Team resilience

When shit hits the fan and you are stressed out, you want to be sure that your team members have your back, that no one suddenly jumps ship, and that everyone knows what they need to do.

Team resilience

This year has been a test for most of us. Even those who can consider themselves lucky, to have a job they can do from the safety of their home and a partner to break the feeling of loneliness, are being pushed to their limits. We all learned a bit more about us and how resilient we are. But what about the teams we are part of? For teams to survive these times, more is needed than individual resilience.

Key message

  • Team resilience is the ability to face and rebound from external shocks.
  • A resilient team is more than just resilient team members.
  • Teams have 3 strategies to deal with external shocks and disturbances: minimize, manage, and mend.
  • Team training can increase team resilience.
  • You need to act now to have a resilient team later.

What is team resilience?

Teams are resilient if they, as a unit, can face and rebound from external shocks. This means teams are

  1. able to absorb the external shock without any change to their performance level
  2. quickly regain their original level of performance.

Imagine, a large party arrives at a restaurant, with each member of this joyful group having very specific food wishes. This is an external shock for the staff. There is no time to regroup and think. The team has to maintain performance so that all guests are served within an acceptable waiting time. A team that can do this, is resilient.

This is an example of an acute challenge. It's not something the team has to deal with regularly. However, other teams deal with chronic challenges, putting far more strain on team members. Examples of chronic challenges are unaddressed lack of resources, high-pressure environments, or lack of control.

Interpersonal team processes have a positive impact on team resilience if they create, sustain or reinforce the relationships team members have. For example, feeling connected to others, being able to share positive and negative emotions with team members, social support climate, and team coordination.

3 signs of team resilience

For teams, resilience is visible through their behavior and team processes. It is a coping mechanism that needs to be trained. There is not much research on team resilience. The main argument is that for teams to deal with adverse events, team members need to have high-quality relationships. These types of relationships are a sign of team members trusting each other and provide team members with social support needed in stressful situations. In brief,

When shit hits the fan and you are stressed out, you want to be sure that your team members have your back, that no one suddenly jumps ship, and that everyone knows what they need to do. You want to concentrate all your mental and physical resources on dealing with the event and surviving the situation.

As much as possible, teams need to prepare for shocks. By minimizing them, team members can reduce their negative impact. A standard way to minimize external shocks are drills, such as fire drills or man-over-board drills. Close combat training often involves the combination of drills (loads of them) and simulation of stressful situations for people to memorize the techniques. Every team needs to develop its drills and stress simulation, of course adapted to its context.

Another way to minimize the negative impact is to have well-documented processes in place. This is commonplace in health or (emergency) care teams. These processes describe what to do if a patient's vital signs change. The documented routine helps the team. Everyone knows what should be done. Of course, processes alone are not sufficient. Team members need to feel that they can speak up.

Even if you do not work in a hospital team, you should have your processes documented. Especially if you work in a virtual or remote team.

It is not always possible to minimize external events. In these circumstances, teams need to manage the situation. For example, when there is a sudden rise in customers, patients, inter-personal tension, a team can switch from normal processes to emergency processes. Managing also means to take care of routine processes while facing external disturbances. For example, by getting help or seeking advice. Another way teams manage chronic or acute stress, is by assisting each other or provide backup for each other.

Finally, sometimes the only thing a team can do is to mend the damage from an external shock. Mending is about recovering from stress, learning from experience, and adapting as necessary. Teams regain situational awareness as quickly as possible. This is about quickly ensuring everyone knows what everyone needs to do.

Another important recovery strategy is to debrief. Debriefing is about reflecting on past actions and the consequences of these actions. Teams who debrief outperform other teams by 20 to 25%.

During an external shock, relationships within the team or with customers, clients, or stakeholders outside the team can get fractured. Mending is also about repairing these broken or damaged relationships.

When repairing the damage from an external shock, team members must express appreciation for each other. This strengthens team bonding and is an incentive to remain in the team.

Resilience and virtual teams

Given the prevalence of remote work and virtual teams, the question arises if remote teams face particular challenges in building and sustaining team resilience. Unfortunately, there isn't much research on team resilience and even fewer on the resilience of virtual teams. The three strategies to minimize and manage external shocks and mend any damage from them also apply to virtual teams.

Specifically, on team resilience of virtual teams, a study has shown the practical value of correctly dealing with little mundane adverse effects. These mundane events do not seem to be putting the team under a lot of stress or creating some sort of shock, but they help the team build resilience.

Teams need to make sense of these little events to build resilience. For example, a team member who is not prepared might be lazy, close to burnout, or did not understand the task. Knowing why the team member was not ready, without alienating anyone, helps team members better understand each other. Sensemaking is therefore crucial for teams to develop a better awareness of each other, the task, and the environment.

How negative events are addressed impacts future events and how resources are invested. In addition to sensemaking, team members need to regulate and leverage their emotional expression. For example, they need to discover when is it necessary to speak up ("I don't understand the task", "I have low bandwidth") or when is it necessary to let go of negative feelings.

Finally, it is important for team members to feel included. In one of the studied teams, a team member had problems verbally expressing herself in English. The team switched to written communication for her to feel included.

What you can do

  • Create a list of adverse events that your team experienced in the past or that you might experience in the future. This is your list of team-specific simulations. Create processes that help you deal with each scenario.
  • Review what processes are documented and how clear these documents are. Can an outsider follow them?
  • Measure your current level of team resilience.
  • Develop a climate of openness, where team members feel free to speak up.


Alliger, G. M., Cerasoli, C. P., Tannenbaum, S. I., & Vessey, W. B. (2015). Team resilience: How teams flourish under pressure. Organizational Dynamics, 44, 176–184.

Degbey, W. Y., & Einola, K. (2020). Resilience in Virtual Teams: Developing the Capacity to Bounce Back. Applied Psychology, 69(4), 1301–1337.

Giannoccaro, I., Massari, G. F., & Carbone, G. (2018). Team Resilience in Complex and Turbulent Environments: The Effect of Size and Density of Social Interactions. Complexity, 2018, 1–11.

Hartmann, S., Weiss, M., Newman, A., & Hoegl, M. (2020). Resilience in the Workplace: A Multilevel Review and Synthesis. Applied Psychology, 69(3), 913–959.

Hartwig, A., Clarke, S., Johnson, S., & Willis, S. (2020). Workplace team resilience: A systematic review and conceptual development. Organizational Psychology Review, 10(3–4), 169–200.

Subscribe to System Thinking

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.