Creating an emotionally healthy and resilient team

10th December 2020

“I could not have done it without my team” is a phrase I have often heard from winners of awards for extraordinary achievement in business. Today I think many people would say that they would have not survived this year sane had it not been for their supportive teams.

Yet I am often struck by how toxic the culture is in many companies. So in this fourth in a series of columns on the emotional health of entrepreneurs I suggest that a key contributor to the emotional health of everyone in the team is creating a style of interacting that affirms people’s capacity to cope, rather than their weaknesses.

In toxic companies healthy competition becomes vicious rivalry. The style of communication is blaming and demeaning. There is no trust. The positive gift of growth-oriented feedback becomes damaging criticism focused mostly on what people do wrong. I have seen this come close to destroying people’s dignity and confidence. Instead of visions of hope for the future, leaders threaten staff with all the things that might go wrong.

Great leaders don’t only communicate effectively with their followers; they also create a culture in which colleagues learn to treat each other with respect. Such leaders bolster the coping capacity of their people by modelling and teaching people how to relate in constructive ways. You can’t require your team to like each other, but you can and should require them to treat each other with dignity and respect.

The psychologist Carl Rogers showed that a conversation can be health-inducing if it is characterised by understanding, genuine openness and what he called “unconditional positive regard”. By this he meant that whether or not we agree with a person, whether or not we even particularly like them, we can still respect the humanity in them. They do not need to meet any conditions to earn our respect. We may have to argue with them, point out failures in performance, or even discipline them, but we still respect them as human beings.

If respect, understanding and genuineness are three usual attitudes in your company, I would like to predict that your staff will be able to survive almost any interpersonal pressures, and be resilient through any emergency. They will carry each other.

How is this achieved? Leaders can model it, require it, coach their managers in it, and respond positively whenever they see it happening. They can call out instances when people are disrespectful of anyone, or when they have not bothered to understand the recipient of their communication, or when they are being dishonest or duplicitous.

Much of the damage is done at the nonverbal level. All communication happens at the two levels of content and relationship. Content is conveyed in words and their literal meaning, while the relationship message is nonverbal, continuous and powerful. It constitutes a continual negotiation in the relationship, generally covering three matters: Power (who is in charge), Inclusion (who is “us” and who is “them” – particularly impactful in terms of race and gender diversity), and Affiliation (do we like each other?). Most often we are not aware of this nonverbal negotiation, but it is very powerful and often derails the content message. We think we are talking about something quite ordinary and are puzzled why we cannot find agreement, when underneath the surface a furious war is raging about power, status and identity. Until those matters are resolved, the chances of reaching a satisfactory conclusion in the content are low. And good people become victims of relationship toxicity.

As we let go the trauma of 2020, I hope respect, understanding and genuineness will sustain many companies and their people through a healthy 2021.

Jonathan Cook is a counselling psychologist and chairman of the African Management Institute. He  is also the host of AMI’s weekly Rise reflection series focused on supporting you in your business and your personal wellness.

This article was originally published on BusinessLive on 1 December, 2020 and is republished with permission.


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