“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, you risk being left behind. Read on for the ins and outs of this invaluable art, and the behaviors that go along with it.
Flexing your flexibility 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 at the top of the pick-list if you have demonstrated any of 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.
Challenge yourself to build adaptability
But knowing what’s involved in adaptability 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 flexibility—essentially, 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 relevant stimuli and ignore distractions. Perhaps exploring essentialism at work or putting away your smartphone for an afternoon could be a next step.
- Put yourself in a positive state of mind, focused on optimism, hope, and self-efficacy. Some bedtime reading on self-acceptance would be a great start.
- Focus on solutions by looking forward and understanding what actions you can take now, rather than worrying about how you got here.
- Rewrite the mental scripts that cycle in your head that automatically push 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 it down for reflection.
The manager 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 agility, 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 changes well when the organization espouses not only the right mindset but 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, and the manager won’t pull funds from the department budget to pay for it, then they will have quashed employees’ ability to be agile by not providing the tools to move forward. Both are equally important.
So 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 members— not only for yourself, but for their wellbeing, too.
Adaptability is a skill explored in Continuing Education’s Certificate for Emerging Leaders program, designed to help leaders, of all levels of experience, deal with the constant changes in today’s fast-paced workplace. The focus is on developing skills in the areas of building relationships, coaching, communication, personal effectiveness, and professional skills.