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What are adaptability skills? 8 tips to shine in the face of adversity

August 8, 2022 - 17 min read


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What are adaptability skills?

Why are adaptability skills important?

Adaptability skills examples

Show your adaptability skills to prospective employers

4 other leadership skills that will help you succeed

Additional soft skills for success

How adaptability helps with stress management

According to an old Chinese proverb, “an unbending tree breaks in the wind.” This piece of wisdom is often credited to the philosopher Lao Tzu, who wrote it between 400 and 500 BC.

The sentiment speaks to the value of adaptability. The wind will likely blow you over if you stand firm in your ways, like an unbending tree. But if you choose to bend and adapt, the winds of adversity won’t harm you. You will bounce back when things calm down again.

Of course, this is easier said than done.

At work, you probably encounter all sorts of situations that make you feel cornered. Customer complaints, difficult co-workers, or people missing their deadlines — it’s enough to drive you crazy. 

But if you want to be an effective leader, you have to embrace change. It’s important to take things as they come, keep your cool, and adjust your approach when necessary.

Otherwise, you risk over-stressing yourself, which can lead to a higher risk of burnout and poor decision-making.

Thankfully, humans are made for adaptation. You can learn how to be more adaptable — and how to feel better about adapting — and we can help. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about this vital competency.

The first step is understanding what adaptability skills are. From there, you can learn to embody the bending tree.

What are adaptability skills?

Adaptability means managing unexpected situations. Adaptability skills help you think on your feet, be flexible in your approach, and remain calm in the face of new challenges. And it’s not the same thing as flexibility. Flexibility is about accommodating a new circumstance but adapting refers to an entirely new situation. 

Luckily, you can learn adaptability. Change is stressful, but you don’t have to let it affect your thriving ability. You can develop your resilience to be ready for whatever life has in store.

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Why are adaptability skills important?

In today’s rapidly changing labor market, adaptability is a vital asset

And guess what? It isn’t just your imagination or the pandemic. The world, and the work environment, are changing faster than ever. That means that no matter how experienced or prepared you are, you are more likely to encounter completely new challenges and situations in the course of your work. Not just once or twice — often. 

Being adaptable, and being able to thrive while adapting, is a crucial skill.

Employers want people who can read the changing landscape and help an organization respond accordingly. This could mean trying to beat a competitor to market, reacting to changing client demands, or responding to a social media trend.

Here are some points on the importance of adaptability:

  • Prepare you to face challenges. You’ll inadvertently face situations you couldn’t have possibly planned for. But as a flexible leader, you can get through them with poise.
  • It’ll reduce your stress. If change is constant, you can’t be exhausted and demoralized by dealing with change. You’ll be able to accept curveballs and let stressful situations slide because you know you can adapt and persevere.

BetterUp can help you become a more adaptable employee. Our coaches will work with you to set achievable goals and build the skills of a true leader.

Adaptability skills examples

There are many skills required for adaptability. Here are our tips on how to become more adaptable at work.

1. Use critical thinking skills to keep an open mind

This means not accepting information at face value. You should always think critically by questioning your own point of view. Do this by asking yourself:

  • Is your interpretation of the situation based purely on the facts?
  • Could someone else argue with your reading of the facts?
  • What are the alternative perspectives?

These questions will help you reduce your cognitive bias and improve your reading of the situation.


2. Stay curious and ask a lot of questions

When you’re hit with an unexpected scenario, it’s normal to experience shock, anger, or frustration. But it’s best not to act on those emotions. Doing so leads to irrational decisions, stresses your teammates, or makes matters worse.

Chances are, your emotions are rooted in the uncertainty of the situation. When you don’t know what will happen, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

The best way to dispel this feeling is by tuning in to your curiosity. Curiosity offsets feelings of fear, threat, and panic and can further your career. Ask lots of questions. Information is power. And the sooner you have all the facts, the sooner you can process them, make decisions, and move forward.

3. Acknowledge (and silence) your inner voice

You might have an inner voice telling you to panic or, at the very least, exercise caution. Practice self-compassion (and acknowledge where the fear in that inner voice is coming from) because even the best adapters get tired some days. Be careful this doesn’t spiral into negative self-talk.

Find a quiet moment to acknowledge this voice, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that everything will be okay. Because it will.

4. Reframe challenge as an opportunity

Adversity can cause negative emotions such as fear, stress, or anxiety. These are usually rooted in negative thoughts about the unknown future.

But it’s important to remember that no one can predict the future — not even you. So how can you be certain of a bad outcome? A positive development is just as likely as a negative one, so focus on that.

5. Ask for help

An adaptable leader isn’t a monolith. They depend on their team to help make sound decisions. They also seek advice from outside sources when they encounter something they can’t handle.

You only shoot yourself in the foot when you don't ask for help. And you risk bulldozing your team’s ideas and ignoring important facts. And on top of torpedoing your team’s morale, you risk failure.

The need for adaptability makes empowering your team to be more adaptable more important than ever. Empower them through information and delegation — start building their confidence in reading situations and making decisions, too. A leader is only as adaptable as their team.

Be honest about when you need help. With kindness and humility, you and your team will get through this together.


6. Celebrate your wins

As you integrate your new adaptation skills, change might be slow. It will take time to form new habits and change your workflows to suit this style of doing things. You might encounter some setbacks, so be patient.

But if you set goals for yourself and make steady progress, you’ll improve. Stressful new situations will feel less cumbersome, communication will flow freely, and you’ll work better with your team. These are things worth celebrating.

7. Beware of changes in your surroundings

Pay attention to changes that could affect your work environment — both at the office and out in the world. Read your company’s budgets, catch up on industry news, and listen to what people say.

If you know what’s coming, you’ll be ready to adapt.

8. Improve your communication skills

Adaptable people communicate effectively with stakeholders to overcome a problem. 

Practice your active listening, nonverbal communication, and emotional intelligence. These will help you work effectively with others during times of change.


Show your adaptability skills to prospective employers

1. Add them to your resume and LinkedIn profile

In your “experience” section, provide examples of how adaptability supported your problem-solving skills. This can help as you apply to new opportunities.

2. Use examples in your cover letter

Your cover letter is a great place to show your resilient mindset in action. Try explaining how you solved a client’s problem or some other emergency. This lets your employer know you can rise to the challenge.

3. Talk about them in your interview

Provide the interviewer with examples of how you previously applied your skills. You can mention how you calmly approached a complex problem and delegated tasks accordingly.

As much as what you did, interviewers will likely be listening for your attitude toward the types of unforeseen circumstances that require adaptation. If you can, show that you’re authentically energized by these types of challenges and realistic about how and why they occur.

Try not to cast each situation as a major drama with yourself as the weary hero.


4 other leadership skills that will help you succeed

Adaptability is just one of many skills required in leadership roles. Think about how your resilience fits into these other practices.

1. Coaching

Support your team members’ development — even during times of change. Ask everyone for feedback to see if they’re satisfied with their current trajectory.

2. Empowerment

You’re not an expert on every aspect of the job. That’s why you have a team. Allow them to take the initiative within their realm of expertise so they can spring into action quickly.

One way to start empowering your team more effectively is through a practice of clear and timely feedback so that they understand what worked and didn’t when they had the reins.

3. Ethical decision-making

Find out what it means to lead ethically and embody that practice daily. Your beliefs and values will heavily influence your decisions during times of change.

4. Innovation

If you don’t have the tools to solve your problem, invent new ones. This innovative mindset will get you and your team through adversity.

Additional soft skills for success

To become a true leader, you need a strong foundation of other soft skills. For example, you should be proficient at:

  • Problem-solving
  • Conflict resolution
  • Compromise
  • Dependability
  • Positivity
  • Motivation
  • Public speaking
  • Teamwork skills
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Organizational skills
  • Self-awareness

This skill set will make you more valuable to your team.

How adaptability helps with stress management

Adaptability and stress management have a symbiotic relationship. You need to keep cool to adapt effectively. And as you improve your adaptability, your stress will reduce.

Stress management and resilience share similar practices. Both require you to breathe, keep a positive mindset, and believe that everything will be okay.

What are adaptability skills if not a way to find peace? Just like the trees in Lao Tzu’s writing, you too can bend with the wind.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by work's challenges, one of the best things you can do is ask for help. With BetterUp coaches, you can develop the skills and mindsets to thrive in uncertain times.

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Published August 8, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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