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Trying to Address Challenges at Work? Practice Adaptive Leadership

A bunch of puzzle pieces. One of them is red.

While there are many leadership development opportunities in the nonprofit sector, understanding what it means to be a leader requires us to question the way we think about the world and reflect on how we interact with others.

Last winter, I had the opportunity to do this when I attended a training on adaptive leadership, hosted by Cambridge Leadership Associates (CLA). The book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the Worldwhich was written by leaders from CLAalso gives a great in-depth analysis of adaptive leadership and the tools needed to practice it effectively. These two resources have been some of the most meaningful and practical leadership tools I’ve acquired.

What is adaptive leadership and why does it matter?

Adaptive leadership is a framework for understanding how we can identify the root causes of the challenges we face, and how we can, effectively and sustainably, overcome them. It requires us to be open to the possibility that we don’t always see the complete picture when assessing a situation and as a result we don’t always apply the most effective solutions.

What’s key about this approach is that it distinguishes between two types of challenges: adaptive challenges, which require people and organizations to shift values, beliefs, and actions and technical challenges, which usually have an easy fix or solution.

Too often, we treat our challenges as technical when they are really adaptive. A good example of this is when staff at organizations, both large and small, share that they do not feel their opinions are adequately considered when making key organizational decisions. One simple technical solution would be to allocate extra time at meetings to hear feedback or ideas from all staff.

However, this wouldn’t push senior management to truly consider their ideas; it only creates a space for the ideas to be shared. Taking an adaptive approach to this challenge means that senior management would not only solicit ideas from staff, but also go back and review them, ask questions about them, and incorporate them into the decision-making process. The key change here is that senior management would have to value its employees in a way they may not have before, and integrate this new value into its approach to decision making. Additionally, they would have to recognize the shortcomings of their previous approach to be able to adapt.

What makes adaptive leadership challenging to practice?

Practicing an adaptive approach is challenging because it often goes against the way we normally operate and how we make sense of the world. And it can involve you, your team, and your organization – which can be daunting forces to influence. It also takes time! When we don’t get results immediately or are trying to incorporate new practices in our day-to-day lives, we can easily brush them off as being unsuccessful.

Imagine, in this example, the process of getting all senior managers on board to integrate staff feedback into their decision-making. Some may feel strongly against the idea; others may lose interest quickly if they don’t see the value in it after the first few meetings; and even staff members who were feeling unheard might be unhappy with the new process if it doesn’t meet their expectations immediately.

How can we all practice adaptive leadership?

That being said, practicing adaptive leadership isn’t just for people at the top of the decision-making hierarchy. Too often, the rest of us don’t speak up when we have identified adaptive challenges in our work, which keeps our teams and organizations focused on the wrong issues. And while the reasons why can vary–from individual confidence to an environment where feedback and staff engagement are not adequately supported–our own adaptive leadership is always needed.

So what can you do to practice adaptive leadership? While I’m still figuring out what works for me, I’ve learned the following are most important:

  • Ask others for insight (and be sure to use it): Be flexible and open to the possibility that you don’t have all or any of the right answers. We work in teams and communities for a reason, and we know that each person brings in a diverse perspective and opinion. Reach out to others and make sure that you are really looking at the bigger picture and not just what you are able to see from your perspective.
  • Be honest when you’re not making progress: When a solution that you or your organization has implemented doesn’t work, don’t try it over and over again in the exact same way. Try to understand why something isn’t going well. And when assessing, remember that making change takes time and patience. Ask yourself, “What can I do to make this sustainable?”
  • Set aside time to reflect: Always make time to reflect on your work. We are much more effective at identifying what we do well and where we fall short once we complete the task or project at hand, because there is less pressure to complete it perfectly. Taking a look back at what we have done and how we have done it opens us up to embracing changes so that the next time, we go in with a much clearer approach and sense of the challenges we may continue to face.

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by Allison Jones

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