With Martin G. Moore

Episode #77

Can Your Team Handle the Pressure? Performing when the chips are down

A lot of people spend a lot of time talking about resilience. Interestingly, real resilience can be difficult to acquire for an individual, and even harder for a leader to build it into a team.

This episode focuses on creating the right culture in your team to build the resilience that will enable it to handle any eventuality.

  • What is it that builds resilience for an individual, so that they can roll with the punches in both their careers and their lives?

  • Why is avoidance the greatest enemy of resilience?

  • How do you help your team to avoid burnout?

  • And how, as a leader, can you build this into your team’s DNA?

We’ve also designed an helpful free resource for you, called the ‘6 Steps to Building Your Team’s Resilience’, which you can download below. I encourage you to pass this on to your other leadership peers, to help build resilience across your organisation!


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Episode #77 Can Your Team Handle the Pressure? Performing when the chips are down

A lot of people spend a lot of time talking about resilience. Interestingly, real resilience can be difficult to acquire for an individual, and even harder to build it into a team. I dedicate a whole module of our Leadership Beyond the Theory programme to resilience because I really believe it’s a make or break attribute of a successful executive or business owner. In this programme, I cover quite a few techniques for building your own resilience, but today I just want to focus more on creating the right culture in your team. I’ll talk a little bit about what makes a resilient individual who can roll with the punches in both their careers and their broader lives, and then how as a leader, you might build this into your team’s DNA.

  • I’m going to start with why the greatest enemy of resilience is avoidance.

  • I’ll talk about why it’s not just about whether we get through a stressful situation, but how we get through it.

  • We’ll cover the concept of burnout and the importance of team care.

  • I’m going to finish with some pointers for how to help you and your team handle the pressure when it counts.

The greatest enemy of resilience is avoidance

Now some of you may have heard the expression, adversity quotient, and just as IQ purports to measure your intelligence and EQ purports to measure your emotional intelligence, the AQ or adversity quotient purports to measure your resilience. Now, AQ hasn’t really taken off in the same way that IQ and EQ you have, but it’s a pretty useful construct. And it’s not an accident that it’s called this – resilience can be measured by how well you can deal with any adversity that’s in your life. Like anything else, everyone is different. As a leader, you need to know your people to know well enough what their tolerance is for adversity on an individual basis. So, how do they respond when things go wrong? The most common responses in the workplace we see are anger, blame, and avoidance or withdrawal. So you’ve got to start with how you respond when things go wrong because your people take their cues from you.

And remember, as the leader, you set the tone, the pace, and the standard fuel team. So the golden rule for a leader is: don’t let your people avoid adversity, rather build it their day. And the best way to do this is through stretching them – and I don’t mean just overloading them with work – I mean stretching them to be better. If you haven’t listened to it already, go back and have a listen to episode 57 of this podcast, which was called “Challenge. Coach. Confront”, because there I talk about why stretching people is such an important thing to do for them and for you. As a leader, you’re entrusted to build team capability, strong team members who can function and have a pipeline of promotable people, so that you reduce key person risk, amongst other reasons. But part of team culture is team resilience. It has to be able to function effectively in an adverse set of circumstances or even in a crisis.

Now, talking of crisis, we just need to be a little bit careful. I sometimes say that teams and organisations that are really good in a crisis are actually poorly managed. Now, why would I say that? Well, sometimes a team or organisation can turn itself into a troubleshooting culture. People get really used to constantly reacting. They wait for something to go wrong, and then it’s all hands to the pump. Everyone pitches in and works together until the problem solved. Kudos comes for all the hard work and effort taken to overcome the crisis. Management even holds events to celebrate, right? Because could lead to celebrate success. And then everyone goes back to sleep, until the next crisis, that is. In really well managed teams and organisations, crises are actually quite rare. Why is that? Well, planning is good. It’s comprehensive, it’s well done. Risk management is robust. The right resources are allocated to produce the most valuable outcomes. They anticipate, develop foresight and work to improve the processes, people in culture that they have. They’re never too comfortable with crises because crises in their world are so rare.

why it’s not just about whether we get through a stressful situation, but how we get through it

If you want to build resilience into your team, it’s how you overcome adversity that really counts. You can panic, fret, avoid, withdraw, hope it goes away or blame others. Many leaders even put bandaids over serious, serious issues. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to know how many leaders do this, even if it’s only subtle. Now, quite often they’ll learn to control the outside perception – many do, but you’ll see the tell-tale panic in their decisions, their language and their stress levels. You can do this, or you can learn how to calmly and rationally take any issue head on. Show your people that you have control to the greatest extent humanly possible. Be rational, make good decisions, and carve a path forward. Have a clear expectation for your people to step up and put a safety net underneath them when they do. This sends the message that we are very much in control even though we can never control every aspect of our environment, of course, but it has a natural calming effect on the people around you, not just in your team, but above and beside as well.

So don’t panic. Work your way through stressful situations very methodically. What do we do in our team? Well, we gather information. We seek expert advice. We don’t rush to action or judgement . We sit comfortably in the problem until we’re confident we can chart a prudent course beyond it. This is not the same as avoiding the issue by not making a decision, but be careful. Your expert, human powers of rationalisation would tell you sometimes that you’re simply being prudent when really you’re being avoidant. If you talk to anyone who’s worked for me over the years, they’ll probably tell you that my natural style is to be extremely calm, rational, and clear-headed and took me quite a few years to master this, but the downside of being very decisive when implementing solutions in this context, is that can be seen as impulsive. So, to compensate for this this in my own style, I had to also learn to retain my natural bias for action because that’s the most valuable attribute I have, but to temperate with a mental checklist of process, team and stakeholder tasks that I had to cover off on before I could move forward.

Apart from the calmness under pressure, I often talk about the positive value of stress. Stress is very misunderstood. It is an extraordinarily positive element of performance. In fact, the most credible research on stress shows that performance improves markedly with increasing stress up to a certain point – and once you go past this point, performance decreases as stress increases. Sometimes, if the stresses enough, performance falls off the edge of a cliff. But ideally you want your people to live at the intersection between anxiety, and boredom. Stress is an incredible builder of self esteem. So unless you test and challenge yourself in adversity, you never get that deep personal satisfaction that comes with achievement. If you don’t believe this is a leader, you’ll struggle to stretch your people sufficiently to show them how this works. They will miss the opportunity to improve their confidence and self esteem. And as a leader, if you protect your people from stress, they simply don’t improve.

Why does burnout happen and how do we guard against it as leaders?

Well, burnout is not desirable to state the bleeding obvious. Burnout happens when someone has put under intense pressure continually for long periods, without the opportunity to recuperate or regenerate. And it’s your job as a leader to manage this for your team. Let’s start with a non-intuitive solution first. The very first thing you should do is stop loading them up with work. What can they stop doing without eroding value? So I say it’s counterintuitive. When we’re told to get more with less and to get more out of our teams, we typically throw more work on which completely de-optimises what they’re doing and leads them down a path where they can’t deliver the really, really important things because they’re so distracted. Less is more, and the drive for simplicity and focus in the work programme can keep the low value work to an absolute minimum so that your people can focus on delivering the high value work.

In my experience, burnout doesn’t happen when interesting, exciting and high impact work is being undertaken. It’s when mind numbing, low-value work is piled on – that’s when it happens. Now, the best way to combat this is to not let the low value grind even get on the work programme, but this requires discipline and most likely a change to the existing culture of your organisation, particularly as it goes through its annual planning cycle. As a leader, you should aim to know your people well enough on an individual basis to read the signs of pending burnout. Now, you’ll have some people who are incredibly fragile and lack any sort of resilience, but you probably need to know that as well. I can’t think about individual resilience without recounting a story from several years ago, a woman working one of the divisions a few levels down from me made a mistake.

It wasn’t a particularly big mistake. It was more like an oversight, but it became a bit of a cross business unit issue that erupted as people looked for a scapegoat. Now, this woman was so completely incapable of handling the stress of potentially being found responsible for making mistake that she felt a pieces, figuratively speaking. Her boss who was a rather weak and permissive leader, told her to take as much time off as she needed to cope, which resulted in her taking two or three days of sick leave. I couldn’t for the life of me work out how someone could hold down a relatively responsible job, without a base level of resilience that enabled her to deal with a minor issue that had almost no longterm bearing on her or her division. And although it would be really easy to just chalk this up to a complete lack of resilience, you’ve got to be careful because for me, this could have been a warning sign of a deeper issue.

That individual had something going on that had pushed her to burn out and I’ve got to tell you it wasn’t work. Be careful. Some people though will simply play the system if they feel as though you’re going to change their world too much. For example, many of you will have found yourself in the circumstances where simply through trying to set a reasonable standard and expecting people to do their jobs, like the ones that paid to do, then all of a sudden they start acting up. They go off on extended periods of “stress leave” as they call it, for which of course they have no problem finding a sympathetic doctor to authenticate that in writing. Or worse still, they bring claims of bullying and harassment against you for simply trying to have them exhibit what would be considered the minimum level of socially acceptable behaviour for any reasonable person. The moral of the story is a great leader will help her team at an individual level to build their resilience. They’ll also keep an eye out for the signs of being pushed too hard to the edge of stress or burnout. Now, if you’re not doing this as a leader, you’re going to be forever mopping up the backwash of otherwise simple and benign events, so it really pays off to keep your finger on the pulse of the team and how they’re feeling and how far they’re stretched.

six ways to build resilience in your team

I want to look at some ways that leaders can stretch their people and help them build resilience that will increase their adversity quotient better, preparing them for the ups and downs of the organisation as well as life. Now I have six of these.

Number one, don’t waste your energy on shit that doesn’t matter. Stop asking people to work on mundane non-value adding tasks. Be brave enough to push back on the leaders above you when you see this happening. Don’t be an irrational Nike boss who piles the work on without any real thought while giving the message, “Just do it.” This will help avoid burnout because the energy that people do have for the role can be put into the right things. So it might be worth going back and having listened to episode 73 about busy work.

Number two, cultivate optimistic pragmatism in your people. Be a little bit careful here – I said optimistic pragmatism, not optimism. Living in the Pollyanna world of pure optimism can cause many unintended consequences. So for example, being over-optimistic in estimating time, money, and resources for project, or ignoring risks because you don’t think that they could ever happen. Optimistic pragmatism means you adopt a posture that says, “Whatever we do and wherever we’re going, I’m controlling this to the greatest extent possible. I’m realistic, calm and analytical. I’ll make decisions without fear or favour, I pressure test and seek to authenticate anything that comes across my desk dressed up as conventional wisdom. I use data to underpin my decision making, which is guided by many other factors, of course. But under all of this, I believe the team is capable, that it is on purpose, and that it will prevail over any external shock.”

Number three, ask your team to step up in a safe way, of course. Empower them, and hold them accountable. Remember, self esteem comes from achieving difficult things. Give your people a chance to show you what they’re capable of and, what they’re not capable of. Until you do this, however, you don’t really know how good your team can be. Nothing great was ever achieved from the complacency of the couch with the third beer in hand while bingeing on Netflix, although I’m sure we’ve probably all done that. Stretch your people, and then watch their resilience and confidence build over time.

Number four, stop over-functioning for your people. There are loads of good reasons to do this, not least of which is putting the onus on people to do their own jobs and solve their own problems – of course, in a safe environment. This will bring forth some of their creativity and innovation. But remember as Jeffrey J. Fox says, “You don’t buy a dog and then bark yourself”. Let people do their own work.

Number five, look forward, always forward. A nanosecond after something occurs, your ability to change that is zero. So, of course understand the root causes of any impactful event, but put your energy into how you move forward. Focus your team on what lays ahead and don’t catastrophize about what’s happened that you can’t change anyway.

Finally, number six, practise leaning into adversity. If your very first crack at handling a crisis is the Boeing 737 Max 8 disaster, you will probably struggle to handle it. That’s why you don’t go to the gym on your first day and try to bench press 200 pounds. That would be just silly, right? And you’re almost certain to hurt yourself. It’s unproductive – possibly worst, it teaches you and your people that the team is incapable rather than capable. So, baby steps for your people – like anything else, give them time, but not too much – to show that they’re willing to grow their resilience.

Now, if you can manage to do these things, you’ll find you wake up one day, probably not tomorrow, with a team that can handle the pressure and who relish performing at their best, when other teams around them prefer to fold, blame others, and avoid the issues that they should be most trying to tackle head on.


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