Five characteristics of resilient teams

Published by Peter on

The conventional wisdom in business is that employee turnover is expensive.

This is true. It’s more expensive to replace an employee than to have that employee stay in place. Recruiting, onboarding, training, and lost efficiency all add up to a transactional cost. And if one transaction is expensive, then many transactions must be super expensive. Right?

Unfortunately, when an insight like this takes hold in the collective business consciousness, it grows into a kind of monster.

People start writing books based on this newly articulated insight. They do TED talks. The idea worms its way into meetings like a game of telephone, losing clarity and nuance along the way. It morphs and metastasizes until it becomes the most dominant idea in the conversation.

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And it gets misunderstood and misapplied, until one day, it becomes common knowledge that because replacing an employee is so expensive, we must do everything possible to keep employees exactly where they are.

Which is the exact opposite of what we should be doing.

The fear of turnover can be far worse than turnover itself

I grew and led high-performing teams for more than 30 years in a variety of organizations and environments. Fifteen of those years were spent running some of the largest and most comprehensive employee engagement programs in the world.

So, I have heard a lot about the cost of turnover, and all the things companies do to try to prevent it.

But there’s an important difference between “we want you to be productive and happy,” and “we want to keep you where you are.”

The former is a philosophy that leads to people-oriented, growth-minded management behaviors. Things like paying well, offering training, giving creative ownership, creating healthy work practices, caring about employees as people.

The latter is a philosophy that leads to restrictive management behaviors like limiting opportunities for growth and visibility, siloing roles, restricting information flow, and creating rigid power structures. It might even lead to hiring lesser quality people because reliable mediocrity is seen as better than any turnover at all.

Promoting up and out

In my 30-plus years leading teams, I did my best to help my employees grow and improve. When an individual grows and improves, the team grows and improves.

I never worried about someone leaving my team for a better job. That’s exactly what I wanted for them. It was always a no-brainer to me that if I wanted to advance my own career, my employees would also want to advance theirs. As their manager, I was uniquely positioned to help with that.

So I tried. In fact, several times I even contacted a hiring manager on behalf of my employee to recommend them for a job they wanted.

Building in resilience

But of course when a good employee leaves, the manager has a gap to fill. And when a great employee leaves, the gap is that much bigger.

Everyone is replaceable. As a manager, I always saw it as my job to make the team as resilient as possible so the work could continue when a star employee left, and someone new could come in with the support they would need to be effective immediately.

I saw no point in trying to eliminate the possibility of someone leaving. I wanted the best people on my team, and that might mean they would grow up and out of my team at some point. The most beautiful flowers are the first to get plucked from the garden.

So my goal in reducing the cost of turnover wasn’t to try to eliminate turnover, but to reduce the cost of each inevitable turnover transaction. I did that by making the most resilient team I could.

Here are five characteristics of highly resilient teams. Managers should strive to build these into their teams’ cultures, and executives should strive to ensure managers understand and are supported in executing on these concepts.

1. The basics are taken care of

We’ve all heard the analogy of rats leaving a sinking ship. Make sure your ship isn’t sinking.

It doesn’t matter what else you do if the fundamentals aren’t already in place. People need to be fairly compensated. People need to trust their manager and trust each other. People need to be physically and psychologically safe in the workplace.

If they don’t feel safe, well compensated, valued, and valuable, then they will not stick around no matter how many engagement programs you pay consultants to design for you.

Pay no attention to all the water collecting in this ship. There is no need to leave.

2. Mission-oriented

Everyone on the team should understand the team’s “why” and be on the same page regarding the strategies being used to deliver on the objectives. The “why” goes deeper than just the metrics for output and outcome. It involves the reason for the team’s existence, and the team’s role in the organization.

The manager has to set a clear and universally understood North Star for the team. That way, when someone leaves, the entire team will be able to react positively and proactively because everyone has the same understanding of how priorities and workload will have to shift to cover the gap. Confusion about mission and priority may result in people falling into self-protection mode, putting up barriers rather than fostering collaboration.

3. Healthy communications

Resilient teams have healthy communication flow. I use the word “healthy” intentionally because it embodies more nuance than something like “good.” Everyone thinks they’re a “good communicator,” but few people truly are.

Healthy communication involves relevant information delivered in a timely way to the people who need to know. Healthy communication involves transparent, fact-based reality. Healthy communication flows down, up, sideways, and wherever it needs to.

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Healthy communication does not perpetuate rumor, gossip, unfounded negativity, or toxic positivity. Healthy communication is neither a deluge of information anyone could possibly ever need to know, nor a highly controlled drip of need-to-know restriction.

When a team exhibits healthy communication as a general practice, the gap left behind by a departed employee won’t become a roadblock or information black hole. Everyone will be able to adapt by knowing where to turn with questions, and who needs the information they own.

4. Redundancy and overlap of work

Redundancy sounds like a bad word because most people think it means inefficiency. But redundancy is also an important failsafe for critical processes. A well-designed system has redundancies built into it so if a critical component fails, another component can be repurposed or rescheduled to pick up the work done by the failed component.

Resilient teams have just enough redundancy built into their work habits to ensure that every critical task can continue when any member of the team leaves.

In some teams, this means having someone trained in a tool or task well enough that they could pick it up in an emergency. In others, it means some overlap of roles. In others, it may mean having an external consultant or service available to fill the gaps. What is required, though, is a thorough understanding of what those critical tasks are and what it takes to get them done.

5. Adaptability mindset

Resilience is, at its core, adaptability. Teams that have an adaptability mindset are far better able to respond to unexpected change. They are often also better at anticipating change because they may be better at thinking ahead and expecting the unexpected. They stay nimble and aware.

Managers can foster a sense of adaptability by making it safe for their team members to ask difficult questions. Questions like, what unintended consequences might we be creating with this plan? What happens if our key vendor suddenly goes out of business? What contingencies do we need to consider? Whose help do we need to be successful, and whose failure will also sink us?

Adaptability allows for creating and executing on plans, while being ready and able to modify those plans in the middle of execution if necessary.

Don’t fear turnover. Embrace it.

Turnover is more expensive in the short term than retaining a good employee, if you look at it in a transactional way. That’s been pretty well established.

As with so many other things, however, being stuck in a transactional mindset when you need to be thinking holistically sends you down some wrong paths.

Rather than fear turnover and try to eliminate it, embrace the idea that your best people will someday leave. It’s not damage to be controlled. It’s inevitable change to be managed.

Focus on growing your people and making your team resilient. If you do, people are likely to stay longer and be more effective while they’re on your team. And if you help them level up and out of your team (especially within your company), you may get a reputation for helping people along on their careers. Which will continue to attract better talent.

I can help

Looking to be a better leader? Contemplating a career change? Struggling with a big life question? Want to write or publish a book? Thinking about retirement?

I can help. Hit me up for a free coaching session now.


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