How HR Can Foster Resiliency to Create Stronger Teams

As a mom to my two-and-a-half year old daughter, Henley, and the Director of People and Culture at Square Root, a fast-growing tech startup, I often find myself facing similar challenges.


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Both roles require patience, as growth demands experimentation and the testing of boundaries. Each day, I face the challenge of fostering an environment that allows for failing, learning, and trying again. As a mother and the head of HR, I’ve realized the importance of providing support and encouragement while also pushing individuals beyond their comfort zones, and I’ve seen first-hand how both my daughter and my team have thrived when given a safe space to fail and a push to keep going.

Why Does Resilience at Work Matter?

Throughout our lives most of us take personal risks, like quitting your job to follow the love of your life to a new city. Yet, at work, taking a risk opens ourselves up to a slew of vulnerabilities. What if I fail? What if people dislike me? What if I don’t get that raise? What if I get fired? After you run through all the what-ifs, playing it safe starts to look pretty good.

But being vulnerable to the what-ifs is exactly what helps spur innovation, and is why we need to make space for resilience in our organizations. Plus, resilience promotes complementary traits like adaptability and empathy. It allows you to dig deeper, because with each failure you learn and understand new things. Best of all, seeing it across the organization helps create a relatable, shared experience – that engineering rockstar no longer seems unapproachable once you’ve seen them stumble and get back up again.

One of the songs my daughter and I sing pays homage to my push for her to persevere. It goes a little something like “If you knock knock me over – I will get back up again”. Whether or not she –and our team at Square Root – gets back up again will be a reflection of whether I encourage them to try things along the way, and show them when I get back up again.

The Tone Leadership Sets Matters

Last year, I read about Failing Well, an initiative at Smith College. Past failures are shared in an effort to create a common vulnerability and experience, and to help the students build empathy for others and themselves.

Creating a culture where learning through failure is okay starts with leadership teams being vulnerable about their own failures –both the big and the small. I’m amazed at how comforted our individuals feel when they hear about the non-linear paths of trial and error our executives faced. When leadership shares their stories, it takes away the taboo and introduces optimism. Failure becomes part of the journey and it shows teams success is possible despite the hiccups (or maybe because of them!).

Additionally, to truly nurture resilience, managers need to throw nitpicking to the wayside. Folks need to feel trusted. Questioning assumptions and the status quo are competitive advantages. Fostering those instincts starts with believing in your team and giving them leeway to test ideas. Of course, set boundaries to make it safe and avoid an epic fiasco, but identify what’s in their control and let them take the reins. Giving subjective feedback keeps individuals from feeling empowered to try. I’ve seen it, experienced it, and been guilty of it. Without that safe space, you won’t get resilience, you’ll get deference.

It’s Important to Crack Through the Shell

While reading about Smith College, I kept coming back to one of the first words, “cope.” Fear of failure, or the inability to cope with failure, can create tunnel vision, make it hard to focus on the task at hand, or hinder one’s ability to receive constructive feedback. If you reject feedback then you haven’t actually failed at all, right? But that type of environment becomes toxic and doesn’t allow for collaboration or the creation of the best version of something. And while “cope” seems almost too big of a word for what appear to be minor setbacks, everyone’s experience is unique.

To create a safe space for collaboration, you need to take into account preconceived notions. On our team of 45, for example, we have 45 different relationships with the concept of failure. While I believe at heart most folks want the same things, like a happy and safe work environment, generational differences along with past experiences influence how people interact with failure. My dad, a Baby Boomer, grew up in an era that pushed people to keep their head down and roll with the status quo. Failing at work was terrifying.

Those Baby Boomers raised Millennials like me. Not only are we skittish around failure, we entered the workforce during a time of low wages and high unemployment raising the stakes; keeping your head down seems like a pretty good idea. To complicate it all, nowadays, failure is also immortalized on social media. For folks entering today’s workforce, they grew up seeing a mix of online bullying and perfectly curated lives, creating a whole new relationship with failure for companies to navigate. From generational differences to personality preferences, creating an environment where failure doesn’t have to create fear starts with truly understanding your team.

Now’s the Time to Be Intentional With a Culture of Experimentation

For the past four years, we’ve had quarterly Hackathons to help folks flex the skill of working collaboratively and iteratively. Our team tackles everything from cutting-edge innovation to make-your-life-better automation and even the occasional passion project. Regardless of what they’re building, everyone’s working cross-functionally, learning and experimenting to make our company and product better!

The intention of these hackathons is to infuse the spirit of testing and iteration into our everyday work rhythms. Yet we found without the structure, folks slipped back into old habits. We couldn’t survive with only a handful of innovation moments a year, so last spring our culture and engineering teams huddled on how to embrace failure. We decided to make failure a celebration and focus on learning. Those sentiments evolved into what we’ve dubbed, “Fail, Learn, Cake!”

Every month, an individual shares a story about a recent failure and what they learned from it. They talk through their goal, their stumbles, the “fail,” and what they learned. Then we celebrate with cake! It’s a fun and interactive way to encourage our team to reframe their perspective on failure and see it as a part of the journey to success, rather than a blocker. Our approach is a bit different from Smith College, but it works for us. The push to share learnings shifts the focus to what’s next.

Creating a culture of resiliency is a cornerstone of innovation, and it all starts with getting to know your team. Done right, you’ll find that providing a safe place for failure just may be your key to success!

Courtney BransonCourtney Branson is Director of People + Culture at Square Root, an Austin-based technology startup that creates Store Relationship Management software for some of today’s leading automotive and retail enterprises.Courtney brings her creativity to everything she does and Square Root is no exception. She handles a little bit of everything but is especially good at employee relations and HR. Mom to a little girl, Courtney’s compassion and patience keep our team grounded and thriving. Prior to joining Square Root, she spent years in HR for large companies, focusing on culture and employee morale. She knows just what it takes to pull the best out of people and has a knack for inspiring and connecting the right folks. Courtney has a degree in English with minors in philosophy and history from Texas A&M University. When she’s not busy building our award-winning culture, you’ll find Courtney reading, blogging, hula hooping, or spending time with her husband, daughter, two dogs, and cat.

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