Jenny Baker
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Team Crafting for the Long Haul: Stop Asking for Adaptability if it’s Resilience You Want

Amanda Rueda and Diana R. Sanchez, San Francisco State University

Adaptability Helped Organizations Survive

Adaptability is a familiar concept with extensive research on the organizational value of assessing and selecting for adaptability as a trait (e.g., Ployhart & Bliese, 2006), training adaptability as an employee behavior (e.g., Kozlowski et al., 2001), and measuring adaptability as a predictor of other job relevant outcomes (e.g., Pulakos et al., 2000). Before the 2020 challenges of working remotely emerged, adaptability was already viewed as a rising concept for organizational success (e.g., Reeves & Deimler, 2011). As global and intrapersonal challenges persisted, such as unknown customer issues and inconsistent regulations, the strategic pivots that organizations had to make morphed into a new normal of frequent shifts and changes. During the transition to remote work, adaptability was critical for many organizations to maintain their businesses, services, and production (e.g., Rosenbush, 2020). However, the use of adaptability has almost become a panacea, as organizations try to build on their existing culture and values while creating new opportunities to motivate, support, and influence employee performance.

When thrust into the sudden needs of the pandemic, organizations entered into a bend or break era. Ultimately, the organizations that survived were generally able to continue some variation of services that shifted their work in a way that complied with growing awareness and enforcement of safety regulations. Some services became contactless, others established virtual meetings as a norm, and some instituted and monitored strict safety procedures and policies for in-person interactions (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2021). Adaptability was critical at this stage for organizations to survive and change the way that they strategized and delivered their work. However, as the impact of the pandemic has persisted and organizational changes have continued to move forward and evolve, adaptability no longer encompasses the core components of the conversations organizations are wanting and needing to have.

The Cost of Prolonged Adaptability

Employees demonstrate adaptability when they are able to change their behaviors and actions to meet new needs of the context or environment (Pulakos et al., 2000). We reference findings from neuroscience to clarify the relationships here between flexibility and performance. Cognitive psychologists have shown that the reduced performance from repeating a task over time can be mitigated by task switching or shifting focus from one task to a new and novel task (Van Dongen et al., 2011). Within the workplace context this holds to our understanding that employees adapting to a new context can experience more positive outcomes (DeShon & Gillespie, 2005). However, cognitive research further shows that prolonged task switching leads to declined performance when continuing to switch to novel tasks rather than repeating familiar, called switch cost. These researchers argue that individuals are experiencing a decrease in cognitive flexibility due to mental fatigue (Plukaard et al., 2015). We believe that this same paradigm can be seen in workers today. After prolonged stress and requests to be adaptive, employees are facing unprecedented levels of fatigue.

Applying this evidence to the concepts of the workforce today, we see that employees are no longer being asked to adapt to a new context but are experiencing a series of shifts and changes that have continued to create cognitive demands and ultimately fatigue. We further argue that the numerous stressors that individuals are experiencing in their lives (i.e., the spillover between work, family, and other life demands; Hammer et al., 2005) have further exacerbated employee fatigue. We propose there needs to be a shift toward recognizing the experience employees are having and that most organizations are truly asking for employees to demonstrate some form of resilience during these tumultuous times. Organizations can address the unprecedented psychological strain experienced by employees by acknowledging the breadth, severity, and sustained exposure to change and uncertainty that employees have gone through. 

Resilience Is Helping Organizations Persist

Researchers have predicted the inevitability that resilience would be a “strategically important organizational behavior for success, growth, and even survival” (King et al., 2015, p. 1). Resilience is distinct from adaptability in that individuals will demonstrate a positive adaptation to a situation that is stressful, adverse, traumatic, or otherwise negative (Block & Kremen, 1996; Jackson et al., 2007; Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004). There is expansive multidisciplinary research on resilience, particularly with related concepts of grit and hardiness prevalent in education, military, and neuropsychology research (e.g., Eskreis-Winkler et al., 2014; Lam & Zhou, 2019;  Wang et al., 2018). However, workplace resilience has not received comparable attention and is largely upstaged by similar job-related concepts such as personality, self-efficacy, and motivation orientation (e.g., Colquitt et al., 2000; DeShon & Gillespie, 2005). Researchers have recognized certain challenges that have limited the progression of research in workplace resilience.

One challenge with workplace resilience research is that little theoretical work has been done to distinguish and develop predictors, antecedents, and outcomes of workplace resilience. Some researchers have attributed the lack of this progress to the difficulties of measuring resilience, which has been defined and measured in various ways including as a trait- and state-like experience. Hartmann and colleagues found 30 unique measurement scales, where the majority were identified as too broad (i.e., unidimensional) or as failing to operationalize resilience in the context of positive work and employee outcomes (Hartmann et al., 2020). This lack of scientific consensus has led to a general dearth of research despite years of speculation and prompting from researchers that workplace resilience is an increasingly important variable to consider (Hartmann et al., 2020; King et al., 2015). Ultimately the theoretical drivers of resilience in the workplace are still lacking and evidence to justify practical applications has not been presented.

Even without extensive research, it is clear through generalizing the research from other industries (e.g., Eskreis-Winkler et al., 2014) that employers are asking for employees to move beyond adaptability and to be resilient. As organizations increasingly call employees back into physical workspaces, we need to develop a new approach to navigating change in order to mitigate the risk of increased stress and psychological strain on employees. Although conventional knowledge suggests that reducing demands and improving autonomy can resolve employee stress and strain, many organizations are depleted with low resources, which limits their ability to provide more resources to employees to help alleviate experiences of stress and strain. We propose iterating the concept of job crafting as a turnkey solution to aid in building workplace resilience and ultimately help mitigate employee strain.

Workplace resilience research has broadly been categorized into five areas: (a) personality and values, (b) personal resources, (c) attitudes and mindset, (d) emotions, and (e) work demands and resources (see figure 1 in Hartmann et al., 2020). This provides a foundation upon which to explore potential interventions specific to an organizational context. The first two categories (i.e., personality and values, personal resources) use a trait approach to defining resilience and can inform future organizational considerations in terms of recruitment and selection. The next two categories (i.e., attitudes and mindset, emotions) use a state-like approach to understand resilience and can lead to conversations on how organizations may integrate new learning and development solutions that utilize practice methods for developing more resilience in employees. However, we will focus on the final area of research identified by Hartmann (i.e., work demands and resources) as a potential springboard that organizations can utilize immediately for current employees without additional resources or program development. Utilizing concepts of job crafting, organizations may be able to work with employees on various solutions to address workplace stressors.

Considering Techniques of Job Crafting

We have long known that adjusting job characteristics can positively benefit employees (i.e., job characteristics theory; Hackman & Oldham, 1976). Workplace theory shows us that when employees find meaning in their work, they may develop more resilience (Berg at al., 2007; Hartmann et al., 2020). Also, increased autonomy can reduce the stressful experience of high-performance work systems (Jensen et al., 2011). The dynamic nature of job characteristics can be leveraged to influence outcomes such as increased motivation, job satisfaction, and overall performance while decreasing absenteeism. Based on these potential benefits, job crafting may be an intervention for organizations to consider. However, we recommend using the central concepts of job crafting but applying this to a broader context. First, employees do not always craft their jobs in ways that are beneficial to organizations. For example, a salesperson with low task significance as it relates to sales goals may opt to expand their role to engage in more customer service activities. Although this can be beneficial to customer retention and revenue targets, without guidance this employee could end up spending more time handling issues that are better addressed by the customer support team, which takes them away from more high-value sales activities. Additionally, job crafting requires resources from individuals and can even increase job demands, which can result in more strain (job demands resource theory; Bakker & Demerouti, 2007). To help mitigate some of these potential drawbacks, we recommend that organizations utilize the core aspects of job crafting but apply these concepts to the larger context, at the team level within the organization.

Expanding the Concept of Team Crafting

Research on job crafting at the team level is still evolving, with initial literature focusing on small teams within specific work contexts (e.g., Leana et al., 2009; McClelland et al., 2014). One recent operationalization uses the assertion that team crafting is not simply the sum of a group of individuals that job craft separately but it is the process of individuals collaborating about when, how, and what to craft (Tims et al., 2013). The ways team crafting has been discussed before are too limited as the onslaught of changes in the nature of work have outpaced recent research. We are calling for an expansion of our understanding of team-level job crafting to include altering the actual team-level demands, resources, and structures. We can start directing our clients and customers toward meaningful team-level interventions by thinking about team crafting in this expanded perspective. Taken together, this emergent conceptualization provides an improved fit for the paradigm that companies are currently facing.

How to Team Craft

Using the dimensions of individual job crafting (Tims et al., 2012), we provide tactical thought starters for organizations on how to translate individual job-crafting techniques into methods of team crafting (see Table 1). A critical difference in team crafting is the active involvement of an advocate or the collaborative discussion of the team in decisions that are made. Many of the team-crafting techniques will necessitate some amount of support. This support may be provided by a supervisor or an overseeing body in the team-crafting process that can provide guardrails and guidance to the team, so that the developed solutions are actionable and feasible within various organizational constraints. In this capacity, the supporting body is responsible for creating a rich environment for team crafting to occur by removing obstacles, advocating for organizational support as needed and preventing unintended negative consequences that may arise. Those within this support role should also have an adequate understanding of how team-crafting techniques link to the factors of resilience discussed earlier.

 

Table 1
Translating the Dimensions of Job Crafting Into Dimensions of Team Crafting

Job crafting

Team crafting

Increasing structural resources

Prioritizing tasks that leverage existing strengths

Redistributing tasks to team members based on individual strengths and needs

Improving individual workflows and processes

 

Adopting systemic efficiencies as standard operating procedures

Documenting solutions to common challenges

 

Sharing and receiving knowledge across interdependent teams

Increasing social resources

Seeking meaningful connection with team members

 

Incorporating nonwork social activities into routines and practices

Requesting feedback outside of formal performance management

 

Establishing peer feedback norms within team practices

Building beneficial relationships with cross-functional partners

 

Including cross-functional partners in team meetings

Increasing challenge demands

Volunteering for projects that align with personal interests

 

Rotating projects to individuals that align with developmental and growth needs/goals

Broadening or deepening subject matter expertise

 

Developing team member training plans that align with an overall team need and plan for growth and expertise

Integrating beneficiary of tasks into work

 

Increasing connections with stakeholders of the team’s work

Decreasing hindrance demands

Delegating labor-intensive tasks to others

Formalizing a schedule that accommodates group needs and preferences in a way that feels fair to team members

Organizing work to avoid cognitive overload

Forecasting workload and aligning tasks with individual and team capacities with contingency plans

Minimizing interactions with emotionally challenging individuals

Shuffling work assignments to accommodate emotional strain and identifying affective resources for team members in need

       

 

There are many different approaches to take in team crafting. We’ve provided a starting point here for strategies to use before, during, and after team crafting.

Before Team Crafting

The supportive body has an opportunity to set the tone for team crafting by bringing the team together, sharing the reasons why they want to implement team crafting, and setting goals and parameters. Clearly communicating the decision latitude that is available to the team is critical at this stage as every organization and team is different. It’s equally important to establish buy-in from individuals and identify any resistance that may create friction in the process. As with any change initiative, it is important for organizations to be aware of and recognize resistance that may have carried over from any precious failures when implementing systematic changes to processes or routines. Some organizations may opt to use a change-readiness scale if they sense resistance. Supporting roles can also consider balancing the use of charisma and authenticity when communicating. Providing inspiration and a meaningful vision are important aspects in this, but glossing over the resource loss and strain employees are experiencing can have negative results on employee attitudes. Reiterating that one of the goals is to increase resources is an important takeaway for the team.

In this stage it is also important to establish that the team will be able to self-manage through the team crafting process by mitigating any internal obstacles. Many teams have preexisting stressors, conflicts, and relationship dynamics, and these points of tension could be a hindrance to collaboration if they are not addressed. For example, if there has been a breach of trust or lack of confidence in the past, individuals may not be comfortable sharing resources with their team. Starting with transparency around concerns will set up teams for success not just for engaging in change but also for working together. This is an excellent time to make it clear that everyone must have an equal say for team crafting to be effective. Nobody should feel like they are negatively impacted due to a group majority vote. Some organizations may consider supplementary training on team communication or conflict management at this stage.

During Team Crafting

We recommend introducing the concept of team crafting by sharing Table 1 and focusing on the right-hand column where we have provided examples of team crafting for each of the four techniques. Once this overview has been completed, it is time to let teams collaborate by using the four-step process below.

  1. Discuss current problems and needs within the team.
  2. Identify the best team-crafting technique(s) to address this problem (there may be more than one).
  3. List as many potential solutions and strategies for each team-crafting technique identified in Step 2.
  4. Agree on a solution or strategy to implement that meets the goals and parameters laid out before the team crafting (this may be an agreement to a trial period).

For first-time team crafters, we encourage the supportive body to identify a low-stake problem for the team to craft against within a given time period. This gives the team a chance to experience the processes, see success, and develop efficacy for more complex challenges. Engaging in a team-crafting pilot also gives the team the chance to assess if team crafting could be a beneficial technique for them to continue using.

Applying these steps in an example, let’s consider a 24-hour manufacturing cycle that relies heavily on shift work to meet production demands. The team has already been briefed on the goals and parameters and is showing excitement for the possibility of coming up with their own solutions to common challenges. In Step 1, the team identifies that the irregularity of their shifts and the night shift are consistent sources of strain that impact their performance. In Step 2, the team identifies that increasing structural resources, increasing social resources, and decreasing hindrance demands could provide potential solutions. Although there are opportunities to improve challenge demands in their tasks, the team agrees that is not the most impactful place to focus for their particular problem. In Step 3, the team brainstorms a list of actionable potential solutions for each of the three team-crafting techniques. During this brainstorm, they realize that there are a variety of personal preferences in the solutions but that having a choice is a common theme. In Step 4, the team agrees that a blanket approach isn’t the best solution but that instead they can work together to create a seasonal schedule that allows individuals to schedule in a way that best meets their needs. For example, some people prefer working the night shift for 2–3 weeks at a time so they can adjust their sleep schedules, whereas others prefer to have their night shifts spread out over longer periods of time. They agree to test out having one person take the night shift for an extended period, knowing that by a certain date the responsibility will transition to another team member or be covered by different individuals until the next long shift begins. This change in process recognizes the demands of a challenging schedule against the backdrop of widespread uncertainty and utilizes the full breadth of team resources to better accommodate employees while maintaining production output.

After Team Crafting

Following team crafting, feedback and potential revision of the solution are extremely valuable activities for both individuals and the organization. Whether it is a guided discussion or an anonymous survey, the goal at this stage is for the supporting body to understand what value the team received through team crafting and how the team wants to move forward with their solution. Echoing previous sentiments, each person needs to be able to express themselves honestly for this practice to be useful as organizations do not want to impose team crafting if it is not a good fit for a particular team.

It is important to note that every individual, team, and organization will have unique needs and that the recommendations presented here are by no means comprehensive. Although team crafting is just one example of a resilience intervention targeted at the job-demands-and-resources component of resilience, we believe that team-crafting techniques can affect all five areas of resilience. In Table 2 we summarize these potential relationships.

Table 2

Linking Team Crafting Techniques to Factors and Resources of Resilience

Team crafting technique

Related resilience factors and resource examples

Increasing structural resources

  • Personal resources (e.g., job expertise, work–life balance)
  • Work demands and resources (e.g., professional development, positive work climate, learning culture)

Increasing social resources

  • Attitudes and mindset (e.g,. perceived organizational support, goal orientation)
  • Emotions (e.g., warmth, gratitude, fulfillment)
  • Work demands and resources (e.g., collaboration, communication, emotional intelligence)

Increasing challenge demands

  • Personal resources (e.g., self-efficacy, feeling successful)
  • Attitudes and mindset (e.g., sense of purpose, meaningful work, intrinsic motivation)

Reducing hindrance demands

  • Personality (e.g., emotional stability, organization)
  • Personal resources (e.g., internal locus of control, work–life balance)

 

Conclusion

Organizations may need team crafting to retain talent as employees are quitting at record rates (Kane, 2021). Individuals may need team crafting to sustain their psychological and physical health. As a society, we are asking a lot from employees, and they need to be able to not only work together but also to rely on the groups they work in. Using a well-communicated strategy and guided support, organizations can use team crafting to expand resources without investing substantial financial or internal resources to support large-scale program development or other alternatives. In addition to providing more immediate results than alternative interventions (i.e., selection strategy, training), the process of team crafting also overlaps with many of the skills recommended by creativity and innovation research  (e.g. Amabile & Pratt 2016). Thus, team crafting may prove to be an organizational advantage as subsequent teams see positive results and adopt similar behaviors and attitudes (e.g., Isaac et al., 2001; Schleicher et al., 2011).

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