Some years back, I managed sales and administration teams. Some teams consistently exceeded targets whilst others consistently under performed. The under-performing teams inevitably blamed market conditions and other environmental factors for their lack-luster performance.

Yet some of the top performing teams faced even worse obstacles and still managed to excel.

So what could explain the difference?

I eventually concluded that the difference in team performance arose as a result of how the teams reacted to their difficulties.

Top performing teams viewed their difficulties as challenges that could be overcome. They believed their work was meaningful. They assisted and helped each other. Their leaders were visible and involved with their teams. As a result, the top performing teams coped much better with unrelenting pressure, change and uncertainty.

Put simply, the difference was in the teams’ resilience.

There are five actions that will help you as a leader build and sustain the resilience of your teams so that they also endure well during difficult times:

1. Build your own resilience
Your team members intuitively pick up subtle cues of how you cope. They sense your optimism or pessimism and what you really feel about the organisational difficulties they experience. The more powerful the team experience you as a leader, the more they will tend to unconsciously adopt your resilience.

What to do: work through issues you are facing, coming to terms with what you can change and what you cannot change. Choose how you would like to react and how you would like to be seen as a leader in the long-term.

Monitor your own levels of stress. Ensure you have create balance with non-work activities, such as spending time with loved ones, other interests and exercise, and also eat and sleep well.

2. Find meaning for the team
When experiencing prolonged difficulties, your team needs to feel that what they are doing is important, that they can “make a difference”. Significant meaning comes from outside of the individuals themselves, which could be as simple as providing a faultless service to someone else. Meaning creates pride, enthusiasm and commitment.

What to do: identify an overarching or higher purpose of your team’s work, preferably with the team themselves.

The power of meaning and purpose was demonstrated when the leader and her team of financial administrators were retrenched and given three months to finalise the cases they were handling. Despite their very negative feelings, the team leader and her team identified that their legacy would be that they ensured that the beneficiaries were not prejudiced by their departure. On their final day of work, they held a party for themselves to celebrate their achievement.

3. Get involved with the team members
The team leader’s visible presence and involvement during difficult times boots team morale.

What to do: talk to your team about your experience of stress and how you deal with it. Ask them about theirs and how they cope. Listen to what your team members say and also what they don’t say. When there is lots of change, it may be necessary to keep clarifying their roles and the progress the team is making to create certainty. In other words, encourage your team more than you think you need to.

This worked in a tough factory environment, when the factory manager and his top team were threatened to be removed if they did not reduce the number and duration of stoppages. The factory manager tried yelling, blaming and finger-pointing, but it had little effect. He then changed tactics and worked with the team collectively, and also with the people as individuals, to identify obstacles and how he could support them. The subsequent corrective plans resulted in a significant reduction of stoppages.

4. Encourage action and flexibility
Unrelenting stress often leads to people feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. Creativity and innovation goes out the window as fear and anger result in inflexible thinking with a fixed mind set. The team “catches” the negative emotions the way a team catches ‘flu.

What to do: encourage your team to take responsibility for solving the problems they face. Help them make changes and take decisions. Emphasise that they should always be taking steps forward, even if it’s only one small step at a time. Help the team by brainstorming ideas with them, identifying alternatives and acting as a sounding board.

5. Review and learn
Encourage a learning mind-set. Once a mistake or a breakdown has happened, that event can’t be changed. What we can do however, is to learn from what happened, ensuring that it does not happen again.

What to do: review and treat each unfortunate event that happens as a learning opportunity to ensure that that same thing does not incur again. Also review and learn from your team’s successes, identifying what went right and how that can be repeated and broadened into other areas.

In conclusion, your reputation as an effective leader will be forged by the way you build your team’s resilience during difficult times. These five actions will help you to leave a legacy of which you will be justifiably proud.