Future proof: Solving the ‘adaptability paradox’ for the long term

| Article

Shutdowns and supply-chain hacks. Hybrid work, remote shopping, settling up via blockchain. The past year has made it abundantly clear, if it wasn’t already, that a volatile and complex world is serving up change at an accelerating pace.

Individuals and organizations need to be ready. That doesn’t mean reacting to the next challenge that comes our way but rather being prepared to meet it when it arrives. There’s one tool above all others that can help leaders do that: adaptability.

Adaptability is the ability to learn flexibly and efficiently and to apply that knowledge across situations. It’s not so much a skill as a meta-skill—learning how to learn and being conscious of when to put that learner’s mind into action. By becoming aware of and open to change now, we can maintain control over uncertainty before pressures build to the point where altering course is much more difficult, or even futile.

Our research shows that adaptability is the critical success factor during periods of transformation and systemic change. It allows us to be faster and better at learning, and it orients us toward the opportunities ahead, not just the challenges.

Yet the same conditions that make adapting so important can also trigger fear, making us default to familiar patterns or whatever solutions worked the last time. We call this the “adaptability paradox”: when we most need to learn and change, we stick with what we know, often in a way that stifles learning and innovation. Even positive events, such as receiving a promotion or beginning a new workstream, can turn negative unless we can maintain a learning mindset while under pressure.

But people often don’t put in the hard work of learning and mastering something new unless there is compelling motivation to do so. When that motivation arrives, it’s often accompanied by pressure—to avert failure, for instance, or to attain a high-stakes reward or incentive.1

To avoid this trap, leaders must work on transforming their relationship with change and uncertainty by building adaptability as an evergreen skill that benefits themselves and their organizations at a deeper level.

This is not a natural skill—even for the most successful among us—but it can be nurtured. And the rewards are worth the effort: companies with strong cultures that emphasize adaptability turn in better financial performance than entities that lack those attributes, research shows.2

In this article, we delve into five steps that leaders can take to become more adaptable, including emphasizing both well-being and purpose, practicing an adaptive mindset, building deeper human connections, and making it safe to learn.

Why building an adaptability muscle is so important

The power of resilience has been amply demonstrated during the COVID-19 crisis. Although resilience and adaptability are linked, they are different in important ways. Resilience often entails responding well to an external event, while adaptability moves us from enduring a challenge to thriving beyond it. We don’t just “bounce back” from difficult situations—we “bounce forward” into new realms, learning to be more adaptable as our circumstances evolve and change.

Learning agility,3 emotional flexibility, and openness to experience are all part of a multidimensional understanding of adaptability.4 They help us maintain deliberate calm under pressure and display curiosity amid change. They allow us to respond in ways that are the opposite of a knee-jerk reaction by making thoughtful choices.

Studies have shown that adaptability is also linked to important psychological skills, ranging from coping to personal growth. In the workplace,5 higher levels of adaptability are associated with greater levels of learning ability and better performance, confidence, and creative output.6 Adaptability is also crucial for psychological and physical well-being and is linked to higher levels of social support and overall life satisfaction.7

Now that we’ve enumerated the benefits of adaptability, let’s go through the five ways leaders can invest in it to prepare for a fast-paced and uncertain future.

Step 1: Practice well-being as a foundational skill

From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, executives have made sure to check on employees’ health. But that may have been putting the cart before the horse: research shows that leaders experienced anxiety and burnout symptoms at unprecedented rates8 as they focused on others without restoring their own energy levels.

A Harvard Business Review–sponsored survey conducted in the fall of 2020 gathered feedback from more than 1,500 respondents from 46 countries9—the majority of whom were at or above supervisor level. Eighty-five percent of these respondents said their well-being had declined, while 56 percent said their job demands had increased. Moreover, 62 percent who were struggling to manage their workloads said they had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often” in the previous three months.

The number of people reporting more symptoms of burnout has increased since then, not only in C-suites but also across organizations. When people are exhausted, they fall into a scarcity mindset (thinking about what they don’t have) and aren’t as adaptable or open to learning. We expect to see these mental-health and well-being challenges continue for at least the next year or two.

The best way to handle demanding situations is by investing in one’s own well-being first. Just like athletes who continually invest in their own physical and mental health—not only before a game or a race—leaders have to be fit to face whatever comes their way and to support others for however long it takes. Leaders should focus on allowing themselves to thrive, and then helping others to be at their physical, mental, and emotional best.10

The CEO of a global mobility tech company told us that when the pandemic began, he took advantage of not having to travel by restarting a daily running routine. He started at five kilometers a day, using the time and physical activity to reflect and refresh, eventually building his runs to marathon length. After injuring himself, however, he realized that he had begun to approach running as a goal to be achieved rather than as a nurturing practice to enjoy. So he shifted back to his original goal of giving himself time to reflect, which in turn helped him perform and nurture his team.

Research shows that taking deliberate breaks accelerates learning and skill acquisition. For example, a study of violin prodigies11 revealed that students who were quickest to master the instrument took regular and significant breaks, including naps between practice sessions, rather than playing for hours on end. In another study of people trying to perform a task involving new skills, those who took breaks to mentally reset improved much more quickly under performance pressure.12

Counter to what leaders may think, attending to one’s own physical well-being is not selfish. Rather, physical and mental health are necessary to build sound decision-making skills amid uncertainty (Exhibit 1).

Daily practices that foster well-being can help leaders’ performance in an era of constant change.

Many leaders think they have to show their organizations that they are always “on,” never being out of pocket long or taking needed vacations. But research shows that leaders who are role models for well-being can have a positive impact across their organizations. They understand from their own experience that people learn better and faster when they are healthy and well-rested.

A McKinsey survey on employee experience found that taking care of one’s physical and mental health was associated with a 21 percent improvement in work effectiveness, a 46 percent improvement in employee engagement, and a 45 percent improvement in well-being. Organizations that invest in scaling well-being and improving employee experience have seen lower rates of employee turnover, higher ratings on innovation, and even increased Iong-term stock performance.13 They are also more frequently cited as great places to work.

Step 2: Make purpose your North Star and define your ‘nonnegotiables’

While learning is normally invigorating, it can feel daunting during challenging times. We often fall into the trap of attending to the most urgent tasks rather than what is the most important. That’s where a sense of purpose comes in: it offers a framework that makes hard work worthwhile and expands tolerance for change. When employees feel that their purpose is aligned with that of their organization, the benefits expand to include stronger engagement and self-efficacy, as well as heightened loyalty.

Purpose starts with exploring what truly matters to you and what you want to spend time on. As your North Star, your purpose can guide you through tough decisions and inspire you to move forward.

While purpose helps define what you hope to gain, it also frames what you don’t want to lose—your “nonnegotiables.” These are the vows you make to yourself that you will not break no matter what: I will coach junior colleagues; I will be home for my child’s birthday; I will take time off to see my parents. Even if they’re sometimes tough to execute, keeping these vows is worth it.

The link between well-being and purpose is strong. People who say that they are “living their purpose” at work report levels of well-being that are five times higher than those who say that they are not. Research shows they are also healthier, more productive, and more resilient. For their part, leaders who link their own purpose to that of their organization in a genuine fashion help their employees do the same, creating stronger relationships over time.

Step 3: Experience the world through an adaptability lens

Unless the brain learns something new, it will forecast what will happen based on what it has seen and learned before.14 That is why people default to certain behavioral patterns, especially under stress. Some want to control the situation. Others tend to see themselves as victims, claiming everything is out of their control and shutting down.

Our default patterns may serve to protect us in the moment. But ultimately, they may hinder our ability to adapt and respond in ways that a new situation requires. Often, we realize this is the case only after an interaction in which our default patterns have caused friction in a relationship. These can be missed opportunities to take a proactive approach to the situation.

Underlying these patterns are mindsets and beliefs we hold, often unconsciously, that influence how we perceive reality and make us less flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances. However, if we can recognize that we’re moving to our default mindset for stressful situations—signals such as sweaty palms or other physical reactions to perceived threats—and instead push ourselves to see multiple perspectives, we move into a world that offers more possibilities.

While status quo mindsets may be perfectly reasonable in some routine (or low-stress) situations, they are progressively less useful as circumstances become more complex and we’re under more pressure. What becomes optimal then is for leaders and organizations to shift into adaptable learning mindsets (Exhibit 2).

Mindsets run on a continuum, from a focus on the status quo to greater adaptability.

For leaders, one enemy of the adaptive mindset is a belief that it’s their job to have the “right answers” rather than knowing when to ask the right questions. It’s essentially the same trap that Zen Buddhism warns against falling into, thus urging practitioners to adopt what it calls the beginner’s mind, or shoshin. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” according to this concept. “In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

What we now know is that this beginner’s mind is not a fixed personality trait or a skill available only to Zen masters; it is a learnable skill for everyone. We can build ours through deliberate practice. If leaders shed their “expert” status, they can navigate uncertain situations by collecting information in new and productive ways. By shifting their mindset to encourage learning, curiosity, and openness to change, leaders can display the flexibility to find solutions.

For instance, C-suite leaders at a multinational corporation were struggling with how best to support employees during the pandemic as burnout rates rose. As a practitioner of the “expert mindset,” the CEO felt he should already know the answers and was unable to accept such uncertainty. He was coached to approach the problem by seeking different perspectives—for instance, by turning to team members with nursing, military, and paramedic backgrounds, who had experience dealing with trauma. Making such a journey requires awareness of your default mindsets, understanding when they are not serving you, opening up to what else may be true, and intentionally shifting into a new, adaptable mindset.

Self-awareness and reflection are critical components of adaptability. Ways to build awareness include making a “to be” list—that is, a list of the values we want to embody—and setting your intentions in the morning, ahead of a busy day, or at work when things get challenging. Reflecting at the end of the day about difficult moments also helps build an adaptable “unlocking mindset” for the future. The central issue is not that we experience anxiety or uncertainty—that will happen frequently—but rather whether we respond to those pressures in ways that lead us to do more of the same rather than learning and changing.

Step 4: Build deeper and more diverse connections

Strong interpersonal relationships also bolster adaptability, since human beings need meaningful connections to survive and thrive. These community networks can even affect longevity, research shows.15

We typically go through our daily work routine actively engaging with tasks and indirectly engaging with colleagues to help us achieve those tasks. But that emphasis is misplaced: inattention to colleagues is actually counterproductive to both our well-being and our productivity at work.

Research has found that deep and diverse connections that provide social support are fundamental elements of the rich tapestry feeding our well-being and learning,16 especially during periods of uncertainty and heightened stress.

As a leader, there are certain actions you can take to foster deeper connections:

  • Pay full attention to the person in front of you. When in conversation, we often let our minds stray, or we multitask by checking our phone or email. Full attention requires tuning our awareness toward the other person and listening deeply, without judgment. When people feel heard, they can also hear you.
  • Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Show up as your authentic self and be willing to share your fears, concerns, and imperfections. While it can feel risky to be exposed, this process is always one of deliberate choice.
  • Show empathy, but don’t stop there. Empathy alone is not enough. Leaders can learn to channel the right kind of empathy, which involves taking into account the other person’s perspective without being distracted from the situation at hand or, potentially, using up your own energy on unpleasant feelings. Once you understand the other person’s perspective, you become aware of the best course of action.
  • Meet others with compassion. If you’ve noticed someone else’s pain—physical, mental, or social—demonstrate your intent to take supportive action. At the same time, be aware that you can never fully understand what they’re going through, so keep an open mind. While general acts of kindness are appreciated, compassion is more nuanced and specific to the needs of the individual.

We have worked with leaders who have changed how they connect with people by considering the ways described above. For instance, the head of plastic surgery at a major hospital in North America was enlisted to sponsor one of the hospital’s new cohorts. During a live coaching exercise, he was unhappy that a team member waited until the end of a three-week consultation process before opposing new safety protocols the group wanted to implement.

Initially frustrated, he asked why she had waited until the last minute. As he reflected more, though, he realized that he had failed to create a safe enough environment for this team member to raise her concerns. He realized he had tried to convince everyone to take a specific action but had failed to create an atmosphere in which people could discuss their views openly.

His mindset then shifted to “What can I do differently to make sure that these voices speak up earlier?” He debriefed the team, held himself accountable, and worked with others to set new norms. By creating these deeper connections, he allowed team members to bring their whole selves to work and feel valued enough to contribute honestly.

Step 5: Make it safe to learn

Healthy team dynamics also foster adaptability. Working in teams influences the extent to which we prioritize learning, especially from setbacks and failures. The absence of conflict and the appearance of compliance may not reflect that dynamic, however. Teams can have cultures in which setbacks and failures go unacknowledged or, worse, are punished, or they can have cultures that seize setbacks as opportunities from which to learn and grow.

Leaders can have a unique influence on which team culture is adopted depending on the degree to which they foster psychological safety. This is a shared belief held by team members that interpersonal risk taking is safe—that ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes will be welcomed and valued.17

Experiencing safety is an essential ingredient for higher performance, creativity, and improved well-being. It invites full, authentic participation from every member, fosters constructive debate and creative problem solving, and allows teams to learn quickly. For such a climate to be successful, leaders should be aware of and model the requisite behaviors and deliberately support team members. Put simply, by creating psychological safety, leaders simultaneously demonstrate their own adaptability and create an environment where adaptability can flourish for their teams. This is very different from a leader who believes, “I know best and the team should follow me.”

Here are four practices that can help leaders foster psychological safety:

  • Reframe “failures.” Failure is emotionally difficult, since we are primed to succeed. Leaders can help frame failure as a way to learn from missteps and build future successes. This emphasis helps reinforce an adaptable environment in which people feel comfortable being honest and vulnerable; it also invites curious, open, and growth mindsets.
  • Encourage team voice. A diversity of perspectives pushes us to be innovative and elevates our performance. Leaders can strive to invite team input into decision making and use more dialogue to encourage discussion. Reinforce “messenger” behavior by appreciating all ideas and thanking those who share them, even if that message is not ultimately acted on. If the idea is dismissed, be sure to explain why, and seek to “unmute” the voices of those who are silent.
  • Appreciate others. To drive full participation, team members need to feel valued for their contributions. Leaders can avoid generic congratulations or only recognizing results. Instead, they can reward members’ efforts, making recognition for their contributions part of the team’s vernacular.
  • Coach team members to support one another. As a contributor to psychological safety, team climate is more than twice as important as leadership style, we’ve found. Coaching, role modeling, mentoring, and setting up structures are critical to creating an environment that feels safe.

Recently, we had a conversation with a leadership team at an international relief organization that wanted to build healthier dynamics. The team was preparing to welcome a new CEO though during the previous transition, there was a lot of unhelpful history that got in the way of performance.

The new CEO decided to go on a journey with this team to transform that challenging history into a story of hope and opportunity. He engaged external coaches to help encourage team learning, feedback, curiosity, and mindsets open to transformation. Over time, the group went from a collection of individuals lacking mutual trust to a close-knit team that is much stronger today, despite bumps along the road. The CEO’s focus on building trust, along with his growth mindset and willingness to appear vulnerable, made it possible for a fresh culture of psychological safety to arise.

Four ways to build adaptability at scale

The power of adaptability grows when the entire organization reinforces these cultural norms and behaviors. From our experience with both virtual and in-person capability building, we have identified a few ingredients as particularly important. As they enter a new chapter of hybrid work, organizations must seize the opportunity to integrate these elements with the more traditional in-person immersive experience. Here are four ways leaders can scale adaptability building.

Use bite-size training as practice. The prevailing belief has been that deeper awareness and habit-shifting work was possible only through immersive in-person experiences. But as with so many other paradigms, the COVID-19 pandemic changed that view. Many organizations have rolled out short digital training modules coupled with the use of behavioral-reinforcement tools, such as nudges. This content focuses on teaching simple adaptability concepts that participants can practice in their day-to-day lives, which can accelerate learning and behavior changes.

We’ve seen this approach help companies undergoing upheaval—for instance, at a global company that went through a complex merger before the pandemic hit. To improve adaptability, it designed a fully digital program to train 5,000 of its top people managers. The program offered a dozen 20- to 30-minute modules delivered over three months, accompanied by weekly emails to reinforce adaptability behaviors.

At the end of the program, it found that participants who engaged with most of the content (four to six hours over three months) saw 2.7 times the improvement in adaptability behaviors (learning skills, empathy and compassion, and fostering psychological safety and greater self-awareness) and 3.0 times the improvement in outcomes (performance, well-being, adapting to change, and developing new skills) as the control group. Even participants who engaged for just 20 to 30 minutes per month saw meaningful increases in adaptability and outcomes, at 1.4 times and 1.9 times the control group, respectively.

Create learning communities. Virtual learning can reach more people faster, engaging larger cohorts in shared experiences. This helps create networks across the organization and a deeper sense of belonging, both of which support adaptability.

During the pandemic, the hospital system we mentioned earlier created formal learning communities for leaders who had graduated from a virtual learning program. These groups continue to meet regularly, applying the lessons they learned to challenges including scheduling patients or clinical personnel, solving conflicts, and supporting a grieving colleague. Such cohorts provide a unique resource to combat feelings of isolation and augment a shared sense of belonging.

Role model at all levels, including visible sponsors at the top. Virtual learning can help senior leaders connect meaningfully with more people faster. At the hospital system, one of the sponsors of the learning program was a well-respected plastic surgeon. He was coached live, in front of the group, encouraging his cohort to share learning stories and generate engagement. He told us that being a sponsor was the best leadership-development training he had ever done, helping him to adopt a leadership mindset in which his role was to serve and support his staff, rather than the other way around. The impact was also positive for participants, who started to build more trust with senior management.

Create enabling mechanisms to build enduring capabilities. To build adaptability into a skill that becomes part of the organization’s core, it’s important to track progress frequently and meticulously. For instance, organizations can use a multirater feedback tool—a digital platform that assesses the effectiveness of the adaptability learning journey for employees. It also shares aggregate data with leaders and tracks when course corrections are necessary.

By investing in measures that emphasize well-being, purpose, mindset shifts, deeper connections, and team learning, leaders become better equipped to meet the challenges ahead. Applying these lessons throughout their organizations makes for healthier and more responsive teams.

Leaders should understand that adaptability is a skill that is mastered with continual practice—the ability to “learn how to learn” does not materialize overnight. Those who have the courage and humility to do this work can summon their adaptability skills right when they are needed most. In a world of constant flux, that is a crucial skill set indeed.

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