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How Adaptability in the Workplace Pays Off

Liz Peintner

Illustration of two people talking, with abstract shapes in different combinations floating between them.
Illustration by Marian Blair

“The art of life is a constant readjustment to our surroundings,” wrote Japanese philosopher and artist Okakura Kakuzō at the turn of the 20th century. What he knew then—and what leaders and researchers are studying over 100 years later—is that adaptability gives you an advantage. Those who are in harmony with ever-changing environments have greater life satisfaction and higher likelihood of enjoying their work life. And at the office, it’s the adaptable people who are given the sweet projects, because their managers know they’ll deliver despite uncertainty.

But this kind of agility seems complicated. Why not stay where you are—consistent, reliable, never wavering? Without adaptability in the workplace, you risk being left behind. Read on for the ins and outs of this invaluable art, and the behaviors that go along with it.

How to flex your adaptability muscles

Imagine that your organization has a big transition on the horizon, and they need to promote leaders who can weather it with positivity and lead a newly composed team through upcoming challenges. You might be at the top of the list if you have demonstrated any of the three different kinds of adaptability identified by Allan Calarco, co-author of Adaptability: Responding Effectively to Change

  • Cognitive: the ability to use different thinking strategies and mental frameworks
  • Emotional: the ability to vary your approach to dealing with your own and others’ emotions
  • Dispositional: the ability to remain simultaneously optimistic and realistic

So when you’re looking to impress with your ability to be agile, know that there are many ways to do so.

How to build adaptability in the workplace

Knowing what’s involved in adaptability in the workplace doesn’t necessarily mean you’re walking the walk. If you need a little help putting agility into practice, take a few suggestions from Karen Van Dam, PhD, who cites four skills to become a more agile leader: situational awareness, cognitive awareness, focused attention, and a positive state of mind. Here are some easy ways to get started: 

  • Practice your cognitive flexibilityessentially, your ability to see something differently than before. Try out some creativity exercises to flex your muscles and show your organization that you can be innovative.
  • Develop greater ability to focus your attention on work and ignore distractions. Perhaps putting away your smartphone for an afternoon could be a next step.  
  • Put yourself in a positive state of mind. Focus on optimism, hope, and self-efficacy. Some bedtime reading on self-acceptance could be a great start.
  • Focus on solutions. Try looking forward and understanding what decisions you can make now, rather than worrying about how you got here.
  • Rewrite your mental scripts. Avoid that cycle of thinking in your head that automatically pushes you in the same direction you went last time. 
  • Get physical. Stand up and plant your feet firmly on the ground. Create an imaginary world around you of all of the projects, questions, and pressures of work. Now, move your body in whatever way you’d like to start addressing those metaphorical projects. What’s first? What’s next? Which parts of your body move and which stay in place? By viscerally feeling the physical nature of agility (like that of an athlete), you might learn something about where you’re reluctant to flex and where it’s easy.
  • Write your thoughts down. Journaling is often a great tool for reflection, and for both recognizing and breaking old habits that are doing you no good. 

Good management makes a difference

If you are already pretty comfortable with change but others on your team are not, don’t be so quick to judge. A 2008 study focused on personal adaptability at work found that individuals’ “capacity to respond to challenges with resilience” happened to be positively correlated with emotional support, tools and resources provided by their manager. (Two other factors were your self-perceived ability to find another job and your confidence in the knowledge needed to do your job well.) 

So even if you have a leg up on adaptability in the workplace, there might be others who are just not into it. In that case, examine how changes in your work environment could help. For example, Gallup’s research found that employees will weather organizational changes well when their employer not only espouses the right mindset but also provides the right tools to ensure that employees can follow through on changes. 

Imagine your manager says it’s okay to experiment with different collaboration technologies to see which works best for the team, thereby encouraging a mindset of flexibility and creativity—but when a specific technology is chosen, the manager won’t pull funds from the department budget to pay for it. At that point they will have quashed employees’ ability to be agile by not providing the tools to move forward. Both the mindset and the tools required are equally important.  

The next time you’re facing an upcoming change, remember the many ways you can foster a little more flexibility, creativity and resilience among your team membersnot only for your own well-being, but for theirs too.

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Liz Peintner

Liz S. Peintner is a leadership coach and consultant based in Denver, Colorado who has spent her entire career in the social impact field. She helps people to better understand what drives them so they can choose careers they love and ultimately make positive social impact in ways that speak to their talents and passions.

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