Techniques to Build a Cohesive Crisis Team

4 min read · 31 July 2022


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This essay was originally published on 51CM on 31 Jul 2022, and was edited and re-published in 51CM in 2023.

Team cohesiveness is an essential characteristic of high performing crisis teams. If the team isn’t cohesive, when presented with a complex and demanding crisis, the team is likely to fail.

The challenge for most crisis teams is that team members will come from different functions or business areas within the organisation. As a result, it’s unlikely they’ll work together during a normal day. In fact, I’ve worked with crisis teams where team members have never met each other before the exercise (or crisis).

If a crisis team isn’t cohesive, the moment the situation starts getting difficult, the team will start to fail. Dominant personalities will hijack the discussion and quieter team members will withdraw. These levels of dysfunction will result in low levels of performance. That’s the last thing you’ll want during a crisis. (Further reading: 19/51 The 9 Types of Problematic Personalities You’ll Find on Crisis Teams.)

Cohesiveness is something that must be consciously developed over time. In this article, I’ll share different techniques that you can apply in your organisation to build the cohesiveness of your crisis teams and assure high levels of performance during crisis events.

The process starts with the team members getting to know one another.

1. Personal introductions

If you’re running annual exercises and only occasionally responding to actual crisis events, there’s a good chance there will be new people on the team. Therefore, before each activity, allocate time for each member of the crisis team to introduce themselves.

As part of these introductions, each team member should explain who they are, what they do day to day, and their role on the team during a crisis. Understanding and appreciating that each team member brings a specific and unique set of skills and experience to the team will help to build mutual trust and respect, which is essential for cohesiveness.

2. Training

Training sessions provide a valuable opportunity for team members to meet and interact. However, they’re less effective than exercises or actual crisis events when it comes to bringing the team together to form a cohesive unit. So while training is essential, it’s not always an effective medium for building a cohesive team. Therefore, after you complete a training session, take the team to lunch. A more informal environment will enable team members to bond and learn more about each other. These informal sessions will help build trust.

3. Simulation exercises

Short of responding to actual crisis events, crisis simulation exercises provide the best forum for raising the level of cohesiveness of a crisis team.

Teams will bond when faced with difficult problems. Accordingly, the difficulty level of the exercise should be carefully engineered to push the team, but not break them. By engineering a difficult scenario, the exercise coordinator is able to place the team under sufficient stress to promote cohesion. If the team process starts to break down, or if the team starts to become dysfunctional, the exercise coordinator can back off slightly to allow the team to consolidate and recover.

A team that has the opportunity to exercise once or twice a year will be significantly more cohesive than a team who just participates in training. Simulation exercises are like full dress rehearsals. They allow team members to fulfil their respective roles under ‘game conditions’, which not only prepares them as individuals, but also as a team.

4. Leadership

The team leader plays a major role in team cohesion. While a leader can’t necessarily make a team cohesive, they can certainly lay the foundation by creating an environment that promotes cohesion. The best way for the team leader to promote cohesiveness is to ensure equitable levels of contribution. If everyone has the opportunity to contribute to team discourse, interpersonal tension is less likely to be an issue.

The level of individual contribution is an important consideration. Some people on the team may feel as though they don’t have the opportunity to speak. Those quieter or less assertive individuals may become frustrated by other team members who dominate the discussion. At the same time, the more dominant team members may be frustrated by the quieter individuals, and may perceive them as being unwilling to contribute. They may even perceive them to be less capable, which probably isn’t the case. So, the team leader has a key role in ensuring the quieter people are given the opportunity to speak, and to ensure that more dominant personalities aren’t able to hijack the discussion.

An effective way to achieve this outcome is for the team leader to prime the team before the exercise or crisis by explaining that they expect everyone to engage in the process and to contribute to discussion. I take this approach before all of my exercises to ensure all team members understand what’s expected (there’s no value in waiting until the debriefing to tell people they should have engaged more).

The team leader should also work around the room as part of the operational cycle, taking a deliberate approach to eliciting input from each team member. In practice, this approach actually speeds up group process, allowing the team to maintain velocity. Most importantly, it promotes a sense of equality—everyone on the team has an equal say in proceedings.

5. Process

As I’ve already mentioned in other articles, probably the most important driver of cohesion is a defined crisis response process. Without a process, the team activity will devolve into a serious of individual efforts. Each team member will do what they believe is right and will do so at the time they think is right. Or not. The risk is that there will be no unity of effort and minimal, if any, coordination between the functions represented on the team. A process provides an essential structure that underpins the response effort. It helps to drive the team forward, giving them something they can work on as a group.

Overall, an effective process is essential and is one of the key components of cohesive and high performing teams.

  1. Hot Wash ups and AARs

Hot wash ups and After Action Reviews (AARs) provide another opportunity to build team cohesion. Most importantly, they provide an opportunity to bury the hatchet. If there had been interpersonal conflict during the exercise or crisis response, be sure to settle these issues during the wash up or AAR. Everything should be settled before the team closes off the activity. The team leader should take the key role in mediating any issues.

7. Curation

If you have people on the crisis team that simply aren’t team players, replace them. On balance, given the choice between having the ‘right’ people (based on seniority or title) on the team or having ‘good’ people who are effective team players, I’ll take the good people every time. Even one disruptive person on a crisis team can make the entire activity more difficult and emotionally draining than it needs to be.

Wrap Up

A cohesive crisis team will work well together even in the most demanding of crisis events. But cohesiveness doesn’t just happen. You’ll need to engineer activities to build trust and cohesiveness. Simulation exercises are an ideal venue for building cohesiveness. Having a defined crisis response process is also a fundamental enabler for a cohesive and high performing team.

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