What is cognitive flexibility, and why does it matter?

June 15, 2021 - 17 min read

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What is cognitive flexibility?

Why is cognitive flexibility necessary?

3 cognitive flexibility examples

What does cognitive inflexibility mean?

How to improve your cognitive flexibility

3 tools and tests to measure your cognitive flexibility

Build your cognitive flexibility

Have you ever worked with someone who can focus on multiple high-stakes tasks at once with relative ease?

Or someone who can come up with a novel idea under the pressure of a deadline?

These are all examples that help illustrate the definition of cognitive flexibility. 

Cognitive flexibility is key for success in the workplace, but also in everyday life. It allows for flexible thinking to adapt to various situations.

Let’s explore the cognitive flexibility definition and how you can improve your own flexibility.

What is cognitive flexibility?

Sometimes known as cognitive shifting, cognitive flexibility is all about your brain’s ability to adapt to new, changing, or unplanned events.

Cognitive flexibility is also the ability to switch from one way of thinking to another. This is also known as task switching.

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Think about it this way. You shift your body to change direction. You also shift your car into a new lane to avoid danger. 

You can also learn to shift your thinking process to become more adaptable to the situation at hand. This is a prime example of cognitive flexibility.

Why is cognitive flexibility necessary?

Cognitive flexibility is important both on a micro and a macro scale in the workplace. It allows you to juggle multiple concepts at once and improve your cognitive function.

You use cognitive flexibility without realizing it on a daily basis. This happens when you multitask or when you switch from task to task. 

It also happens when you interact with other people and when you go from talking to a customer to your peers. 

Without mental flexibility, you’d be unable to ‘switch’ your brain from situation to situation. 

It’d be difficult to concentrate on a task and perform it adequately. It’s a necessary cognitive process for productivity.

On a more macro scale, people also exhibit cognitive flexibility when thinking about a: 

  • Product within an industry
  • Person within a team
  • Single step forward when solving a complex problem

Your brain can shift from “zoomed in” to the micro (the product) to “zoomed out” to the macro (the industry).

As a result, cognitive flexibility allows you to solve problems creatively, adapt to curveballs, and act appropriately in varying situations. This is because you’re able to see from a different perspective.

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3 cognitive flexibility examples

So what can this look like in real situations? Here are three examples that illustrate mental flexibility.

What’s for dinner: you planned a recipe for tonight’s dinner but find you’re missing an ingredient when you get ready to cook. Cognitive flexibility will allow you to consider your options and improvise a new recipe instead of getting upset. 

Your friend suddenly stops talking to you: with cognitive flexibility, you can think about why they’re acting this way. It allows you to consider their point of view and analyze the possibilities from every angle.

Someone gets sick for an event: let’s say a key volunteer for a charity event gets sick. Cognitive flexibility will allow you to consider all the options to adjust quickly. You’ll think of other people you can call. Or you’ll find ways to adjust the event with the volunteers you currently have.

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What does cognitive inflexibility mean?

The opposite of cognitive flexibility is cognitive rigidity or cognitive inflexibility. 

Think about the way water moves. Water in its liquid state is similar to cognitive flexibility. But water in its frozen state is similar to cognitive rigidity. When water travels, it has the capacity to find many different paths. This is true for small streams, raging rivers, or dropped water in your kitchen.

If you’ve ever noticed how a water leak moves, you’ve seen this in action. The water will flow in several directions. It will find endless ways to surpass obstacles and continue flowing. Water follows the path of least resistance or the most efficient path for it to take.

Ice, on the other hand, is rigid. If it meets an obstacle, it cannot move past it until it melts. You can’t easily force something that’s rigid to be more fluid. 

When you’re flexible, you have the cognitive ability to find more paths to a solution. You can see from multiple perspectives.

On the other hand, if you have rigid thinking, you may struggle to solve problems.

But even if you struggle with cognitive flexibility, you can work to improve this skill. Just like ice, you can melt back into water with a little bit of heat or pressure.

How to improve your cognitive flexibility

There’s no doubt that cognitive flexibility takes mental energy. 

Think about what it feels like to go from a conversation with a toddler to a conversation with a manager. It can take a few moments to get in the right frame of mind and adapt your style to the different audiences. 

Even switching between two adults can be difficult depending on the individual differences between them.

In a recent study, researchers tested the problem-solving abilities of capuchin and rhesus monkeys. They also performed the same test on humans. 

100% of the monkeys demonstrated cognitive flexibility by finding a shortcut. But only 60% of humans did the same.

Practicing cognitive flexibility can create new neural pathways in your brain and improve your cognitive flexibility skill. This makes it easier to practice divergent thinking and creative problem-solving.

Here are some ways you can improve your cognitive flexibility so that you can approach a tough situation in a different way:

1. Start small

One way to practice cognitive flexibility is to introduce it in small, low-stakes ways in your life. You can expose yourself to new situations and different contexts without going too far outside of your comfort zone.

Here’s an example: the next time you order a meal at your favorite restaurant, pick something from your top three meals instead of ordering your first choice. 

Imagine if the menu changes or if they’re out of your favorite food for the evening. By taking small flexible steps, you’ll start opening up to other options when you need to practice flexibility.

You’ll also become more open to trying new restaurants and new experiences. 

Even if you start small, you can start improving your cognitive flexibility. 

In a recent study, researchers taught rats to drive small cars. They learned that:

  • The rats were more open to new challenges after learning the basics
  • Rats’ stress levels went down once they mastered driving
  • Richer environments led to faster learning

Like the rats, if you open yourself up to new experiences and challenges, you’ll be more open to experiencing more.

2. Build your empathy muscles

Understanding others’ experiences, processes, routines, and methods all help you build cognitive flexibility. 

That’s because it helps you get out of the mentality that your way is the only way to go. 

Struggling to build your empathy? Try reading fiction to see a story from someone else’s point of view. 

You can also start approaching other people at work with your challenges. Ask them how they would approach a problem. Make sure you listen actively when they give their explanation. 

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Maybe you won’t agree with your coworker’s approach. But that’s not the point of the exercise. Doing this helps you see from their point of view. 

Plus, listening can help improve your empathy and make you a better learner. 

You’ll start to see that there are several ways you can approach one problem. You’ll also grow your knowledge by listening to others.

3. Interrupt and redirect your thoughts

This tactic is for people who tend to go down rabbit holes with negative thoughts about themselves. Catastrophizing is a common display of cognitive rigidity. 

Here’s an example. Have you ever experienced something negative and then start telling yourself you’re a failure and that you’ll never get anything right? 

You can start thinking you’ll get fired over one mistake and that you’ll never get another job opportunity. 

In five seconds flat, your brain already reaches the point of thinking: “I’m a failure, and I will always be.” 

When this happens, you can practice redirecting your thoughts. Be mindful of what you are thinking and interrupt the thought spiraling through your mind. Change the topic to something else entirely. 

This can be easier said than done. To help you get there, get up and change your scenery. You can take a walk around the block, go on your lunch break earlier than usual, or go see one of your peers to ask about their day.

Think of it as pressing “pause” on your thoughts. You’re pressuring your brain to stop worrying, redirect, and focus on something else. This is an act of cognitive flexibility. 

The more you do it, the easier it’ll become.

4. Ask yourself what else might be true

You can try this tip for yourself. But this is also a great tactic for managers to use when interacting with employees. 

You can use this if one of your employees is stuck, frustrated, or a bit stubborn.

Ask them, “What else might be true?” Make sure you do this in a gentle and kind way. This will help them take a broader look at a situation. It will encourage them to consider other perspectives and look at other possible options.

For example, if an employee is upset about a canceled client meeting, they might say:

 “The client canceled, and I bet they’re going with our competitor. I knew we should have priced it differently.”

Your job as a manager is to urge them to think about what else might be true. Maybe the client got sick. Maybe something else came up that you don’t know about. Maybe the support staff forgot to book a conference room. 

There are so many alternative explanations. Urging your employees to think this way enhances not only their cognitive flexibility skills, but also their strategic thinking skills.

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3 tools and tests to measure your cognitive flexibility

Want to know where you stand regarding cognitive flexibility? Here is how you can perform the test on yourself.

The Cognitive Control and Flexibility Questionnaire

This questionnaire was developed in the context of research completed in 2018. 

Here are statements the researchers developed. Your job is to decide if these statements are true or false for you:

  1. I get easily distracted by upsetting thoughts or feelings.
  2. My thoughts and emotions interfere with my ability to concentrate.
  3. I have a hard time managing my emotions.
  4. It’s hard for me to shift my attention away from negative thoughts or feelings.
  5. I feel like I lose control over my thoughts and emotions.
  6. It is easy for me to ignore distracting thoughts.
  7. It’s difficult to let go of intrusive thoughts or emotions.
  8. I find it easy to set aside unpleasant thoughts or emotions.
  9. I can remain in control of my thoughts and emotions.
  10. I take the time to think of more than one way to resolve the problem.
  11. I approach the situation from multiple angles.
  12. I consider the situation from multiple viewpoints before responding.
  13. I take the time to see things from different perspectives before reacting.
  14. I take the time to think of several ways to best cope with the situation before acting. 
  15. I weigh out my options before choosing how to take action.
  16. I manage my thoughts or feelings by reframing the situation.
  17. I control my thoughts and feelings by putting the situation into context.
  18. I can easily think of multiple coping options before deciding how to respond. 

The Cognitive Flexibility Scale

Just like the previous cognitive flexibility test, this is another research-backed tool to help you with cognitive flexibility.

You can run a demo of the test to see what results you get for yourself.

Flanker test and stroop test

Flanker and Stroop tests were developed in the ’70s, but they’re still used today to evaluate cognitive flexibility.

They involve using colors or arrows to see how well you can react to change.

You can test yourself here and practice reading the colors to improve your cognitive flexibility.

Or, you can run a more complete version of the flanker test by using the demo available here. It may take some practice to get used to how this test works.

Build your cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility requires practice in the small moments of your everyday life.

If you want to improve your own cognitive flexibility, you can practice at work or at home.

When you get upset or feel stuck, remember to give yourself some grace. It takes practice to develop cognitive flexibility. 

If you still experience getting stuck, it’s normal. Pause and breathe for a few seconds and consider what else might be possible in your situation.

With the right coaching, you can build your cognitive flexibility even faster. Try BetterUp today to see how you and your team can build cognitive flexibility together.

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Published June 15, 2021

Lauren Miller

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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