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Summary: Unbreakable: Building and Leading Resilient Teams by Bradley Kirkman and Adam Stoverink

Key Takeaways

  • Do you want to learn how to build and lead teams that can bounce back from any setback and achieve extraordinary outcomes? If so, you should read the book Unbreakable: Building and Leading Resilient Teams by Bradley Kirkman and Adam Stoverink.
  • In this article, I will give you a summary and review of this book, and explain why it is a great resource for anyone who works in or leads a team in today’s turbulent and unpredictable world.
  • If you are interested in learning more about how to build and lead resilient teams, I highly recommend you to read the book Unbreakable: Building and Leading Resilient Teams by Bradley Kirkman and Adam Stoverink. You will not regret it, as you will discover how to create and lead teams that are virtually unbreakable.


No matter what their product, service or industry, all companies share a common characteristic: their people work in teams. And if their teams aren’t resilient, trouble awaits. Bradley L. Kirkman and Adam C. Stoverink outline four pitfalls that challenge a team’s resiliency and four resources that assure its durability. They share their conviction that “unbreakable” teams produce superior performance, bigger profits, and more satisfied executives, employees, investors and customers. To that end, they explain how managers can build and lead energized teams that can handle adversity and bounce back.


  • Teams require resilience in case of business upheavals or other crises.
  • Resilient teams are “unbreakable.”
  • Four factors lead to team failure: lack or excess of confidence, lack of planning, inability to improvise or innovate, and lack of psychological safety.
  • Resilient teams have four resources; the first is confidence.
  • The second resource is the advance planning “roadmap” teams create to use during a crisis to mitigate confusion and restore clarity.
  • The third resilience resource is psychological safety, which enables the fourth resource, the ability to improvise.
  • Resilient teams minimize adversity, manage it and mend from it.
  • Regular debriefing sessions improve team performance.
  • You can measure your team’s resilience.
  • Create a team charter to define each member’s responsibilities and serve as a contract.


Teams require resilience in case of business upheavals or other crises.

Despite team members’ best intentions, disruptions can happen and plans do not always unfold smoothly. Sometimes problems erupt and disaster ensues. This is true for in-house and remote teams, particularly given today’s “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous” (VUCA) world.

This level of complexity places a demand on team leaders and members to embrace planned resilience as an essential part of their function. In the face of difficulties, resilience enables confident, collaborative team members to recover from adversity and find their way back to success.

“[Resilience is] the ability to take a hit, suffer a loss and return to a normal level of functioning, or, hopefully, an even higher level than before.”

A resilient team can continue to excel in the face of problems that disrupt its normal work. Effective teams rely on three kinds of processes to support their activities:

  1. Coordination” – Teams must mesh the “sequencing and timing” of their activities. Members need to understand their own roles and each other’s roles to ensure smooth collaboration.
  2. Monitoring” – Members of resilient teams use “tracking and communicating” to stay abreast of each other’s tasks and how they are progressing.
  3. Backing-up” – Team members should be able to coach, mentor, help and – if required – replace one another.

When any of these team processes deteriorates, so does performance, and the team suffers setbacks. The distinction between resilient and non-resilient teams is that resilient teams plan and build these strategies to support their actions. Therefore, they’re more prepared to bounce back from setbacks than teams without methods in place to coordinate, monitor and back up their work.

Resilient teams are “unbreakable.”

Resilience becomes self-evident when a team overcomes a crisis. Depending on its challenges, a resilient team may bend, but it doesn’t break.

“Resilient teams dig deep and summon the motivation to press forward.”

A “high-performing team” is not the same as a resilient team. High-performing teams do great work but may lack the strength and cohesion to confront challenges. In contrast, resilient teams have built the cohesion and sturdiness to assess their situation accurately, coalesce in the face of adversity and persevere. Resilient teams learn to make sense of ambiguous situations and take appropriate action quickly, even if the disaster at hand leaves lesser teams confused and unable to function. Resilient teams develop viable solutions to potential problems – before they happen – and have strategies ready to put their solutions to work.

Four factors lead to team failure: lack or excess of confidence, lack of planning, inability to improvise or innovate, and lack of psychological safety.

Teams fail due to four pitfalls common to all types and sizes of organizations. The four pitfalls are:

  1. Too little (or too much) team confidence” – Teams that lack confidence in themselves seldom believe they can rise above difficulties or accomplish their goals in the face of obstacles. On the other hand, over-confident teams may assume they don’t need to prepare for expected or unexpected challenges since they are – or so they firmly believe – already capable and extraordinary. These teams may be in for a rude awakening.
  2. An inadequate teamwork roadmap” – The members of failed teams may not understand their individual responsibilities or know how or why they need to collaborate and interact with other team members. Lacking any pre-planned roadmap to follow in a crisis, they aren’t equipped to handle difficult situations and don’t know how their group is supposed to respond to unforeseen challenges. Individual members may not know who should act in unusual or troubling situations. If someone drops the ball, no one knows if he or she is the right person to pick it up.
  3. Limited ability…to improvise in the moment” – Because no one can plan for every eventuality, improvisation is crucial to team resilience. Teams often fail when their members can’t improvise in new and difficult situations. Improvisation requires a novel response; it has nothing to do with what worked in the past. In unknowable, inexplicable and baffling situations, standard responses are often useless or even hazardous. Coping with unexpected trouble requires effective improvisation, and that demands cohesion, innovation, intelligence and confidence.
  4. Lack of psychological safety” – Team members who do not feel psychologically safe won’t take risks with each other. No team can survive an environment of distrust or psychological cruelty. If team members aren’t safe or comfortable working together, they can’t trust each other. People who feel unsafe with their colleagues dare to put forward only safe, boring and predictable ideas. With that impediment, the team can’t accomplish anything special or new. Establishing psychological safety may be the most important factor in building a resilient team.

Resilient teams have four resources; the first is confidence.

Confident teams are the most likely to prevail in difficult circumstances. Adversity doesn’t deflate or diminish confident teams; it energizes them. While trouble may temporarily detour or exhaust the team’s members, they have the assurance to stay on track and find a way to pursue their goals.

“A confident team knows that a setback is temporary, and that members have the knowledge, skills and abilities to overcome any obstacle.”

“Team potency” is another term for team confidence. Potent teams are strong enough to stay engaged and persevere in the face of challenges.

The second resource is the advance planning “roadmap” teams create to use during a crisis to mitigate confusion and restore clarity.

When adversity strikes, it sows confusion. Good planning helps you cut through the chaos. Teams should prepare roadmaps for dealing with difficult scenarios, addressing their most likely problems first. Roadmaps codify the team’s expertise and spell out the best way to handle specific sorts of trouble, so they are useful references in times of crisis.

“Roadmaps need not spell out all details of every possible scenario. Rather, they serve as a guiding framework for teams to respond to a variety of different events, even the unforeseen.”

To be really helpful in a disaster, roadmaps should accurately capture the essential elements of a team’s work. They should be organized and accessible. Roadmaps designate each team member’s “roles, responsibilities and job requirements.” They explain how to collaborate and manage other peoples’ duties if someone is absent, injured, ill or unable to perform.

The third resilience resource is psychological safety, which enables the fourth resource, the ability to improvise and innovate.

Unless team members feel psychologically safe, they won’t ask probing questions or volunteer information. As a result, the team won’t be able to react creatively or flexibly in a pinch. People who fear other people’s reactions protect themselves from being vulnerable, so they don’t improvise or innovate. That leaves their team enmeshed in convention. In good times, this means the team is less able to accomplish good work, so it risks being replaced by a bolder, more inventive team. In bad times, a lack of psychological safety adds an air of mistrust and insecurity to the other complications of a crisis.

Transformational teams and leaders create a psychologically safe environment. Leaders demonstrate that their corporate culture values empathy and fair treatment and forbids bullying, harassment or discrimination. To excel, any team needs an atmosphere of trust, candor, honesty and creativity. Team members must be able to function as a unit, take reasonable risks and learn together.

Resilient teams minimize adversity, manage it and mend from it.

Team resilience can be activated in three stages: “minimizing adversity, managing adversity and mending after adversity.”

To minimize trouble, a team must be prepared for difficulties and challenges. Astute teams create possible scenarios and role-play their responses in advance. This game-style thinking requires considering many new ideas. Team leaders must ask each member the magic question, “What do you think?”

“Your first stage, minimizing adversity, began long before any adversity presented itself.”

When adversity occurs, team leaders must manage it, motivate their members, boost team morale and help the team continue its work. In a pinch, teams may not have time for standard, long-form meetings. Instead, leaders must organize a 15-minute huddle each day. In the huddle, members figure out what to do next and how to do it. These quick gatherings can keep the team on track if everyone speaks up to facilitate coordination, help their colleagues cope and offer fresh ideas. Post your team’s current primary goals and milestones on a whiteboard everyone can see. As your team accomplishes each milestone, hold small celebrations to keep everyone motivated to reach the next objective.

After your team manages adversity, it needs to heal. Meet with your team members to thank them and praise their efforts.

Regular debriefing sessions improve team performance.

After you thank everyone, debrief your team to help members recoup, heal and recover in the wake of trouble and trauma.

Mending from adversity requires rigorous self-examination and may call for facing up to your – or your team’s – mistakes. To that end, create two columns on your whiteboard: “Roses” and “Thorns.” Before the team lists its Roses – the fun phase of noticing what went right – it must examine its Thorns and acknowledge what went wrong. Ask which assignments didn’t go well and encourage team members to admit their mistakes. As the leader, you may have to tell your team how and where you may have fallen short to get everyone to speak about their failings – before the team gets around to talking about its triumphs.

“Debriefing is a critical step in the resilience process.”

Make sure your team members feel psychologically safe and free to speak out while participating in this candid forum. Post-crisis, teams need in-depth debriefing. During these informative, revealing sessions, team members should openly discuss what worked and what didn’t, so they can avoid repeating any mistakes and prepare better for the next time.

You can measure your team’s resilience.

To assess your team’s resilience and reveal any perception problems about what resilience requires, use a “multi-rater assessment system.” Start by asking team members to consider the recent crisis and assess their performance. Perhaps ask members what might happen to their team during and after a future challenge. Ideally, a team would keep working as a unit, recover in short order, pay attention afterward to its overall goals, triumph over trouble together, persist through problems and return to its previous performance level.

To create your assessment, rephrase those factors as survey statements with which people can agree or disagree. Have the team’s members or customers rate how it measured up to its own ideals by agreeing or disagreeing with each statement on a spectrum from one – strongly agree – to seven – strongly disagree. For example, a statement might say, “The team kept working as a unit.” Tally the response scores to assess how members – or customers –perceive their team’s resilience.

Create a charter that defines each team member’s responsibilities and serves as a contract.

Every team needs a charter that spells out each member’s roles and responsibilities. Your team charter can also function as a guide showing where the team might strive to go in the future.

“Rely on team charters to capture the norms and rules for safe…team meetings.”

Your charter should answer these questions:

  • What are your team’s primary objectives and expectations?
  • How will your team members divvy up their jobs and tasks?
  • How should team members work together?
  • How often will your team meet?
  • Will you have a policy about absences?
  • How will your team make decisions?
  • What rules will govern your team’s behavior?
  • How will your team reward superior performance?
  • How will the team leader hold himself or herself accountable for the group’s results?

Use your charter as a contract that obligates your team members to fulfill their duties and think about their shared mission. Have members sign and date it, and give each person a copy, so everyone knows what the team – and teamwork – requires.

About the Authors

Bradley L. Kirkman is the (Ret.) H. Hugh Shelton Distinguished Professor of Leadership in the Department of Management, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University. Adam C. Stoverink is the Director of Walton MBA Programs and an associate professor of management in the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.


Business, Management, Leadership, Organizational Development, Change Management, Teamwork, Resilience, Psychology, Innovation, Crisis Management


The book Unbreakable: Building and Leading Resilient Teams is an essential guide for managers and leaders on how to create and lead teams that can cope with uncertainty, complexity, and adversity in today’s turbulent business environment. The authors, who are both professors of management and experts on team dynamics, draw on their extensive research and practical experience to identify four key resources that resilient teams need: team confidence, teamwork roadmaps, capacity to improvise, and psychological safety.

They explain what these resources are, why they are important, and how to develop them in any team, whether it is in-person, remote, or hybrid. They also provide real-life examples of teams that have demonstrated resilience in various contexts, such as new product development, crisis response, research and development, and pharmaceutical development. The book is full of actionable tips, tools, and exercises that can help leaders and team members enhance their team resilience and performance.

The book Unbreakable: Building and Leading Resilient Teams is a valuable and timely resource for anyone who works in or leads a team in today’s volatile and unpredictable world. The authors offer a clear and comprehensive framework for understanding and building team resilience, based on solid research and practical insights.

They also provide a wealth of stories and cases that illustrate how resilient teams operate and overcome challenges in different domains and situations. The book is not only informative, but also engaging and inspiring, as it shows how teams can achieve remarkable results by leveraging their collective strengths and adapting to changing circumstances.

The book is also very relevant and applicable, as it addresses the challenges and opportunities of working in diverse, distributed, and digital teams, which are becoming more common and important in the post-pandemic era. The book is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn how to create and lead unbreakable teams that can thrive in any environment.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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