Five best practices for teams to recover after a crisis

Dr. Navio Kwok | 29 June 2021

Resilient teams engage in markedly different behaviours to minimize challenges before they occur, manage unavoidable situations and mend after stressful events.

Originally featured in The Globe and Mail.

Archilochus, a Greek poet, once said: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.”

By force of circumstance, work teams will inevitably encounter adversity. These situations vary in intensity, ranging from acute, such as sudden increases in workload, to chronic, such as group burnout, or even both – consider COVID-19, an abrupt shock that gradually transitioned to a cumulatively stressful “new normal.” While team adversities are often non-catastrophic, they do weigh heavily on members and can ultimately impede their ability to perform.

Resilient work teams are those that possess the capacity to withstand and bounce back from adversity-induced challenges, pressure or stressors. Research on teams in National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and other high-risk contexts has illuminated that compared with brittle teams, resilient teams engage in markedly different behaviours to minimize challenges before they occur, manage unavoidable situations and mend after stressful events.

While stressors are unique to teams and their specific contexts, the lessons derived can be applied universally. As pandemic restrictions are lifted in Canada, what types of activities should teams engage in to simultaneously recover from an unprecedented disruption to their work and prepare for future stressors that come their way?

The following are five evidence-based best practices for teams to recover following a crisis.

1. Conduct a crisis-oriented debrief

After encountering a crisis or stressful situation, resilient teams engage in after-action reviews (AARs), or debriefs, to identify successes and failures, and promote learning and future performance. Prior research has found that engaging in effective debriefing improves team performance by 20 to 25 per cent. These discussions should focus on team processes, such as the behaviours and actions that individuals engaged in, and specific events and outcomes, rather than general performance. Additionally, it is important to highlight what had functioned well despite limited resources, including any creative or novel approaches to getting work done. Finally, identify any early warning signs that may be indicative of a similar crisis unfolding for the future. The insights drawn from this AAR process should feed into team training and standardized protocols, which are elaborated further below.

2. Organize a separate team-oriented check-in

Hold an intentionally distinct meeting to check in with team members to ensure that everyone is doing well after the crisis and that individuals have the opportunity to wind down if needed. Additionally, it is critical that individuals are appreciated for their work efforts during the stressful event, including key partners who may be external to the immediate team. While such check-ins may feel like “nice-to-haves,” they are instrumental in strengthening team cohesion and a positive working culture, both of which affect team performance.

3. Lead team training

From the AAR process, teams will have identified a specific crisis, including its early warning signs, and specific behaviours for individuals to engage in or avoid. Based on these insights, conduct training for the entire team to flesh out how team members, individually and collectively, work together to minimize threats before they develop and manage challenges as they occur. Such training scenarios can range from thinking-out-loud problem solving to highly realistic simulations. Upon completion, there is an opportunity to conduct AARs and further enhance team learning.

4. Develop standardized protocols and resources

In preparation for a similar crisis in the future, develop a set of protocols and resources that amalgamate key findings based on the AARs and team training. These can include task checklists, playbooks detailing different actions and outcomes (i.e., if-then decision trees) and resource matrices that identify key contacts and their specific expertise in different situations. It is also important to have standard operating procedures (SOPs), which are documents that highlight different action plans based on critical scenarios. For instance, a recent Rogers Communications Inc. internet outage left customers without wireless coverage for 16 hours. A remote or hybrid working environment is only possible with digital connectivity, which highlights the importance of an SOP for when internet outages occur.

5. Foster a psychologically safe culture

For the above recommendations to succeed, teams must foster a psychologically safe culture, which is characterized by respectful team interactions in which members feel comfortable taking risks by asking questions, raising concerns and providing feedback. By encouraging and promoting individuals to voice their concerns, members feel more empowered in their teams and work, and this provides them an opportunity to collectively decipher and understand the crisis they just experienced. While every team member is responsible for contributing to a psychologically safe culture, it must be promoted and encouraged by senior leaders of the team.


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