Education Opinion

How to Build Resilient Teams

By Elena Aguilar — July 30, 2019 5 min read
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How do you bring a group of people together and, within a few days, get them to know and understand each other, recognize that their paths are intertwined, and care deeply for each other? The answer to this question is the answer to how we build resilient teams and to how we create schools where all children thrive.

Last week, I facilitated a three-day Resilience Retreat with 50 educators at the gorgeous 1440 Multiversity. Some came alone, others with members of their organization. As the retreat ended, participants said things like, “I’m sure we’ll be friends for life,” and “I know my small group better than I know colleagues I’ve worked with for a decade.” There were hugs and tears and lots of photos. And there were questions for me: How did you put together our small groups—knowing that we’d hit it off? What did you do to get everyone to show up as their best self? Can I do this at home?

There was no magic and no secret to what I did. There was intentionality and strategy and a generous mindset. Designing and orchestrating community is a skill and knowledge set that I’ve been developing for decades—and it’s something I love to do. What follows are some suggestions you can take to your own schools and organizations.

Assume that people want to belong. Know that every human being aches to connect with others and to be a part of a group. We’re wired this way. Even the curmudgeons want to belong. Holding this mindset was critical for me when I worked in places where it seemed like no one liked each other and everyone wanted to bolt from staff meetings. People want to belong, and they want you to create spaces and structures where this can happen.

Bring people together outside their usual haunts. Even if you can’t take your team or staff to a retreat center, find somewhere local where you can spend a day or afternoon. We’re more likely to behave in our habitual ways (some of which can be unproductive) when we’re in our familiar buildings. If you want to provoke new connection between people, you’ll need to invite them into unfamiliar spaces.

Get round tables. Make people look at each other. Manipulate space so that it’s conducive for community. Make the space as beautiful as you can. Put potted mint on the tables. Bring in natural light and fresh air.

Create structures for connection. At the Retreat, I created “Home Groups” of four, all strangers to each other on the first day. For some activities people mixed with others, but they’d always come back to their Home Group. There was much appreciation for this structure.

A Home Group gets to know each other. Photo by the author.

Communicate and hold expectations. I banned cellphones at the Resilience Retreat. In a video that I sent participants a couple months prior, I communicated why I was doing this—explaining my vision for the retreat. I know that full presence is hard, and cellphones make it even harder; I know that full presence is what will ultimately be the most rewarding. I shared my hopes for the community they’d build and asked for their participation. There was no pushback—and there was even appreciation for the phone ban.

Offer community agreements. I’ve never seen a single team that was highly effective or functioning that didn’t have living community agreements or norms. There’s so much to say on this (here are some resources), but know that community agreements are an essential ingredient for a resilient team or even just a group of strangers convening for three days.

Community agreements for the Resilience Retreat, photo by the author

Organize opportunities for vulnerability. According to researcher Paul Zak, eight minutes of storytelling between two people boosts oxytocin—the bonding hormone. We can prime our minds to collaborate and connect by inviting people into low risk situations where they can learn about each other. On the first evening of the retreat, I asked Home Groups to spend one hour telling each other stories. I provided prompts and a suggestion for light structure and asked them to sit by a fire pit and tell stories. Many groups reported that this was essential in helping them connect.

A “Home Group” telling each other stories at the Resilience Retreat, photo by the author

Remember that your emotions&mash;as a leader or facilitator—are contagious. If you are at ease, inviting, appropriately vulnerable, curious and compassionate, and invested in the experience, others will quickly pick up on that (it’s science—"mirror neurons”) and match you. It’s that easy. And hard. So do what you need to do to know yourself and get into a place and space where you want others to pick up on your emotions.

Give people something meaningful to chew on together. We all feel better when we’re anchored in purpose. Invite participants to reconnect with their own sense of purpose (for teaching, leading, being) and then to connect with the reason that they’re all there together (to educate children, to learn about resilience, to transform a school district, etc.) Consciously or unconsciously, we’re often asking ourselves, Why did I have to come to this? What use is this meeting/retreat/professional-development session? Pre-empt the questioning and make the why so compelling that no one wants the experience to end.

Resilient teams are built one story at a time. They are built when people have a chance to slow down and make eye contact with each other. They are formed when we walk together and talk about a meaningful question. They are created when we are vulnerable with each other and also brave and bold. Resilient teams are built when a leader or facilitator establishes the structures and expectations to hold storytelling and idea-sharing. They are built when the leader or facilitator has a deep belief in the potential of people to put aside their differences and ego and fears and to come together in community. And finally, they are built as we gain confidence that they can be built—every time I see a group of people come together, I become more optimistic and hopeful that we can build resilient communities.

The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.