Heads Together and Row research project - Henley Business School Finland

What can a 3,000-mile Atlantic challenge teach us about resilience in the workplace?

In today’s turbulent business world, employees and their colleagues frequently face uncertainty and challenge which can have a negative impact on their performance. But how do we develop both the personal and team resilience needed to bounce back from adversity and to learn from tricky situations?

To find out, Henley Business School academic Dr Caroline Rook followed the journey of a team known as Heads Together and Row who took on one of the most extreme challenges on earth โ€“ a 3,000-mile rowing race across the Atlantic Ocean.

Based on the findings of her research, Dr Rook has identified the factors which can affect our resilience levels, and offer tips for both individual employees and their teams on how to improve them. Dr Rookโ€™s research is based on interviews conducted with the team in the months building up to the race, regular diaries kept by each crew member during the 50 days they spent at sea, and a final interview with each of them after the challenge was complete.

The findings

Negative factors identified in the research included lack of sleep, relationship pressures and uncertainty, while positive factors included feeling part of a team, successfully overcoming adversity and the ability to voice concerns and opinions safely to keep relationships functioning.

Dr Rook offers five top tips to help employees build personal resilience:

  • Get into a routine
  • Focus on the goal to be able to push through
  • Take time out in your happy place!
  • Create a sense of control so you donโ€™t feel overwhelmed
  • Seek support from others to work things through

She also offers three key learning points for businesses to help them build resilient teams:

  • Prepare the whole team together to build clear roles and team processes
  • During challenging times, make sense of the challenge, encourage open dialogue and re-frame adversity as opportunity
  • After the challenge subsides give the team time to recover and capacity to learn

In her paper the findings are supported using anonymised extracts from the rowers’ diaries, as part of which they were asked to score their personal resilience levels from 1-10.

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Dr Caroline Rook, Lecturer in Leadership at Henley Business School, said:

“For the rowers, the main challenge was not the physical aspect of the race, but the mental struggles involved in taking on such an extreme environment. Through the e-diaries they kept and their follow-up interviews, I studied how personal and team resilience developed throughout the race, identifying key coping mechanisms of teams in highly stressful situations which are also relevant in the world of work. We can see that a resilient team is not necessarily made up of highly resilient individuals, but is one that has a strong sense of psychological safety and clear, highly functional team processes.”

About the team

Heads Together and Row are a mixed-four crew who took part in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge 2018.

They are:

  • Toby Gould, 40, a dad-of-one and Deputy Head of Resilience at London Fire Brigade
  • Jeremy Reynolds, 41, a former British Army soldier who works with Toby at London Fire Brigade
  • Alison Wannell, 41, the only female crew member, she has rowed competitively in the past
  • Justin Coleman, 53, a stand-up comedian who unsuccessfully attempted the race once before

The race began in the Canary Islands on December 12. A total of 28 crews started. 27 of those finished.

Heads Together and Row crossed the finish line of the 3,000-mile Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge 2018, in a time of 50 days, 22 hours and 38 minutes.

The team rowed in shifts around the clock, carrying all their food and equipment on board, as well as a water-maker to convert sea water to drinking water.

They were raising funds for the mental health charities under the Heads Together campaign (the brainchild of the young royals), namely Mind and Combat Stress. All four team members have experience of mental health issues, either personally or through family, friends and colleagues.

Watch the video highlights from the race below:

Heads Together and Row
Dr Caroline Rook - Henley Business School Finland

Dr Caroline Rook

Caroline is a lecturer in leadership at Henley Business School. Her research relates to creating healthy and productive workplaces through exploring the links between leadership and well being in organisations. She investigates in particular how to manage executive stress, how to maintain authentic functioning at work and the role of coaching for creating resilience for positive leadership.

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