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E254 | Building And Leading Resilient Teams with Bradley Kirkman and Adam Stoverink

Is a resilient team the result of putting resilient individuals together? Does everyone in the team need to have the same level of resilience? What makes a resilient team resilient? All these questions get answered in the new episode of Mind Your F**king Business Podcast this week. 

We’re learning from Dr Adam Stoverink and Bradley Kirkman, co-authors of Unbreakable: Building and Leading Resilient Teams, the book considered by Forbes as the number one team leadership book to read in 2023. Bradley and Adam’s work and research projects revolve around teamwork, leadership and cross-cultural management. 

They have done a lot of research on resilience in teams and individuals, and they have come up with four things that you need to have in place to build resilient teams. One of them is psychological safety, but you might find the other ones surprising. In this episode, they start by explaining what resilience is and why you would want resilient teams in your organisation. For them, it’s about bouncing back when challenged. What if somebody leaves? What if a project they’re working on doesn’t succeed? Which teams dust themselves down and come back stronger? That’s what team resilience is about. So it’s definitely a worthy goal in building a high-performing team

Fantastic conversation with Adam and Bradley. Download and listen to learn more.

On today’s podcast: 

  • Defining resilience
  • Resilient individuals VS resilient teams
  • The impact of purpose on resilience
  • The four qualities of resilient teams
  • The importance of diversity in teams

Follow Bradley Kirkman & Adam Stoverink:

Adam Stoverink on LinkedIn

Bradley Kirkman on LinkedIn

Bradley on Twitter

Bradley Kirkman’s website


3D Team Leadership: A New Approach for Complex Teams

Understanding the key factors to build resilient teams

Dr. Adam Stoverink is the author of Unbreakable: Building and Leading Resilient Teams, which has been published by Stanford University Press and named the #1 team leadership book to read in 2023 by Forbes. He is the Director of Walton MBA Programs and Associate Professor of Management at the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. His research examines phenomena related to leadership and high-performance work teams. 

Bradley L. Kirkman is the General (Ret.) H. Hugh Shelton Distinguished Professor of Leadership in the Department of Management, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship in the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University. He is the author of the books 3D Team Leadership: A New Approach for Complex Teams, and Unbreakable: Building and Leading Resilient Teams

Bradley received his Ph.D. in Organisational Behavior from the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on leadership, international management, remote/hybrid teams, and work team leadership and empowerment. Bradley is also a Fellow of the Academy of Management, the American Psychological Association, and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

“No matter how successful we think we are as a team, we need to prepare constantly for the unexpected, whether that’s a global pandemic or something smaller and more frequent, like losing a key team member or some smaller adversity that’s going to shake things up in our team dynamics.”

What is resilience?

Adam and Bradley explain that resilience is the capacity to bounce back and overcome adversity. There is resilience at all levels, whether individual, organisational, or entire countries. Scholars have been researching resilience at the individual level for the past half-century, so it’s a well-studied area. However, it’s only recently that the team or collective level of resilience has become a popular research topic.  

“Is team resilience just taking a bunch of resilient individuals and putting them together, and does that make a resilient team?”

What happens at the team level when adversity strikes is very different from what happens on an internal individual basis. And that’s the premise and motivation behind most of Adam and Bradley’s research and recent book.

Can you have non-resilient people in a resilient team?

Does everybody need to be resilient to build a resilient team? This is something that Adam and Bradley have studied at great length. They argue that you could measure everyone’s resilience on a scale of one to ten, divided by the number of people in the team, and that’s your average level of resilience. 

Another way to look at resilience and anything else in a team is by looking at the diversity of certain things. For example, looking at each individual’s level of resilience and seeing how different they are from one another. So you’d ask yourself, does everybody on the team have to have a minimum level of resilience to have a resilient team? Can you have too much resilience?

“I don’t know that a lot of people have looked at diversity on resilience. We tend to think of it as something you want to maximise. Everybody on the team should have as much of it as they can. But there might be situations where different levels of resilience, people varying across resilience could make a difference as well.”

So, what are the factors to measure individual resilience? 

Adam says that those include self-confidence – how confident the person is. Then, self-esteem – how much do they like themselves. Also, social support. Do they have a network of people that can support them? The next factor is self-efficacy, do people feel like they can accomplish what they set out to do? 

“There’s some literature showing that people who are conscientious are more resilient. People who are more open to experience or roll with the punches are more resilient. So there’s probably about 20 different things that we’ve identified in the literature that predict someone’s individual ability to bounce back.”

Does purpose have an impact on resilience?

Although Adam and Bradley are not 100% sure that the impact of purpose on resilience has been studied, there are some great examples that illustrate that that could be the case. One of those examples is the Race to the South Pole. Scott and Amundsen; two different leaders with the same equipment, accompanied by an expert team and the same weather conditions. Yet, one made it whilst the other failed.

This is a great case study of why one leader was able to face tremendous adversity and come out on the other side, and the other wasn’t. And part of it was, says Bradley, that Scott was doing the trip for the wrong reasons. He had been basically kicked out of his battleship command position by his admiral. He was looking for personal redemption, trying to save his reputation. On the other hand, Amundsen was in it because of the glory of going somewhere that nobody had ever been before. He was doing it for that deep sense of purpose and meaningfulness. So it’s two completely different rationales. 

“One leader was really driven by that internally, intrinsically, and the other leader, Scott, was driven more by that ‘I got to get my reputation back. I’ve got to save myself in the history books, to be judged differently later’. So I do think those two pieces come into play as well.”

Then there’s another stream of research known as the growth mindset, where if you can see even the worst possible situation as a way to grow and get better, then you’re more likely to take chances and forge ahead and leap into the unknown. The opposite and more common approach to adversity is called the fixed mindset, where we tend to view our predicament as just the way it is, and there’s nothing we can do about it. 

“Having a purpose, having meaning in where you’re heading, being able to see even the worst opportunities as an opportunity to grow and get better and learn, these are really solid individual qualities that can help people just stay the course and persist and move forward despite otherwise pretty dire circumstances.”

The four qualities of resilient teams

The difference between a group of resilient individuals and a resilient team is what happens between the team members, the interconnectivity, and how they respond collectively, says Adam.

“If you think about resilient individuals and the reason they’re resilient, they have all these resilient qualities. They’re very good at bouncing back and looking out for themselves and doing what’s best to bounce up, or to end in a better situation than they started. And so that’s a recipe for disaster if you don’t have the team level of resilience, because then what you’re going to have is a bunch of resilient individuals who, as soon as times get tough, they start to splinter and go their own separate ways and put their own interests above the interests of the team.”

There is, adds Adam, a secret sauce that a team requires in order to overcome adversity as a single unit, as opposed to everyone working for themselves. If you have a situation where a group of resilient individuals are looking out for themselves, then you’re going to have a team that fails or dissipates. 

When talking to executives and clients about resilience in teams, Bradley always starts by defining what a group is and what a team is, because those two aren’t the same thing. In a team, there are high levels of interdependence, mutual accountability, shared goals, and some collective outcome that they produce at the end. Whereas, in the case of a group, he would probably say let’s find the most resilient individuals we can find, put them in a group and let them do their thing. If it were a highly interdependent team, there’s no need to shy away from resilient individuals, but you need to find some other qualities that the team has that are going to make it resilient.

In their research, Adam and Bradley found four of those qualities that contribute to a team being resilient. 

  1. Team confidence

The first one is a moderate amount of team confidence – not too little, not too much. 

“If the team doesn’t have enough confidence, it’s going to fracture. When adversity strikes, no one’s going to believe that they can collectively overcome it. And so they’re going to be a brittle team. They’re going to shatter right in the beginning of an adverse situation.”

Also, you don’t want too much confidence because teams that are over-competent will tend not to prepare for adversity. They think they’ve seen this before and that they’ll be fine. 

“Overconfidence is contagious in teams. So if you bring a new member into the team who’s super overconfident as an individual, that tends to permeate the team and create more team overconfidence. So it’s actually a contagious influence in the team. And so that actually is a bad thing because you’re going to have teams that feed off that overconfidence and end up being too confident.”

2. Teamwork roadmaps

The second quality is critical, and that is teamwork roadmaps, which means everyone on the team understands their own role, their job responsibilities and the tasks that are before them, but also understand everybody else’s role on the team, their tasks and responsibilities. It is a roadmap for how this team is going to operate when adversity strikes. And when it does, you don’t have time to stand around and wonder who’s going to do what. In those situations, you don’t have the luxury to strategies.

3. Psychological safety

That is being able to speak up and tell people what you know. It’s a shared belief that on this team we can say what we need to say even if it’s uncomfortable. But speaking up, even when one knows the truth isn’t always easy. Sometimes there are power dynamics, and hierarchies in place. For example in surgical teams. 

“There is a major difference in status between a surgeon and a nurse. And the nurses often see a surgeon about to make a mistake, and they know that it’s a mistake, but they start to question whether they can speak up because of the lack of psychological safety, this safety to speak their mind and say what they need to say.”

Knowing what to do is completely different than speaking up and saying something is wrong. 

4. Capacity to improvise 

When adversity strikes, you need to be flexible, you need to be adaptable, and so you need to be able to improvise. And improvisation is really taking your existing knowledge and experience and then recrafting it into something novel that better suits this situation. Most adverse situations that we face are not comfortable. We’re not used to them. But when responding to adversity, it’s important to understand how the human brain reacts. And the human brain, when we get uncomfortable, it naturally tries to gravitate towards the comfortable.

“Our brain will try to get us to respond to adversity in ways that we’ve always done before. The tried and true methods, the habits, the rituals, the routines that have always worked for us in the past. But the problem is that most adversities are not like anything we’ve experienced in the past. That’s why they’re challenging. And so we’re hardwired to respond in exactly the opposite way that we should.”

Studying team conformity

Adam and Bradley have a study on the concept of conformity, recently accepted by the Journal of Management. They used teams of officials at NCAA football games in the USA as their sample. What they found was that the external pressure they felt from the crowd noise and home-field bias were real. 

Plenty of data will demonstrate that officials call in favour of the home team more than of the visitors’ team. In their research, they were trying to understand how we can diminish this conformity, that is conforming to what the crowd wants at the home stadium. What they found is that the more familiar the officials worked together, the more that serves as a buffer to protect them against that external conformity.

“As humans, we need to belong and need to make people happy. And that’s the reason why we acquiesce to what people outside the team want. But if we can get that within the team, if we’re connected enough as a unit, and we can satisfy that need to belong internally, then we’re able to ignore what’s happening outside of the team.”

A lot of times there’s just a lack of social connectedness within the team. And when you have that, then you’re opening up the door for a lot of different adversities to creep in and tear the team apart, adds Adam.

The importance of diversity in teams

Creativity, transactive memory and diversity of a team are some of the factors that contribute to their capacity to improvise. Starting with creativity, there are a lot of different processes that teams can learn. Adam’s favourite is design thinking, an incredibly powerful framework for retraining the way that teams think about and approach problems by putting the end user at the centre of everything. So, being empathetic, finding out what their struggle is, and then working backwards to create a solution. It’s such a universal skill to help problem solve and to innovate, and ultimately to improvise, he adds. 

Another important factor is the diversity of thought.

“We want people who are thinking differently, people with different backgrounds, with different ideas and perspectives, worldviews and beliefs. And we want those people to come to the table. And again, this is where psychological safety comes in. It’s one thing to have diversity within the team, and everyone has unique thoughts and different ways of approaching problems. But the most important side is that they feel comfortable bringing that diversity to the table.”

When adversity strikes, you want as much information as possible, as quickly as possible. This will allow you to make an informed decision. If you only have one person, or you don’t have diversity on the team, and everybody is just following on to what someone says, that’s not a team, continues Adam. 

“So when adversity strikes, you want that diversity of thought, but you also have to have that psychological safety to sort of bring that to the table, all those unique thoughts. And so we can talk about the pros and cons of each. And you can start to see how each of these four pillars or resources of team resilience, are not independent of one another, they interact with one another. You need really all four of them for resilience to emerge.”

To that, Bradley adds that diversity of thought is critical for a resilient team. Yet, as human beings, we tend to hire people that think, look, and sound like us.

“And you need to battle against that. You need to bring people into the team that are not like you, that don’t think like you do. And that’s threatening sometimes because again, it can be a self-esteem threatening motivation, but that’s the goal: to bring people into a team that are quite different from you and the fellow team members, to get that diversity of thought, to get the resilience processes working highly effective.”

Book recommendations 

The Fearless Organization 

Grit: The Power Of Passion and Perseverance


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