How building stronger team dynamics boosts organizational resilience

A leadership coach explains why having tough conversations will get your organization through the pandemic and beyond

Why It Matters

During the coronavirus pandemic, many social change organizations are grappling with how to adapt to the new normal. For some, investing in leadership training has been key in fostering the resilience needed to thrive during these unprecedented times. This is our first story in a series with Innoweave.

Amid a global pandemic and a summer of racial reckoning that have led to major shifts in everyday life, some social impact organizations are prioritizing leadership training in an effort to catalyze resilience. 

“It’s not about the [organizational transformation] work, it’s about the people doing the work,” says Saralyn Hodgkin, a leadership coach and consultant who works with social impact organizations. “You can have the best financial plan, cash flow statements, and strategic plan, but if you don’t have an aligned, integrated high-performing team that is in relationship with one another, the work doesn’t get done.”

According to leadership expert Cy Wakeman, employees across a range of sectors spend over two hours per day per person on “drama” such as complaints and arguments with colleagues – a luxury many organizations simply don’t have time for during a global crisis. Hodgkin, who coaches organizations through the Innoweave program, supports teams in refocusing their energy on cultivating productive relationships and leaning into uncomfortable conversations on dysfunctional and toxic relationships. Hodgkin says the inaugural coaching engagements, which ran from March until September, equipped teams with practices and tools to work together during stressful times such as the pandemic.

Influenced by the work of researchers such as Wakeman, Lencioni and Brené Brown, Hodgkin’s coaching involves work around vulnerability, courage, empathy, trust, and belonging, which works to strengthen teams and ultimately boost organizational resilience. 

In addition, when managers demonstrate traits such as vulnerability and the ability to trust others, this has a ripple effect on their reports and positively impacts the rest of the organization. According to a recent study by the ADP Research Institute on workplace resilience, having trust in a team leader and senior leadership is linked with higher levels of resilience. “We know that increased vulnerability is a key aspect to trust, and people need space to try things and share ideas without fear of reprisal or blame for failure,” the study states. When individuals trust their senior leadership, they feel agency to take risks at work, which is foundational to organizational resilience. 

For an organization to be resilient, it needs people who can be resilient,” Hodgkin says. At an organizational level, she says resilience means having an aligned team that can focus on making an impact. Being aligned includes increasing trust, acceptance, and appreciation of individuals in teams, and an increased ability to manage frustrations and tension as they arise. 

Michelle Baldwin, executive director of the Pillar Nonprofit Network, whose leadership team was recently coached by Hodgkin, says during the pandemic, they set aside time from working on their operations to focus on doing the deeper work of examining leadership dynamics. The network supports 600 individuals, nonprofits, and social enterprises in Southwestern Ontario.

“At one point we were asking ourselves if we could afford the time to be doing this work. By the end we reflected we could not afford not to be,” Baldwin says. “To be resilient in one of the most uncertain times requires reflection and the intentional building of brave space.”

She says the leadership coaching created space for dialogue within the organization’s team on how they were supporting one another during COVID-19 and what they were learning and unlearning on anti-racism, colonization and anti-oppression at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. Baldwin says vulnerable conversations among her team during their leadership coaching revealed room for improvement when it comes to communication, flexible work schedules, and power dynamics, and that the team discussed how whiteness and white-dominant culture plays a role in their work.

“A just and equitable recovery means we centre new voices,” she says, adding that the Pillar Nonprofit Network is determining how it can support grassroots movements in Southwestern Ontario, including anti-racist activists. According to Baldwin, the team’s coaching experience prompted honest conversations which revealed blind spots and led the network to commit to doing better. In an effort to decolonize the network, the team has been critical of institutions and frameworks, rethinking the role of boards of directors in non-profits and reimagining alternatives. If successfully implemented, these alternatives could shift power dynamics within non-profits and bring greater inclusivity, which would support in rebuilding a more equitable society, post-pandemic. 

New Brunswick social innovation lab NouLab and its parent organization Pond-Deshpande Centre (PDC) were also coached by Hodgkin. “With a small team doing intense work, sometimes these conversations get brushed to the side,” says Lewis Muirhead, a consultant at PDC.

Muirhead says as the lab’s team transitioned to working online during the pandemic, they struggled to maintain relationships, which were more easily fostered through their in-person interactions. In their leadership coaching, Hodgkin turned this into a strength — by having the team participate in an online exercise where they could anonymously share opinions. Muirhead says it helped to “acknowledge the different opinions on the team without having to point fingers at any specific individual. It opened us up to be 100 percent honest without fear” about team dynamics, and how they could strengthen relationships virtually.

While having what Hodgkin refers to as the necessary but “uncomfortable conversations” during  coaching, Shawni Beaulieu, lab manager at PDC, said her team learned how to navigate tension — addressing it immediately, instead of letting resentment build — use it as a learning opportunity, and move on productively.  

Hodgkin says these learnings have reinforced that transforming leadership can lead to resilience, and can catalyze the change needed to stay relevant, deliver services, and use the “organization itself as a vehicle to build back better.”