How to coach a team to be resilient

17th September by Neil Atkinson

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How to coach a team to be resilient

"Coaches should ensure resilience and wellbeing is on the team’s agenda – and have the tools to help them take back control", says AoEC Head of Team Coaching Neil Atkinson.

Whether you’re used to coaching teams or individuals, most of us are all too familiar with seeing clients who feel burnt out, stressed and who are struggling to cope with the pressures of work.

And it’s no wonder, as resources are increasingly stretched, deadlines shrinking, expectations constantly shifting and the challenges of operating a highly changeable and unpredictable global economy have never been more complex.

Coaching an entire team can provide a unique opportunity for them to look at these issues and find ways of developing their resilience. A team has more power to implement changes collectively than a single individual and discussing your wellbeing and resilience with colleagues can in itself help create a more supportive team culture.

Yet many coaches shy away from this topic, believing its exclusively in the domain of doctors and therapists. In my work, clients rarely neatly separate the professional from the personal in what they bring to coaching and I believe my job is to coach the whole person - which can involve contracting to include health and wellbeing (see article on supporting clients with mental and physical health challenges).

Through the Systemic lens

A team’s wellbeing and resilience is may well come up when working with a team coach who takes a ‘systemic’ approach. When a team pays attention to the systems they’re in, there’s an opportunity to examine how those systems impact their ability to think, feel and behave as effectively as they could.

When considering systems inside the organisation which affect their resilience, many will quickly cite relationships with important stakeholders, the challenge of ‘always on’ technology like smartphones, meetings overload or the perceived pressure to work long hours.

But it’s just as important that they factor in the systems outside the workplace – their families, relationships, social or financial systems and anything else which exerts a pressure on them.

Those coping with a long-term medical issue, bringing up a young family or caring for an elderly parent are likely to experience demands on their mental and physical resources which impact their work – and their work may also impact their ability to meet their responsibilities outside the office.

The role of the coach

But is this really relevant to a team coaching programme if your brief is to help them become ‘high-performing’?

In my view, coaching is about supporting people to increase their awareness of the situations they’re in and how they are responding, and fully realise their agency in making positive change. So, if that agency is being compromised, examining whatever’s causing it is important. Although of course you need to contract with the client for this, and it’s up to them if they choose to focus on this area.

Either way, for the team to address challenges coming from outside their immediate team, they’d be well advised to first check they are as resourceful as they need to be to tackle them.  

The team health-check

One route into this topic when coaching a team is through a ‘team health check’. This can start with a discussion about the lenses though which we can consider wellbeing such as:

  • Emotional Health – what feelings you experience at work and how they affect you personally and your work performance
  • Mental Health – what impacts your mind’s ability to function at its best, such as to focus on one task, be analytical, think creatively, remember important information and self-regulate
  • Physical Health – are the demands of work comprising your physical health, do you have a health condition which is creating challenges for you at work? And what about quality of sleep, nutrition and exercise, which all impact how we function at work?

As a team coach, you can introduce these categories and facilitate discussion about how team members rate their wellbeing in each area, what they experience and how it affects them. This alone can be powerful, enabling the team to share personal information and stories, which can generate greater trust and ‘psychological safety’ – which is indicated in some research as a key factor in team effectiveness.

Creating a Resilience Manifesto

The team can then consider what specifically is negatively impacting their resilience and categorise these into those which are outside their control, those which they can influence and those which they can directly do something about.

You can invite them to brainstorm ideas for new ways of working to take back control. For example, they might choose to have a conversation about a better way of working with a challenging team or individual. They could agree to a more efficient way of having meetings – or shorter meetings. They can discuss how to address a culture of presenteeism. Or if email overload is an issue, agree to not use email for urgent communications and phone instead – freeing them from the pressure of checking their smartphone through the evening and weekend (see Taking Back Control below).

The actions they agree can be captured in a team Resilience Manifesto which they can develop further with the extended team to keep the resilience agenda alive.

Small steps to big changes

Team leaders have a role to play in promoting resilience but don’t need to create a big complex project to make a positive change.

After discovering the benefits mindfulness and mediation for himself, Peep Aaviksoo, CEO and head coach at EBS Executive Education and AoEC Estonia decided to experiment with a period of one-minute's silence at the start of his team meetings. 

“Usually we are all switching rapidly from one task to the other without finishing what we’re doing or mentally letting go,” he explains. “I decided to try a minute’s silence at the start of our team meetings to see whether it would make a difference. And it does – our meetings are much better now, we all listen more, there’s less talking for the sake of it and we come up with better solutions in less time. Rather than taking up more time, we actually finish meetings 15 minutes earlier - and no-one’s late to the meetings anymore. That’s a great ROI for a minute's silence.”

Respecting what stays below the surface

As we move more into this space in our team coaching, it’s important that we remain mindful of boundaries – not just ours, but also those of our clients. Acknowledging that team members need to make the right choices for them about what they disclose is helpful, as they might have conditions they don’t want to share with their peers.

A colleague of mine was once coaching a team where one individual with a mental health condition had disclosed it to his manager but not the rest of the team. The manager was supporting him by allowing time off work while he was getting medical treatment and excusing some inconsistency with the team’s usual work standards. But as the rest of the team was unaware, they felt the manager was being ineffective and not dealing with what they perceived as the poor performance of a team member who was letting them all down.

A situation like this might well need to stay unspoken to protect the individual’s confidentiality. As coaches we need to go into these situations with our eyes and ears open, assuming that there will indeed by issues which people are choosing to keep below the surface. But that shouldn’t prevent us from supporting the team in taking whatever positive steps they can to ensure their health and resilience is as protected and enhanced as possible.

Taking back control 

Teams can agree to change the way they work to enhance their resilience through actions such as:

Create a team policy on how to improve their communication and not always use email as a default
Speak with a stakeholder about working together more effectively
Make resilience and wellbeing part of the team’s regular meeting agenda
Commit to shorter and more efficient meeting – clear agendas, agreeing actions, only the necessary people in the room
More virtual meetings or home working
Taking regular breaks
Introducing a team mindfulness practice
Coaching and supporting each other
Take up a team diet or fitness challenge
Commit to go outside more – eg a short walk at lunchtime
Be more flexible about hours in the office – particularly avoiding times at the start of end of the day when people might have childcare issues or want to leave work to attend a class or exercise.


AoEC offers accredited team coaching training through the Systemic Team Coaching Certificate and Diploma.