5 minute read 19 Jul 2021

How leaders can support team resilience and momentum

By Amy Walters

Manager, EY Lane4, EY Professional Services Limited

Specialises in human performance with a focus on applied psychology. Translates academic thinking and research into practical solutions for business. Visiting lecturer at Bath University.

5 minute read 19 Jul 2021
Related topics Workforce

Organisations need more than exceptional individuals, they need high-performing teams. Team edge is a core ingredient of such teams.

In brief
  • High-performing teams are critical for organisations to survive today’s volatile business environment; relying on exceptional performers isn’t enough.
  • To build high-performing teams, leaders must actively build their teams’ resilience and maintain psychological momentum.

Whilst talented employees can facilitate high performance, they aren’t guaranteed to. It’s important to attract and retain talented employees, it’s also incredibly important that they come together to form high-performing teams.

According to performance and organisational psychology research, high-performing teams1, 2, 3:

  • Consistently satisfy the needs of customers, employees, investors and others in their area of influence
  • Frequently outperform other teams producing similar products and services under similar conditions
  • Produce the most effective outcome with the greatest efficiency
  • Take full advantage of all the task-related knowledge within the team

Research from areas ranging from sport to the military has taught us that high-performing-teams differ from those that simply function1, 2, 3. This is attributed to team edge, one of the key characteristics of such groups. Team edge refers to a team’s ability to perform under pressure, create and build on positive momentum, or change the direction of momentum when the team is in a downward spiral. It encompasses two main factors: team resilience and team momentum.

Developing team resilience

Team resilience refers to a team’s ability to absorb, cope with and recover from pressures, challenges or adversity.4 Resilient teams outperform those who are not, because of their ability to both handle and thrive on pressure.To build team resilience, leaders should:

  1. Get clear on your team’s ‘why’

    Creating a team’s reason for existence involves connecting to people’s purpose, cause or belief that inspires them to do the work they do.6 When a team is clear on its purpose and inspired by why it exists, they can make better decisions under time pressure, information overload and ambiguity. As a leader, work with your team to create a purpose which energises and mobilises them. This clarity will inspire your team to push on in difficult moments and move forward in the face of setbacks.

  2. Role model and celebrate ‘back-up’ behaviours

    Back-up from teammates and the team leader is critical for helping the team to perform under pressure.This involves recognising the signs that a colleague is stretched and offering support with their work. These gestures not only help individuals who are struggling, but also boost team morale and make the team more efficient. As a leader, role model the actions you want to see and go out of your way to acknowledge other team members when you see them doing the same.

  3. Make the debrief part of the routine

    The most resilient teams view disruptive or challenging events as opportunities for learning, and failures as a chance to evaluate how they approach tasks.8,9,10 This perspective allows teams to confront their failures head-on, with the knowledge that the experience they gain will help them aim higher in the future.13 Teams that debrief outperform those who don’t by 20-25%.4 To develop a culture of team learning, facilitate meetings so that your team reflect on what went well and what didn’t.

Register to download the full report: What gives teams the edge (PDF, 3.1MB)

Building team momentum

Achieving success as a team isn’t easy, but maintaining that success is even more difficult. High-performing teams consistently achieve their goals when experiencing psychological momentum.  Psychological momentum refers to the sensation teams experience when they feel like things are going from strength to strength, granting them a heightened sense of confidence, control, competence and self-belief.12 13 To kick-start a team’s psychological momentum, leaders should:

  1. Generate a quick win and make sure it’s down to team performance

    Psychological momentum hinges on a critical shift in a team’s belief about their potential to succeed. Instead of hoping for the best, when psychological momentum takes hold, team members have a solid belief that they will succeed which creates a virtuous cycle of self-belief.  Leaders must celebrate any quick-wins early, and make sure the success is clearly linked to the team’s abilities and efforts rather than luck or the environment. This will get the psychological momentum ball rolling.

  2. Sustain success by chasing the next goal

    After a success there is always a risk of complacency, often fuelled by motivation running low after a big effort. Or, if teams feel like they are having to defend their past successes in their next pursuit, they risk experiencing increased pressure and anxiety. To avoid these pitfalls and maintain psychological momentum after a success, set aside some time for your team to agree on an inspirational goal as your next team pursuit. To maintain the right team mindset and focus during this process, watch out for the warning signs of complacency or anxiety and address them openly.

  3. Find the balance between challenge and skill

    Flow refers to a state that people experience when they feel effortless concentration, enjoyment and motivation to perform, and is closely linked to psychological momentum.14 Flow can be experienced as a team, each member working as a cog in a smooth-running machine. To encourage team flow, set each member a personal challenge to match their level of skill so they feel challenged yet determined they can succeed. This will help maintain team psychological momentum.
  • Show article references#Hide article references

    1. E. Kur, “The Faces Model of High Performance Team Development”, Management Development Review, 1996.

    2. S. Weaver, J. Wildman, & E. Salas, “How to build expert teams: best practices”, In: R.J. Burke & C.L. Cooper, The Peak Performing Organization (Routledge, 2009).

    3. E. Salas, M. Rosen, C. Burke, G. Goodwin, & M. Fiore, “The Making of a Dream Team: When Expert Teams do Best”, In: K. A. Ericsson, N. Charness, R. Hoffman, & P. Fletovich, The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

    4. G.M. Alliger, C.P. Cerasoli, S.I. Tannenbaum, & W.B. Vessey, “Team resilience”, Organizational Dynamics, 2015.

    5. G. Jones & A. Moorhouse, Developing Mental Toughness: Gold Medal Strategies for Transforming Your Business Performance (Spring Hill, 2008).

    6. S. Sinek, Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action (Penguin, 2009).

    7. C. Bowers, C. Kreutzer, J. Cannon-Bowers, & J. Lamb, “Team Resilience as a Second Order Emergent State: A Theoretical Model and Research Directions”, Frontiers in psychology, 2017.

    8. C.K. Barnett & M.G. Pratt, “From threat-rigidity to flexibility-Toward a learning model of autogenic crisis in organizations”, Journal of Organisational Change Management, 2000.

    9. S.E. Jackson & J.E. Dutton, “Discerning threats and opportunities”, Administrative Science Quarterly, 1988.

    10. K.E. Weick, & K.M. Sutcliffe, “Mindfulness and the quality of organizational attention”, Organisational Science, 2006.

    11. P.B. Morgan, D. Fletcher, & M. Sarkar, “Understanding team resilience in the world’s best athletes: A case study of a rugby union World Cup winning team”, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 2015.

    12. S.E. Iso-Ahola, & C.O. Dotson, “Psychological momentum: Why success breeds success”, Review of General Psychology, 2014.

    13. P. Smith, A. Blandford, & J. Back, “Questioning, exploring, narrating and playing in the control room to maintain system safety”, Cognition, Technology & Work, 2009.

    14. M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The psychology of optimal experience, (Harper and Row, 1990). 


Teams today need more than exceptional individuals to weather the volatile business context; they need high-performing-teams. One way of achieving this is developing team edge, which encompasses team resilience and team momentum. Leaders must deliberately develop both in their teams for sustained success. 

About this article

By Amy Walters

Manager, EY Lane4, EY Professional Services Limited

Specialises in human performance with a focus on applied psychology. Translates academic thinking and research into practical solutions for business. Visiting lecturer at Bath University.

Related topics Workforce