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January 20, 2022
Resilient Teams Help Nonprofits Meet the Challenge of Change
By Bob Greene

Bob Greene
Bob Greene
Rapid change and the still-weak economy are putting enormous pressure on nonprofit organizations, providing a unique opportunity for innovation best handled by resilient teams.

Ongoing uncertainty and stress are creating a “new normal”—what leadership writer Peter Vaill calls “permanent whitewater”—that also generates corresponding fears and concerns.

Resilient teams help nonprofits respond to this change because these teams are productive and creative and give diverse voices an opportunity to offer ideas and perspectives. Resilient teams are strong, because they have solidarity and spirit that can support colleagues during challenging times. Alternatively, weak teams may experience poor communication (including rumor-mongering), tension, and unproductive conflict—exactly what nonprofit organizations don’t need.

Regardless of the circumstances, building great teams is more difficult than often appreciated. Simply bringing a group of people together and calling them a “team” isn’t enough. Fostering a real and resilient team requires intention and significant effort.

What Fosters Resilience?
Resilience is crucial because research into adopting innovations suggests that only a small percentage of people readily embrace change. Commonly, people fear potential consequences of change: loss of control and security, reduced respect, and lowered confidence. These understandable fears will impact engagement and performance.

So what fosters resilience? In her study of entrepreneurial teams, Ruth Blatt suggests that there are two key elements: (1) making expectations explicit and activities transparent, which facilitate resilience through promoting role clarity and accountability, and (2) caring for team members’ needs, which fosters resilience through encouraging trust and creativity.

Based on my consulting experience, here are some tips and suggestions:

Clear Expectations and Transparency
Open up communication and make the stress everyone is feeling part of the team’s ongoing conversations. Hiding and denying it won’t make it go away #147; rather this will increase the tension. Without open and honest communication, you don’t have a team. Share the facts. It’s essential to minimize rumors, false assumptions and other symptoms of poor communication. Leaders and team members often unintentionally provoke fear and water-cooler gossip by not talking openly about difficult topics.

Focus the team's energies on what's most important. Note that this may not simply be the tried and true #147; a time when there are no easy answers may call for new ideas and experimentation. Just don't try and do it all; one of the most challenging but necessary tasks for nonprofit professionals is to establish priorities. Teams should identify their top priorities for the near-to-medium term (using the organization’s strategic plan, if one is in place, as the starting point for discussion).

Identify the data that everyone should track. As part of the focusing discussions, consider what indicators―of the community, program outcomes, and internal operations―everyone should be up on. Ensure that all team members know the score as the game progresses. Use the data to consider course adjustments, when necessary.

Caring, Trust, and Creativity
Come together regularly. It may be tempting to focus just on completing tasks, but during challenging times its necessary to connect as a full staff and in teams. Have regular staff and team meetings, and use them for sharing crucial information and having meaningful discussion―rather than just presenting reports. Not coming together as a team is like driving a car without conducting regular maintenance. It may seem easier in the short-run, but it leads to break-downs.

Encourage ongoing reflection, discussion, and creativity. No one has all the answers, so reflecting on people's diverse experiences is vital. Rather than work in isolated silos, create opportunities for people to share what they are observing, brainstorm ideas, and collaborate in new ways. This will help build buy-in and renew energy.

Create team habits that can become touchstones people can depend on. For example, at the beginning of each team meeting, before any other agenda item, go around the table so each team member can check-in and share something on her mind or in her heart. Doing so creates more readiness for work while increasing understanding and awareness among all team members.

The stress of change during these uncertain times can make it hard to focus on building teams, yet this is just what nonprofits need now: creativity, collaboration, and commitment. See fostering healthy teams as part of the work, not a distraction. Resilient teams that respond effectively to stress and avoid the pitfalls of isolation and conflict will be the most productive long-term.

Bob Greene helps foster collaboration, creativity, and effectiveness through team and leadership development. Contact Bob Greene Coaching & Consulting at 781-480-4480 or
June 2013
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