functioning and to effectively deal with challenges. 

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