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Adaptability in the workplace: Defining and improving this key skill

October 19, 2022 - 10 min read
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    No matter what your job is or how long you’ve been doing it, adaptability is an important skill to have. In fact, adaptability is one of the top five skills that employers are looking for — and no wonder. If the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s the need to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances. It’s a core part of resilience, stress management, and career development.

    Our ability to look ahead to the future and imagine possible scenarios is a uniquely human one. Psychologists like Martin Seligman, Roy F. Baumeister, and others refer to this as “prospection.” BetterUp defines this skill in action as future-mindedness. As we emerge from the pandemic and redefine the future of work, future-minded leaders will have a vital role to play. They tend to be more successful, hopeful, and less stressed than their peers — and hopefully, model those behaviors for others.

    No matter what situation comes up, it’s important to be able to deal with it in an effective way and move on. Adaptability is a critical skill, both in work and in life. 

    It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one most adaptable to change.

    Charles Darwin

    What it means to have adaptability

    In his best-selling book, Think Again, Adam Grant emphasizes the importance of being open to changing your mind. The ability to re-think — and move accordingly — is a core part of developing adaptability.

    If adaptability is the ability to change and adjust, the opposite is inflexibility. Inflexible or rigid people have difficulty coping with new situations or conditions. These traits can make employees seem out of touch or uncommitted. They may not want to try new things, fear not being successful at them, resist changes that would improve their work life, and show unwillingness to learn from their mistakes. Often, they have trouble hearing and incorporating feedback. 

    A lack of adaptability can lead leaders astray too. Leaders need to be able to reflect on how their team operates and identify the changes that might be necessary for future success.


    What are adaptability skills?

    Adaptability skills are what make people and teams more capable of thriving during a time of change, or when faced with new challenges. The ability to adapt is crucial for leaders and their teams during turbulent times, like a pandemic. When the work environment changes rapidly, adaptable people and teams are able to adjust in real time without any loss of productivity or quality.

    There are three types of adaptability skills: cognitive flexibility, social flexibility, and behavioral flexibility. The first two are related to adapting thoughts and interactions with others, while the third refers to adapting actions. 

    You might notice that adaptability skills are different from problem-solving skills. Problem-solving skills can include finding the right solution to a problem while adaptability is really just responding to changes in demand and changes in priorities that are often outside of your control. However, an adaptive mindset often leads to stronger and more creative problem-solving.

    When you think about adaptability, you might also want to consider interpersonal skills, like active listening and growth mindset, as well as cognitive skills like critical thinking. Adaptability also extends to soft skill sets such as leadership, communication, and teamwork.

    Examples of adaptability skills:

    Adaptability skills can help you navigate change and meet the demands of new projects. Here are some examples of adaptability skills, and how they can be useful or applied in the workplace:

    Leadership skills

    When working with an employee or team member, adaptive leaders will tailor their approach based on the person's personality or style. This is a valuable skill that ensures everyone feels valued and recognized as an individual. They can work well on a variety of projects or teams.

    Responding to adversity

    When challenges arise, we often have to throw out old plans and come up with something new. Adaptable employees can do this without feeling frustrated or stymied by the shift. They are flexible and open to new ideas.

    Communication skills

    A good communicator will use different tactics when communicating with various stakeholders, depending on the situation. Rather than pushing ahead with one method, they can change their approach. This can diffuse tension, help others learn, and drive change when needed.

    Changing approaches

    We all have our preferred way of working, and it’s easy to fall into a routine. When we’re adaptable, we can incorporate new technology and master new skills. This can help streamline workflows and increase efficiency.

    Incorporating feedback

    Rigid individuals often take feedback personally. People who are highly flexible are open to new ways of doing things. They have a growth mindset and are continually challenging their existing processes and assumptions.


    Why adaptability is essential for leadership

    We know that leaders need to be willing and able to change in order to lead a successful team. But what does this actually look like? It's not enough for leaders just to say they'll do things differently or make changes. They also have to take action. Leaders need to use their flexibility and willingness as tools. This can help them achieve success, both at work and outside of it. 

    3 ways to develop adaptable leaders

    Developing leaders who are adaptable in the workplace helps to ensure that they and their teams can be flexible in the face of change. Here are three ways you can help your leaders become more adaptable:

    1. Have a clear vision

    Leaders should know what their goals are and have an idea of where they want to go. But they need to balance this with being open to new possibilities. A leader should always know why they're making a decision. There should be multiple paths to success, and each decision aligns with the end goal — not one particular way of getting there.

    2. Encourage innovation

    Innovation is part of the process for creating new solutions to old problems. Leaders should create environments that welcome innovative thinking from all levels of the organization. Creativity only thrives in an environment that encourages and values it.

    3. Build safety

    Adaptability often means taking risks. However, those in a leadership role may feel under pressure to deliver certain results. That may make it feel unsafe to make mistakes. Encourage bold action over perfect results.


    Tips for establishing adaptability in teams

    Building adaptability can become part of your team culture. You can share it with your co-workers as both a value and as a way of approaching work. Here are some ways to foster adaptability skills and future-mindedness on your team:

    1. Stay open-minded 

    It's hard not be closed off when you're set in your ways. But being open-minded can help you learn from others, see new perspectives, and make better decisions. 

    2. Embrace the process

    Understand that there's always room for improvement. People are never finished learning, so don't get discouraged. As James Clear emphasizes in Atomic Habits, incremental progress can accumulate to game-changing results.

    3. Leave room for error

    Don't fear making mistakes. Plan for things not to go perfectly. These mistakes provide valuable learning opportunities and a chance to develop agility.

    4. Foster a culture of trust and transparency

    Share what’s happening with the team and the company. But in addition to that, provide frequent feedback and guidance to employees who are struggling with tasks or projects. Make feedback a regular occurrence, and open the way for them to share with you in return.

    5. Challenge your team 

    Create opportunities for employees to learn new skills, even if they're not related directly to their job description. Send them on field trips to other departments, or have them take online courses on subjects that will help them learn new skills. These might include project management or public speaking

    Improving your ability to adapt

    The ability to adapt to change is a key skill to have in today's workplace. Both in and out of work, however, our ability to adapt can help us move through uncertainty with more ease. You may not know what will happen in the future, but you can trust your ability to handle it.

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    Published October 19, 2022

    Allaya Cooks-Campbell

    BetterUp Staff Writer

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