Adaptability in the Workplace

The COVID-19 crisis has taught organisations many things. One of these is the importance of adaptability as a key competence for employees.

This isn’t new – it was important pre-COVID-19 as organisations navigated the increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world they inhabited. But never before have the implications of a lack of adaptability been so stark – for many organisations during COVID-19, it’s been the difference between survival and bankruptcy.

It was Charles Darwin who said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” And what does this have to do with resilience? Being adaptable, flexible, and mentally agile is key to being able to respond with confidence to challenges.

So, what does it mean to be adaptable? The online dictionary defines adaptable as: “able to adjust to new conditions”.

People who adapt well stay current – they’re aware of what’s happening and are constantly thinking about what will likely happen next and how they can adjust to this. They’re curious and inquisitive and are constantly seeking to acquire new knowledge, skills, and capabilities. They’re well networked and resourceful and know where to turn for help and support. They’re also creative thinkers who are able to think laterally.

They’re courageous – it takes bravery to put yourself out there and chart a new course for yourself, your team, or your organisation. They’re not afraid to make mistakes, or fail, and are capable leaders, able to engender followership in even the most reluctant of followers.

So, with all of that said, why is this not being demonstrated in spades by all employees at the moment? This is complex and is usually down to a combination of factors, including an organisation’s culture, employee engagement levels, how skilled and capable employees are and fear.

Fear is a big one – many enjoy the sense of safety that comes from knowing what they’re going to do at work each day and the routine and ritual that comes from this. They’re afraid of the unknown and fearful that the new world may never be as positive as they one they’re familiar with.

So, how can you develop this critical skill in your workforce?

  1. Ensure your organisation’s culture, systems, and processes, including recruitment, performance management and reward, develop and nurture adaptability as a skill.
  2. Where individual leaders or employees struggle to adapt, remind them about times in the past where they have successfully done this. Use these conversations to build their confidence.
  3. When you suspect fear is holding your employees back, teach them about the neuroscience of fear. Fear is here to help us, it’s here to keep us safe. Sometimes it’s about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
  4. Use internal communication channels to share insights with employees and leaders about what is happening internally and externally. Discuss the implications and invite questions.
  5. Nurture a culture that embraces learning. Regularly discuss what employees have learned from projects they’ve worked on and mistakes they’ve made.
  6. Where you are developing adaptability through formal learning, ensure this includes practical simulations where employees are encouraged to practise responding adaptably to an evolving situation.
  7. Incorporate problem solving into your formal learning and development programs, so employees have a methodology to use when responding to rapidly evolving situations. Incorporate mental agility learning too, including work by Dr Susan David on emotional agility.
  8. Establish an innovation scheme or incubator program where employees can come up with and test new ideas in a safe environment.
  9. Encourage employees to build strong networks. Open plan and flexible working spaces, joint meetings and events and cross-functional teams can facilitate this.
  10. Continually encourage employees to step outside of their comfort zone and take small risks.

Susie Mogg

 Founder and CEO of Reslilience in…..