What is Adaptability?

Adaptability is the potential to adjust and learn new skills in response to changing factors, conditions, or environments. It is a soft skill that is highly valued by employers because every industry can be unpredictable. Both businesses and employees need to be able to adapt so that they can react quickly to unforeseen circumstances.

What Does it Mean to Be Adaptable at Work?

The meaning of adaptability can vary depending on the workplace environment and people’s specific roles within that environment. In general, being adaptable means being flexible, innovative, open, and resilient, particularly when things don’t go according to plan.  

Being able to adapt means something slightly different from being able to manage change. Whereas change management typically involves long-term planning, strategic goals, and careful monitoring, adaptability is much more ad-hoc, involving rapid adjustments in response to changing situations. Adaptable employees will be able to shift strategy quickly and effectively, finding alternative solutions that have not been anticipated in advance. 

While being adaptable does mean responding to unforeseen circumstances, this does not mean that you’re not able to train for it. It is important to develop adaptive skills and cultivate a dynamic mindset because this makes it possible to implement adjustments when required.

Why is it Important to Adapt to Change?

We live in a rapidly changing world, and the business environment across all sectors is becoming more and more unstable. According to a survey by the Harvard Business Review conducted in 2019, 93% of 324 executives said that they were seeing significant levels of volatility in their industries. This was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has since increased economic uncertainty even more.     

Given the fragility of this economic landscape, it is not surprising that adaptability is highly valued by managers and business leaders. A review by Ernst & Young found that 150 C-suite leaders listed adaptability as “one of the top five skills they felt they needed to succeed in the future”. 

Nevertheless, despite its importance, adaptability remains a rare skill. According to a report by McKinsey, although 84% of executives stated that they felt innovation was essential for their company’s growth, only 6% were satisfied with their company’s innovation and adaptability performance. 

What Happens if You Don’t Adapt to Change?

History clearly shows what happens to businesses that are unable to adapt to change. Writing in Forbes, Jon Dwoskin has described how companies like MySpace and Borders, who were once industry leaders, collapsed because they were unable to adapt. These companies did not respond quickly enough to incoming threats and soon found themselves overtaken.

In moments of crisis, adaptability is particularly important. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, for example, the companies that fared best were those that adjusted rapidly to what became known as the “New Normal”. On the other hand, the companies that were unable to shift their focus and rethink their operations struggled to survive. 

Similarly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the companies that succeeded were those that adapted quickly to the new working conditions. This involved shifting to remote forms of working and engaging in digital transformation

On an individual level, an employee that is not able to adapt risks becoming stuck in certain patterns of work. They might find themselves stagnating, unable to pick up new skills. They might, therefore, find it difficult to react when things go wrong. An unadaptable employee can also be difficult to work with, making them less likely to be chosen for team projects or presented with opportunities. 

Examples of Adaptability Skills

There are several ways that people can be adaptable at work:

  1.     Be confident but open to criticism. Confidence is an important factor when it comes to adaptability. Confident workers will be more willing to take risks and less worried about the consequences of failing. However, while self-belief is an important skill, it is equally important to know how to take on feedback and criticism. Overconfidence may cause you to neglect the complexity of a task or fail to take on the advice of others. 
  2.     Focus on solutions rather than problems. While it is important to recognize the challenges involved in a particular project, adaptable employees also come up with potential solutions or alternatives. Rather than focusing primarily on the reasons why something cannot be done, try to think about different ways or circumstances in which it could be done. In other words, try to say “yes” rather than “no”. 
  3.     Collaborate with others and learn from them. Recognizing your limits is just as important as knowing your strengths. While adaptable people will often be effective at working on their own, they will also know when to ask for help and when to bring other people on board. In general, being willing to learn both independently and from others is key to being an adaptive worker.

While the above skills will benefit workers in all roles and industries, there are some key adaptability skills that apply specifically to leaders and managers. Here are several ways in which people in leadership roles can help foster adaptability in the workplace:

  1.     Give employees the confidence to learn from their mistakes. The importance of learning through failure is well-documented. Leaders should not only reflect on how they can implement changes in response to errors but also make sure that employees feel comfortable failing. Only then will they be able to see failures as chances for growth.
  2.     Create opportunities for reflection. When employees are focused on performance objectives, they often don’t have time to reflect on their work. Managers can create a space for employees to engage in self-reflection and self-evaluation, helping them to recognize changes that they might implement in the future. 
  3.     Be deliberate when setting goals. Adaptive leaders will take a strategic approach to setting goals and improving performance. Though adaptability requires flexibility and innovation, careful consideration is required to ensure that changes can be implemented as and when required. 

Developing these skills requires time and dedication. The COVID-19 pandemic has recently shown just how fragile our working patterns can be, demonstrating how important adaptability is for ensuring success. Now and in the future, the managers and employees who actively cultivate adaptive habits will not only be primed for survival during difficult times but will also be ready to seize opportunities as soon as they arise.

Updated: March 30, 2023

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