Foster psychological safety
One of the most important emphases of our review is how teams should discuss failure so that it leads to improvement. A crucial component of this is a sense of psychological safety for all team members, which is feeling that it is safe to speak up in your team and voice your concerns, even regarding mistakes that you or another team member might have made. In fact, psychological safety is one of the strongest predictors of team success.6
This is particularly important in high-stress, rapidly-moving situations, such as the pandemic, where team leaders must rely upon team members to speak up and ask questions. In teams where there is a leader who is not receptive to feedback, people are afraid to speak up about things that have gone wrong. We recommend across the board for leaders and team members to be open and honest about where you can improve, do not try to act like you know it all, and recognize that everyone is learning how to do things along the way.
Also, it is important to thank team members for speaking up, even when they are expressing dissenting views or admitting mistakes, and certainly not chastising or punishing them for their mistakes.
Psychological safety is important not only during the heat of the crisis but afterwards, when the team needs to be able to discuss honestly what happened during the crisis and establish the “new normal” going forward.
Help team members identify and address concerns within their own lives
Team members are not functioning in a vacuum. They have a “home team,” so to say, in other words, their own family and friends. Thinking about family and friends can become a source of stress and distraction when team members are in their professional setting. Especially during the pandemic, concerns about potential contagion to family members or concerns about financial, childcare or health care at home can compromise high-level vigilance.7
Identifying and acknowledging these external stressors and perhaps offering financial, informational, practical, or emotional assistance can be helpful. Although the pressures are higher and resources lower than they are in ordinary times, senior leaders and crisis management teams should try to find ways, even small ones, to offer support and practical assistance, if possible.
This applies not only to team managers, of course, but to team members as well, who can look out for each other. Part of this role includes being a good listener and also not offering glib or empty reassurances. I think that most team members have indeed shown good listening and empathy for each individuals’ struggles outside of the workplace and it is important to encourage that.
Consciously boost team resiliency
The term “team resilience” refers to the capacity of a team as a whole to withstand and recover from adverse situations and is somewhat different from individual resilience.8 Individuals who personally withstand pressure may not necessarily monitor or support other team members who are under stress.
Increasing team resilience involves anticipating and planning for stressful situations, providing mutual support, helping team members to move smoothly between “normal” and “emergency” modes, and between surges and more quiet times. It also involves identifying strategies that are not working or need improvement, and apologizing for hurtful behavior that might have taken place during a time of stress and crisis.
Effective teamwork is one of the most important ways for us to continue navigating the unprecedented set of challenges posed by COVID-19. It is our hope that our review will provide some guidance about how to do this, and that these approaches will be helpful not only during the immediate crisis of the pandemic but also during the aftermath and going forward.
Tannenbaum SI, Traylor AM, Thomas EJ, Salas E. Managing teamwork in the face of pandemic: evidence-based tips [published online ahead of print, 2020 May 29]. BMJ Qual Saf. 2020. doi: 10.1136bmjqs-2020-011447.
Barnett ML, Mehrotra A, Landon BE. COVID-19 and the upcoming financial crisis in health care. NEJM Catalyst. April 29, 2020. Available: https://catalyst.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/CAT.20.0153. Accessed: June 24, 2020.
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Tannenbaum S, Salas E. Teams that Work: The Seven Drivers of Team Effectiveness. New York, NY: Oxford University Press In press, 2021.
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This article originally appeared on MPR