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True Grit: Building Resilient Teams

By Elizabeth Birrell - 11 Min read

For many people, 2020 has been the most challenging year of their lives, rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic and global countermeasures to contain it. With unemployment hitting record highs in Europe and the US despite efforts to protect jobs, and whole industries grinding to a halt, those able to continue to work safely from home during various lockdowns are the lucky ones.

Elizabeth Birrell

Head of Insight & Talent Analytics

20%

 A survey in May 2020 estimated that the pandemic put one in five millennials out of work.

 

Deloitte, 2020 Global Millennial Survey

Over four months after the first lockdown measures, with no return to normal working in sight, businesses all over the world are beginning to consider how to adapt and up-skill their existing teams, at every level, to work effectively in a permanent state of disruption. This has led
to a renewed focus on identifying and developing “soft” skills, usually social, interpersonal and communication skills, particularly at the leadership level. One which is often overlooked, but which is fundamental to individual and group success in challenging times, is resilience.

 

Resilience: static or dynamic?

At its heart, resilience is simply the ability to recover quickly from stress or disruption, to “bounce back”. It is a term that is used (and abused) in the genre Amazon calls Business Motivation & Self-Improvement, although usually in works aimed at growth-hackers and start-up CEOs. Today every industry, every business, is working in a context every bit as dynamic and challenging as startup Series A, making this a very good time for even big businesses to learn from the disruptors how individuals and teams can weather the storm.

The core concept is illustrated in an engaging way in the work of Angela Duckworth, whose TED Talk on what she calls “grit” and how it correlates with academic and professional success went viral in 2013.

Duckworth famously designed the “Grit Scale”, a deceptively simple set of questions to test diligence, perseverance and self-control: ‘Setbacks don’t discourage me’, reads one of the eight measures. ‘I finish what I start’.

Despite relying on the usually unreliable method of self-reporting, the scale was surprisingly accurate, predicting individual success in settings ranging from infant schools to military training programmes.

Gritty people have a growth mindset; when bad things happen, they don't give up. Angela Duckworth, 2020

Duckworth, rightly, sees grit or resilience as aligned with a “growth mindset”, as defined by Stanford psychologist Dr Carol Dweck, whose 2006 book Mindset set out a continuum grouping individuals according to where they believe ability derives from. Individuals with a “growth mindset” believe they can learn any skill with sufficient effort, while individuals with a “fixed mindset” believe abilities are largely innate.

When they fail, they attribute their failure to the lack of a fundamental ability to succeed, and are unlikely to be motivated either to develop their abilities or try again. Pinning the concept of resilience to the growth mindset is pragmatic and useful, as it is much easier to interpret in the context of professional development in a global business than grit, which has its roots in child psychology, or resilience, which is usually applied more to entrepreneurs than to employees.

Resilience is not static. While some individuals undeniably have more of it than others, it is dynamic, a skill as much as a trait, and can be fostered both in ourselves and in others. This is good news for leaders guiding teams through challenges and changes, meaning it is possible to foster resilience in existing teams as well as hiring for resilience in the future.

How to hire resilient people

Selecting for any “soft skill” is delicate, and requires both agile processes, and hiring managers with a complex set of traits and skills, including emotional intelligence, active listening and excellent interview technique. Resilience in an individual might take the form of perseverance or adaptability, which appear more straightforward, but might also look like optimism or self-control, both generally accepted as related traits of resilient individuals.

Sourcing for soft skills is challenging, and requires a degree of lateral thinking: in which industries, companies and roles will I find people who have experienced change and disruption? Someone who has succeeded in a high-pressure role or corporate culture, who has relocated globally or led teams during periods of volatility such as a recession or political upheaval, is more likely to have resilient traits. On an individual level, resilience is one more excellent argument for a representative workforce: candidates from underrepresented groups are more likely to be emotionally resilient, and diversity is a critical component in organisational resilience.

When building job descriptions designed to highlight the need for personal and professional resilience, it is important to be transparent about the challenging nature of the role or environment, and why traits such as self-sufficiency and tenacity are valuable.

However, we must also consider gender bias: many of the words we would naturally use to create a sense of recognition in a resilient candidate are implicitly masculine-coded (that is, they are generally associated with men, not that they are actually more prevalent in men), and may, therefore, perpetuate gender bias.

Gaucher-Friesen’s paper on gendered wording in job advertisements5 lists the following as masculine-coded words:

Gaucher-Friesen

Professional psychometric testing is one of the best ways to assess candidates already in the pipeline for personal and professional resilience. Interview technique can be just as effective, when the interviewer(s) are briefed to focus the conversation on traits rather than skills, on the subjective as well as the objective. The interview should cover challenging times and transitions in an individual’s career history, such as relocation, redundancy, career or industry change, and be informal and open-ended enough to encourage storytelling: the language someone uses about their abilities, successes and failures can be extremely revealing.

Resilience should not be mistaken for ‘positivity’ or ‘cheerfulness’. Resilient people can talk candidly about times they failed or underperformed, and frame their reaction as learning to overcome. They can be honest about times they felt discouraged or under pressure, and how they responded. Learning to elicit and listen for evidence of a resilient mindset is critical to building resilient teams from the outside in.

How to foster resilience

Building resilience in existing teams is both more efficient than hiring for resilience and much more complex, requiring leaders to rigorously assess their teams and develop tailored strategies to foster resilience. The work has to be done simultaneously on a micro- and macro-scale, as part of individual professional development and as part of a systematic overhaul of team or company culture.

To effectively embed resilience in corporate culture, even at a team level, is a holistic effort. It is reflected in the people we hire and the way their roles are designed, our physical workspaces, our employee networks, how we work, even how we train and learn. However, there are practical steps that can be taken, without significant external investment, to make boosting resilience a priority.

Advocating for a healthy work/life balance is critical, and challenging, particularly during lockdown: leaders need to set the tone to ensure that employees are working from home, rather than living at work.

In the longer term, feedback systems and performance measurement should be designed to emphasise progress and learning alongside outcomes and more traditional KPIs. If resilience is in how individuals bounce back from setbacks, the response to negative feedback or a failure to achieve milestones is an important touchpoint for team members. It is also an opportunity for leaders to assess how an individual responds to difficult feedback, and how their response is changing over time.

Learning and development processes can also be touchpoints to demonstrate, measure and build resilience: usually without a radical redesign. Learners are often more prepared for frank feedback on a new or developing skill than they might be on their day-to-day responsibilities.

Looking critically at role design to reward resilience is another practical step that has a big impact, embedding the principles of continuous improvement, self-assessment and improvement and a learning mindset. Asking employees to be accountable, however, should always be balanced with autonomy, giving individuals power over their outcomes so that frank feedback is fair, and there is the opportunity to make meaningful progress.

People with strong networks at work are more resilient. Creating a collaborative culture and making space for meaningful personal connections is key to a supportive environment. Practical approaches include developing a mentoring network, encouraging and budgeting for social events, designing the physical work environment to mix open plan and more intimate spaces, and providing wellness benefits such as exercise, mindfulness and yoga classes.

Cultural change can be slow. That has never been more apparent than today, with leaders under pressure to adapt to, and help their teams adapt to, an ever-changing working environment. Today’s workplace demands a huge amount of resilience from teams juggling childcare and education commitments, changing workloads and remote working against the backdrop of a global crisis. Cultural change to instil, develop and ultimately reward resilience is urgently needed.

References

Deloitte, 2020 Global Millennial Survey, Pulse Survey conducted April-May 2020. Available at: https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/millennialsurvey.html

TED. 2013. Grit: The Power Of Passion And Perseverance. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H14bBuluwB8

Angela Duckworth (2020). Available at: https://angeladuckworth.com/grit-scale/

Duchek, S., Raetze, S. & Scheuch, I. The role of diversity in organizational resilience: a theoretical framework. Bus Res (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40685-019-0084-8

Gaucher D, Friesen J, Kay AC. Evidence that gendered wording in job advertisements exists and sustains gender inequality. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2011;101(1):109-128. doi:10.1037/a0022530

Want to know more? Speak to Elizabeth Birrell