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Tough Times Can Make Tough People, but What About Companies?

Why resilient individuals don't always lead to resilient teams or organizations.

Key points

  • Resilient individuals often emerge from organizations with low levels of resilience, since adversity can also build resilience.
  • Resilient teams aren't the sum of their parts, but rather an effect of high levels of familiarity, trust, agility, and purpose.
  • The ability to respond to market fluctuations isn't necessarily what makes organizations resilient.
  • Resilient organizations share several other characteristics, including transparency, speed, clarity, and a supportive culture.

A hot topic during the pandemic, there is now a large body of resources and literature on resilience. However, most discussions on resilience focus on individuals. While building individual resilience is essential, resilient individuals don’t necessarily guarantee a resilient team or organization. How can we do it better?

What is Resilience?

The word is derived from the Latin resiliere, resilience means to “bounce back.” According to the APA, resilience is “the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.”

Among the many tools used to measure resilience is the Connor Davidson Resilience Scale, a 10- to 25-item scale that measures, among other things, the ability to adapt to change, cope with stress, stay focused, not get discouraged, and manage unpleasant feelings, such as anger, pain, and sadness. On the ground, however, the relationship between individual, team, and organizational resilience is often more complex.

How Unresilient Teams and Organizations Breed Resilient Individuals

I was recently facilitating a team conversation with a group of leaders from a global company that has been undergoing a massive restructuring process. The focus of our conversation that day was resilience. Early on in the conversation, it became clear that everyone agreed on three things. First, they all felt they were exceptionally resilient leaders. Second, they agreed that their organization’s ongoing change had forced them to cultivate a higher-than-average level of resilience. And finally, they all expressed concern that the rest of their teams were not as resilient as they were.

The conversation was eye-opening. It underscored the fact that while resilience is sometimes cultivated and sometimes innate, it is also frequently a side-effect of being thrust into continually challenging circumstances. This highlights a common but often under-recognized paradox: While adversity can help build resilient leaders (though it’s not the only or best way to do this work), adversity doesn’t necessarily build resilient teams or organizations.

How to Build Resilient Teams

Resilient teams are teams that stick together even when the going gets tough. They are also more than the sum of their parts (Hendrikx et al., 2022).

Building a resilient team rests on cultivating the skills needed to adapt, stay focused, and hopeful, whatever happens. Among other key skills resilient teams possess:

  • Familiarity: Team members that know each other are more likely to stick together when faced with challenges (Nitschke et al., 2020). Given this, it is no surprise that turnover on many teams spiked with remote and hybrid work, as members are simply less likely to share the depth of familiarity required to thrive when challenges arise.
  • Trust: Trust is also closely linked to building resilient teams (Sharma and Sharma, 2016). This partly reflects the fact that high trust is associated with lower uncertainty, and lower uncertainty tends to increase the resilience of teams.
  • Agility: Like individuals, teams require a high level of agility to cultivate resilience. However, in the case of teams, agility is often fostered by somewhat different factors, including, but not limited to trust, transparency, and communication (e.g., a shared language to openly discuss and tackle challenges as they arise on the team).
  • Purpose: On a team level, it is also essential that team members feel a strong sense of purpose, that their work matters and is part of a larger and meaningful mission.

How to Build Resilient Organizations

On an organizational level, resilience starts at the top. Despite common assumptions, however, this doesn't necessarily just mean building an organization that is able to weather market volatility. In fact, organizations with solid financials are often just better equipped to mask underlying dysfunctions (i.e., create the illusion of stability or resilience).

This is precisely the conclusion of an April 2020 study by McKinsey & Company on “agile resilience.” This U.K.-based study found that financial stability wasn't necessarily among the top factors of resilient organizations. Instead, Mckinsey’s researchers identified five separate factors:

  1. Common purpose and clear communications
  2. Structures that permit rapid decision-making
  3. Networks of local teams with clear and accountable roles
  4. A culture that empowers people
  5. Access to the technologies required to do one’s job.

While the McKinsey study was focused on a unique moment in time (the start of the pandemic), it emphasizes that there are strong indications that organizations have much to gain from permanently adopting these five common practices.

The key takeaways here are clear. Rigid and inflexible organizations (i.e., organizations that aren’t resilient) often have a higher number of resilient individuals, since ongoing adversity is one factor that seems to foster resilience.

Resilient leaders don’t always lead resilient teams since resilient teams are more than the sum of their parts.

And finally, resilient organizations, despite popular perceptions, aren’t necessarily organizations that can weather market fluctuations, but rather organizations with the transparency, speed, clarity, culture, and infrastructure needed to adjust to change.


Connor, K. M., & Davidson, J. R. (2003). Development of a new resilience scale: the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (CD-RISC). Depression and anxiety, 18(2), 76–82.

Hendrikx, I., Vermeulen, S., Wientjens, V., & Mannak, R. S. (2022). Is Team Resilience More Than the Sum of Its Parts? A Quantitative Study on Emergency Healthcare Teams during the COVID-19 Pandemic. International journal of environmental research and public health, 19(12), 6968.

Nitschke, J. P., Forbes, P., Ali, N., Cutler, J., Apps, M., Lockwood, P. L., & Lamm, C. (2021). Resilience during uncertainty? Greater social connectedness during COVID-19 lockdown is associated with reduced distress and fatigue. British journal of health psychology, 26(2), 553–569.

Sharma, S., & Sharma, S. K. (2016). Team Resilience: Scale Development and Validation. Vision, 20(1), 37–53.

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