Hone Your Adaptability as a Leader: How to Improve Your Ability to Adapt in the Face of a Changing World

There’s more to it than just challenging yourself every day

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In today’s fast-paced business world, being adaptable is more than just a nice skill to have; it’s vital to being successful. The world is changing so quickly that, as leaders, we cannot risk getting stuck in our ways. Whether you’re tackling a new challenge, trying to keep your employees motivated during the pandemic, trying to adapt policies to the new and changing world of working from home, or merely facing more challenging economic times, honing your ability to be adaptable will make or break your career.

First, it’s essential to know that change, in both life and business, is absolutely inevitable, and the best way to face that change is to tackle it head-on. There’s no benefit in ignoring change, trying to bury your head in the sand, or trying to control change. Behavior like that tends to undermine our ability to be great leaders and makes our lives more difficult and stressful. Part of managing change is learning to be adaptable and flexible, which essentially means doing your best to remain present with happenings in both your business and the broader economy.

Here are four steps you can take right now to improve your adaptability to meet the needs of a changing business world.

Understand What it Means to Be Adaptable

First, you should understand some specific characteristics associated with being adaptable. A few years ago, the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences studied how they could create more adaptable Army leaders in the post-9/11 world. They define adaptability as “an effective change in response to an altered situation.” What that means, however, is somewhat difficult to ascertain without more details.

The study goes on to state that adaptability has eight distinct characteristics:

  1. handling emergencies or crisis situations 
  2. handling work stress 
  3. solving problems creatively 
  4. dealing effectively with unpredictable or changing work situations 
  5. learning work tasks, technologies, and procedures 
  6. demonstrating interpersonal adaptability 
  7. displaying cultural adaptability 
  8. demonstrating physically oriented adaptability

While some of these aspects are obviously more oriented toward military service, plenty of these great nuggets of knowledge can help you gain a better understanding of what adaptability in business looks like.

While a company and its leaders may infrequently face a crisis or emergency situation, a sudden contraction in income or revenue could become an ongoing or serious problem. In cases like this, can you stay calm, collected, and clear-headed, or do you lose your focus—and perhaps your temper—when the going gets tough?

Work stress is part of everyone’s daily lives. It’s inevitable because cognitive friction often occurs between where we are and where we would like to be professionally or financially. Ask yourself how you handle those times in between: when things aren’t going your way or you’re working under a tight deadline, tremendous pressure from stockholders, or pressure from just your boss. This is key to understanding how you perform under work stress.

When faced with a problem, how do you usually respond? Do you fall back on old ideas and habits, or can you come up with creative ways to problem solve or creative approaches when faced with new information? Is there a psychologically safe space where you can try out your new ideas or thoughts?

How do you handle uncertain work situations? How do you cope with walking into a meeting where you don’t know what the outcome might be or what kind of questions you might be asked? These are vital questions to reflect on to determine where you are when it comes to workplace and leadership adaptability.

Adaptability is also primarily determined by how quickly you can pick up new skills or utilize new tools to make your work life (and the work lives of those who report to you) better. As a leader, can you quickly grasp new concepts or ideas so that you can explain them to others? Can you leverage your past experiences and knowledge to figure out how to solve the problem sitting in front of you?

Interpersonal adaptability is something we all need to work hard at, especially today. This quality essentially determines how well you adapt your message to your audience. Can you walk into a room of investors and pitch a deck to win funding and then turn around and talk to your employees to motivate them to keep working hard on a challenging task? Each audience requires a different approach, and your success at adapting your voice to those audiences determines just how successful you’ll be.

Cultural adaptability is also extremely vital in today’s diverse workplace. I have written extensively about how leaders can encourage both diversity and inclusion in the workplace, but at its heart, this kind of action requires true cultural adaptability. 

While physical adaptability is a bit more oriented toward military activities, corporate leaders can learn from this aspect of adaptability, too. Say, for example, you have to hop on a plane to Asia to address a workforce there the next morning. Can you physically handle the time change and keep your head about you, even if you are tired? Can you handle the long flight and high pressure waiting for you at the other end? These aspects of physical adaptability affect our mental capacity and our ability to function at our best. The better you are at handling this kind of physical stress, the more likely you are to be adaptable.

Practice Does Make Perfect

These are all great attributes to cultivate, but how do you improve your adaptability as a leader?

The first step is to consistently challenge yourself and stretch your boundaries to get out of your comfort zone—just enough to give your body and mind the ability to adapt. Think of it like athletic training for your adaptability muscle: Athletes regularly change their workouts and intensity to increase their stamina and strength.

The trick with honing adaptability as a leader is to do it in increments. If you’re a new CEO and about to give your first shareholder presentation, it pays to practice with trusted advisors and coworkers beforehand. They can pepper you with questions and interrupt the way shareholders and the media might to prepare you for what you’ll face when it comes time to make the call or step on stage.

The idea of practicing is at the core of media training for leaders as well. Media trainers put clients in front of the camera or microphone to make them feel uncomfortable, but also to allow them to adapt and increase their skills so that when it comes time for lights, cameras, and action, they are duly prepared.

The trick to honing your adaptability is to work at the outer edge of your comfort zone with consistency and patience. If you get anxious and clam up every time you go to talk to employees, then you need to practice doing it over and over again until you get comfortable. The more you realize that you can handle the situation, the more adaptable you become. 

Be Realistic and Optimistic

A couple of decades ago, Stephen Zaccaro, an organizational psychologist and leadership development expert at George Mason University, developed a rubric for adaptability. He determined that one of the critical aspects of adaptability rested in a person’s ability to be both realistic and optimistic at the same time. That means you should have a good grasp of what is actually going on in your business or industry and be able to see (and even communicate) the opportunities that abound.

Leaders of both large and small companies can struggle with optimism, but you’ll notice that even if they express pessimism in close quarters, most successful leaders outwardly communicate and express optimism during uncertain times. That’s not to say you should be a Pollyanna, but it does mean that any doubts you have you should keep in check when trying to motivate your staff or your shareholders to move forward. 

Partly this means you should double-check yourself when saying no to something or openly resisting a change. Ask yourself if you are merely afraid of failing, or if something truly doesn’t gel with what you know, need, or feel. In the moment, when something like this comes up, actively ask questions rather than saying no outright. Regularly challenge yourself to find the positive in a situation and see if you can capitalize on that. Doing so will help hone your adaptability as a leader. 

Create a Safe Space for Expression and Thought

Psychological safety is paramount to cultivate because it helps both you and your employees feel safe trying out new ideas and expressing new thoughts. Without that safe space, innovation and healthy creativity can’t happen.

The trick to creating a safe space for this kind of expression isn’t to create a place where no one can fail; in fact, failure should and will be a part of your daily life experiences. This is about creating a space where all ideas are welcomed and discussed. Your workplace should be an environment of trust and respect, especially when it comes to expressing diversity of thoughts and ideas. When faced with new and challenging ideas, you can refer back to my earlier point about being flexible in your thinking and problem-solving approach. Checking those times when your first instinct is to say no and making sure that you approach the issue from the right perspective can improve your adaptability by leaps and bounds.

If you actively work on being more flexible and versatile using the steps I outline above, you’ll significantly improve your adaptability skills in the face of a changing business world and ensure your future business success.

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