Welcome to the Lewis Blog

Brittleness encroaching: absent leaders and combined teams

Posted by Beth Lay, Director of Safety and Human Performance on Nov 23, 2020 2:57:20 PM

As COVID-19 spreads, there are an increasing number of leaders and team members absent due to illness, precautionary self-quarantine, childcare, etc. To adapt to this situation, teams reconfigure, and leaders fill in, but ultimately there are not enough people to cover the work and our systems become stressed and stretched.

We're Hiring for Strong and Flexible Teams

Absent leaders, and teams who do not normally work together, often result in brittle situations.

Combined teams

When you change anyone on a team, you change the entire team. You have a different team. It takes several weeks, at a minimum, to integrate into one team. When combining teams, the first several weeks of working together are high-risk while the team may be out of sync. Communication breaks down. People cannot predict each other’s actions, or how they do work, because their routines are different.

Absent leader

A leader being out of sync is more dangerous than combined teams. Every leader has a different style and teams adapt to their leader’s style. Fill-in leaders may assign work that is a mismatch with skills. They may not know the customers. With an unfamiliar leader, team members may hesitate to raise concerns.

Bringing teams together and having leaders fill-in for each other ultimately enables us to be more flexible—increasing resilience—if we plan for it and manage differently as teams and leaders adapt. It provides the opportunity to learn from someone new, practice new skills, and build relationships such that people ask for and offer help. In the military, cross-training is common. For Marines, being basic riflemen is the mission, yet they have regular jobs, too. Cross-training builds bench strength at multiple levels.

A core strategy of Resilience Engineering is having extra help ready to deploy. General, non-specific resources, who can help in a wide range of situations, are needed when uncertainty is high. For example, during the first wave of COVID-19, nurses’ associations reached out to retired nurses for help directly in hospitals or to train new nurses. Another version of this strategy is to drop in an expert without a predefined role to co-locate and offer help, where needed.

Following are strategies to plan and manage differently when your system is stressed or stretched.


Build a reserve of individuals who are ready to help (i.e., non-specific, general resources)

  • Bring retired leaders on as contractors
  • Identify high-potential team leaders who are willing to fill in (as a development opportunity) and have them shadow for a week
    • Move people in field-support roles to direct field-contact roles and act as an extra set of eyes or assist other leaders


Ensure the success of a new or temporary leader

  • Perform handoffs covering team capabilities and gaps (i.e., team insights)
  • Overcommunicate; include more details than normal when sharing work plans
  • Make everything as explicit as possible (assumptions get us in trouble)
    • Define decision authority
    • Ask the team: a) What do I need to know about you?, b) What would help you to know about me? and c) What problems have you had in the past when a new leader filled in?


Ensure the success of merged teams

  • Talk about “why” the team has been brought together
  • Share the mission, project details and customer objectives
    • Share skill levels (e.g., this is what I am good at, this is what I am working on, this is what am going to need help with)
    • Ask fellow team members: a) What do we need to know about you?, b) What would help you to know about me? and c) What problems have you had in the past with newly formed teams?
    • Identify ONE person in charge on each work site


Reduce the workload: push off work (e.g., administrative work) that can be done later

  • Postpone critical or difficult work; if necessary, to perform, increase peer checks

Increase leadership engagement and establish routine check-in points


Proactively look for signs of stress

  • Failure is asymptotic; things spiral out of control quickly
  • Cognitive load is limited; once limits are neared, we begin to miss things (Note: This is a team as well as an individual dynamic)
  • Identify which resources are most likely to be over-loaded


Notice stack-up of risk (watch out for three or more!)

  • Have extra leadership or safety support


Risk factors and error-likely situations




1st or 2nd time doing task

Non-routine task

Unusually difficult task

Last-minute change (especially significant scope change or who has the lead)

Emergency work

Rework/call backs

Hard-to-meet deadline


Leader absent

Combined teams

New to job or team

First day back after more than four days off

Last day before time off

End of task

Stepping in at the last minute to help

Distracted, tired, or in a hurry

Just prior to holiday

Weather (e.g., icy, foggy, hot, rainy)

Multiple teams in same area

Irate or frustrated customer, patients, etc.








Topics: leadership, resilience engineering, teams

Subscribe to Email Updates

Recent Posts

Posts by Topic

see all