Resilience is the key quality in teams battling adversity, says new research

Henley Business School mines the experiences of Atlantic rowers to highlight how high performers deal successfully with stress


Whether working on a complicated project against a tight deadline or battling a fierce mid-Atlantic storm, building resilience is key to enabling teams to deal with stress and overcome adversity, according to new research from Henley Business School. 

The research, launched yesterday, provides insight into how employees can develop personal resilience strategies during challenging times at work and the key components of organisational team resilience based on the experiences of four professionals who took part in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, an annual 3,000-mile row across the ocean.

Dr Caroline Rook, lecturer in leadership at Henley Business School, said her wider research involved creating healthy and productive workplaces by exploring the links between leadership and wellbeing in businesses. In particular, she analysed how to manage executive stress, maintain authentic functioning at work and the role of coaching in creating resilience for positive leadership. 

Rook studied the personal and collective resilience of Heads Together and Row, a mixed gender, four-person crew who rowed the Atlantic ocean from the Canary Islands to Antigua in under 51 days to raise money for a mental health charity. 

She explained that all organisations face constant demands for greater performance and experience adversity in completing challenges, but there was a lack of research into how organisations can effectively build teams to bounce back from business challenges. 

“It’s quite challenging to study team resilience because what needs to happen is some adversity to study how those teams cope and bounce back,” Rook said. “With this team, I was pretty sure they were going to experience some adversity.”

The research defined team resilience as the ability of a group to cope and learn from adversity, as well as how they are able to bounce back from challenges. Resilient teams ‘struggle well’ together, which means working through rather than avoiding difficulties. 

Rook said employers should build a secure “boat” – or organisational culture and vision – and remind their people of it while in an “ocean” of constant change. This can be facilitated by creating psychological safety – the shared belief that the team is able to accommodate interpersonal risk taking – and building on individuals’ strengths through clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

“That is key so people feel they can trust each other, that they can speak openly and feel they are being listened to,” Rook said. “It helps individuals to think through particular issues or problems, become aware of stuff that others hadn’t thought about and create a team bond which is important to function during adversity.” 

The research also highlighted the role of managers in granting teams time to recover and learn from challenges at work to increase their capacity for resilience. 

Jeremy Reynolds, part of the Heads Together and Row team and resilience manager for London Fire Brigade, said the research also emphasised how successful individual coping mechanisms help teams to become more resilient. For him, the most effective mechanism was focusing on the goal of a team or business to be able to push through challenges. 

“I think is such an important aspect certainly for me because I was the least motivated coming into [the challenge],” Reynolds said. “It wasn’t a dream of mine or life goal, but it certainly helped me so I could answer the question of ‘why’ when everything else was telling me to stop.” 

And Justin Coleman, a stand-up comedian who was also part of the team, said getting into a routine to gain a sense of control and achievement was vital to ensure individuals and the team did not feel overwhelmed. 

“I think you have to focus on what you can control, which is your boat and the area immediately surrounding you,” Coleman said. “The rest of it can disappear because it’s not relevant to your current situation, and you can only work on what you can control.”

Image: Talisker Whisky Atlantic