At a recent event organised by EventWell, I was asked to speak on the importance of resilience in teams in reaction to the challenges placed upon us all by COVID.  In this context, I chose to highlight the ongoing environmental challenges to mental health by taking the optimist’s perspective, as you’ll hear if you watch the recording of the event.

In taking this position, I am not undermining or belittling the very real and painful mental health challenges being experienced by employees the world over. Quite the opposite. COVID represents a huge threat to lives and livelihoods. I happen to believe that a strategy to improve mental health for everyone allows us to do more than just fix the issues.

My perspective for this conversation was built on growing empirical evidence that COVID represents a huge opportunity to build something new and better. As we start the process of rebuilding towards a new normal, I wanted to share my hope that we might do something in its aftermath to create a better and more resilient world of work for individuals and teams.

Beyond resilience

The definition of resilience talks about bouncing back, recovery, and resisting illness. Psychological resilience, therefore, is the ability to bounce back from a negative event or, based on the argument above, the ability to cope with (resist) stressful situations.

Resilience (n):

The action of the act of rebounding or springing back…

The ability to recover readily from, or resist being affected by, a setback, illness etc.

Oxford English Dictionary

But resilience can be so much more. As so often happens in life, we have jumped to problem-solving thinking and missed the opportunity to go further. From my wellbeing colleagues, I would expect to hear something like ‘(Mental) Resilience will help us cope with stress, and therefore we should build resilience’, and I agree. I’m happy that we build coping mechanisms, but once we start down this route, shouldn’t we explore what’s possible?

What else could we achieve while building resilient people and teams?Many writers have inspired me on this path, the one who nailed it best was Nassim Taleb with his definition of ‘antifragile’.

“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
Nassim Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

Instead of just giving employees the power and the skills to cope with the stress that life and their employers place them under, why not stop the stress at source and create a working context that is healthy and supportive of the individual human being?

The corporate structures in which most of us currently work were largely forged during the second and third industrial revolutions. They were designed to build quality and minimise errors by setting up structures and processes that left the least potential for humans to mess up what the machines were making. By definition, the structures are inflexible and hierarchical, working on command and control to create predictable outcomes.

We are now in the fourth industrial revolution – the digital (or virtual) revolution. To thrive we need to be creative and expansive, and do what the machines cannot do, at least for now. The organisational structures of the past, which have allowed people with experience and political nous rather than skill to climb the corporate ladder, no longer serve us. And this is scary for many who have only known ‘careers’ to be something you pursue by making steady progress through a handful of companies.

Aspiring to do better than ‘do no harm’ should be the norm.  Instead, we are fixated on putting things right, not shooting for the stars. In the future, things will only move faster. Change will occur at previously unimaginable levels and speed and organisations and teams within them that are not robust, or ‘antifragile’, will ultimately lose out to those that are.  And it turns out that these dynamic, successful, and high-performing environments are not only good business, but they are also good for the mental health of the people that work in them.

Antifragile Teams

These teams have resilience in abundance, and indeed are the picture of antifragility. The individuals within the team are resilient and inspired by their daily working lives. When a storm like COVID blows in, teams rub their hands with the pseudo-malevolence of a Disney anti-hero and start talking about how they can use the opportunity to create something new, something better.

Whilst most of you can probably imagine how such a team might work, that view is probably also cast through the lens of a Disney fairy tale – could it ever be you and your team?

Antifragile Teams function in a completely different way to teams in a traditional industrial company. Here are some of their characteristics:

  • Flat structure: There is a team leader, but not because they are the longest serving, or most experienced or highest paid. They are the leader because they are good at leading. They know what makes human beings tick, in their hearts, not in their head. More Nelson Mandela than Henry Ford. They are courageous, loyal, authentic, and bold.
  • Autonomy: This is the freedom to do things the way you want, subject to the critical caveat that it must serve the purpose and vision of the team. Unconstrained freedom at work is anarchy and will serve no one.
  • Clear purpose and vision: Every member of the team knows why they are there and is committed to achieving that vision. They know their role and do not need, and do not expect, anyone standing over them watching them while they are doing it. They are trusted to do their job to the very best of their ability and to take pride in their work.
  • Trust: This goes hand in hand with autonomy. In the workplace, one does not exist without the other. And that’s trust both ways, between the team and you, and you and the team. At Change Craft, we are hoping that COVID has helped employers to trust their employees, and we are hoping that will now be reciprocated.
  • Clean communication: When team members make requests of each other, those requests are comprehensive, clear, and contain all the information necessary to prevent any misunderstandings. When tasks are delivered, there is a conversation for completeness where the recipient can declare their satisfaction with the delivered product and give feedback.
  • Feedback all the time: “What’s one thing I did well?” “What’s one thing I could do differently?” There’s no journey to mastery without feedback from someone who has your interest at heart, and that of the team.
  • Issues are identified and resolved: All teams have issues. Antifragile Teams will surface them, prioritize them, discuss them, and resolve them. Dysfunctional teams bury their issues, talk about them in corridors in pairs, and never actually engage with the people affected. Sadly, dysfunctionality reigns in this particular area and is a major cause of work-related stress.
  • Equality: Every voice matters. Whether you’re the 30-year grizzled veteran, or the fresh-faced newbie, your voice matters and deserves to be heard. Antifragile Teams thrive off group energy, not the energy of the leader, and listening to the views of everyone is a core part of creating the energy of possibility.

Some of the defining characteristics might appear challenging, but there is nothing particularly challenging or highly skilled about them, it’s mostly about mindset and practicing different behaviours aligned to the Antifragile Team goal.

How do we get to be like that?

How many of you feel that your work persona is different from your home persona? Until joining Change Craft and its predecessors I certainly felt that way.

The shape of the contemporary workplace has been crafted over many years to meet the needs of the industrial age. The idea that individuals in business could work in ways that they want to work, from places that inspire them (not necessarily the office/factory) at times that suit their particular circadian clock (not 9 to 5), was and remains anathema for many business leaders.

Workplaces don’t work like this because we don’t bring our whole self to the workplace. We’re not authentic. We’re not authentic because we don’t trust our employer, largely because our employer demonstrates daily that they don’t trust us. We’re taught to be cautious about we say, to whom, because we’re never sure how it will come back to us and damage our prospects. Information is shared on a need to know basis. Offers of help are calculated to be self-serving.

Now imagine…

Imagine coming to work and talking to your colleagues openly, candidly, not with macho platitudes, but about how you are feeling. Imagine a male leader who shares openly with you the highs and lows of their recent experiences in a vulnerable way and invites your views and empathy. Imagine if a colleague openly shared their issues and concerns with you and all the other team members, and you worked together with the group to try to find the very best possible solution to that issue. Imagine a team that, when faced with COVID challenges, turned around to each other and ask “Okay, this is a going to affect us really badly, how can we make the best of this and what does that look like?”

Do you think – with a team like that – when you head home at the end of a working day it would be with the same level of stress as at present?  It might seem daunting or strange and indeed going the whole way on day one is unlikely to be successful – like many things in life it takes a journey to get there. The only thing that is stopping you is setting the vision and taking the first step. This journey can be embarked upon no matter what your starting point – dysfunctional or high-performing, it matters not. All you need is the ability to dream of a better future.  

Want to know more?

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