Change management: 9 ways to build resilient teams

Leading through change requires a nuanced understanding of resilience and a deft touch to encourage it in healthy ways. Consider these expert tips to help people build and use resilience
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Resilience, in the context of psychology, refers to ability to adapt well to adversity, trauma, tragedy, or other sources of significant stress. Being resilient has benefits for both individuals and organizations – as has clearly been on display over the last two tumultuous years.

CIOs know well how their team members’ capacity to adjust positively to workplace pressures, changes, and setbacks contributes to the IT function’s performance.

Because resilience is a set of learnable skills and approaches rather than a fixed characteristic, there are ways that IT leaders can help to build and hone resilience among their people. “Just as with ourselves, fostering resilience in our teams is a matter of helping them build skills and mindset that support a hopeful, solution-oriented response to obstacles, challenges, and unanticipated change,” says Erika Andersen, leader readiness consultant and author of Change from the Inside Out.

However, doing this well requires a nuanced understanding of what constitutes resilience and a deft touch in encouraging this critical capability in healthy ways. Here are some ways IT leaders can help their team members develop and deploy their resilience:

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1. Understand what resilience is – and is not

Resilience may be misunderstood as the ability to bounce back instantly from difficulties or to roll with any manner of punches. Defining or encouraging mindless acceptance of workplace stressors is a recipe for burnout.

“The problem is when leadership focuses on building a team’s resilience as a way to avoid addressing unnecessary causes of stress that are part of the organization’s culture,” says David R. Caruso, Ph.D., author of A Leader’s Guide to Solving Challenges with Emotional Intelligence. “We will not, nor should we, try to meditate our way out of a toxic culture. Buying everyone a yoga mat while failing to address sources of unnecessary stress is a problem.”

Therefore, it’s importance that IT leaders understand the state of affairs within the IT organization and actively address issues and drivers of burnout. “Burnout and change fatigue – disengagement that comes from constant or poorly managed change – are very real risks for team members and organizations,” says Noelle Akins, leadership coach and founder of Akins & Associates. “Resilience is not just non-stop adaptability.”

[ Want more on change management? Read How to hire change-ready people: 8 signs. ] 

2. Unpack the impacts

“If something tough is coming and you can give your people a heads-up, do it,” Andersen says. Communication and transparency are rocket fuel for resilience.

“You don’t need to have all the answers – in times of ambiguity answers are often discovered real-time. [However] employees left to their imaginations will typically make up stories which are worse than the reality,” Akins says. “Share information as you learn it to reduce fear of the unknown and help team members develop their own plan of action. Autonomy and self-determination strengthen individual’s sense of resiliency. As you unpack the impacts, also offer employees choices that foster autonomy.”

3. Talk less, listen more

"The single most useful management skill for building resilience in those who work with and for you is listening."

“The single most useful management skill for building resilience in those who work with and for you is listening,” says Andersen. “Too many leaders try to talk their employees out of what they’re feeling in challenging situations – reassuring them prematurely, or telling them why things are actually good, or why they shouldn’t be upset.”

This approach backfires, making team members feel misunderstood, condescended to, or resentful. “Take a deep breath and simply listen to your folks in tough situations; all kinds of great things happen,” Andersen says. “First, your people feel that you respect and care about them, which almost immediately makes them feel less overwhelmed and more hopeful. And quite often, being listened to helps calm people enough that they can start to see a way through the situation. Finally, listening gives you a lot of important information about what’s hard for them in the situation and how you might help.”

Never brush off a concern, even if it seems unimportant to you, says Janele Lynn, owner of the Lynn Leadership Group, who helps leaders build trusting relationships through EI. “Listen to their concerns and do your best to address [them].” Help your team focus on the end state and what’s in it for them in the new way.

4. Promote psychological safety

“Teams with high levels of psychological safety tend to be more resilient,” says Dr. Sunni Lampasso, consulting psychologist, executive coach, and founder of Shaping Success. “Teams can more effectively tackle challenges and rebound from stressful situations when they feel safe and supported.”

Making the IT team a safe place to task risks, share different perspectives, and ask questions encourages a resilience mindset. Therefore, when a significant event or issue is occurring, it’s important to “lean into resistance rather than just shutting it down, and acknowledge perceived concern, anger, or loss of team members,” says Akins. “If necessary, allow for ‘productive venting’ that leads to understanding and then to problem-solving.”

5. Build communities and connections

“One of the most effective emotion management tools is relationships,” says Caruso. “Although it may seem like a waste of time to some, creating opportunities for teammates to get to know one another can build connections and resilience. For those who don’t like small talk and are more task-focused create learning opportunities where skills and tips can be shared.”

6. Help others reframe

“The most useful skill to teach your folks in order to build their resilience is learning to manage their self-talk,” Andersen says. “In difficult situations, listen especially carefully to the negative things people are saying about what’s happening, summarize to make sure you’ve understood, then ask them how they could be thinking about the situation differently – in ways that are more hopeful yet still feel believable.”

The core of resilience is mindset, so anything you can do to help folks foster more solution-oriented thinking is beneficial. IT leaders and managers can also remind individuals of the other times they’ve survived or thrived difficult situations, says Lynn.

7. Protect your people

“We can definitely ask too much of our teams,” says Andersen. Unnecessary and overly frequent change, unnecessary blindsiding or obfuscation, and even unrealistic positivity can sap otherwise resilient folks of energy and engagement. IT leaders can be honest about new or difficult situations and avoid unnecessary turmoil to protect their team members and their energy.

Another good piece of advice: Rethink your “go-to” employees. “You read a lot about burnout, but we find that many professionals are both engaged and burnt out at the same time,” says Caruso. “Don’t always go to the same people who deliver for you, make sure you tap every team member as a way to build the skills and resilience of the team.”

8. Model adaptability

“Fostering team resilience begins with leadership. Resilient leaders maintain a sense of optimism in the face of challenges, set an example for team members, and keep their team on track toward goals,” says Lampasso.

However, it’s important to use yourself as the benchmark for how the organization is doing. “We find time and again in our consulting work that leaders simply tend to be happier and less stressed than their employees. You may not feel that way with the weight of the world on your shoulders, but the data are very consistent,” says Caruso. “Perhaps you expect that weight and are ‘in the know’ whereas team members lack the context and the vision you have access to. Practically, this means giving people a break well before you feel you need one.”

9. Maintain these efforts long-term

“Developing team-based resilience is possible. But building resilience is like building muscle: it is an ongoing effort,” Caruso says. “You can’t lift weights for a few days and then set them down forever.”

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.

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