How adaptability helps you ‘bounce forwards’ at work

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Getting familiar with the idea of adaptability, as well as learning how to strengthen it, is key to helping you get ahead at work.

Workplace experts have talked about idea of ‘adaptability’ for a while – but in our ever-changing work world, it’s never been so relevant. 

In the workplace, adaptable people have the ability to confidently navigate evolving circumstances – a valuable asset as the world attempts to figure out new hybrid and remote workdays. But this trait is not just something that can make employees more effective: adaptability may also improve workers’ wellbeing, because it can mean they’re better prepared to deal with change.  

As the world of work is a constantly moving target, it’s no surprise adaptability has become the soft skill employers are searching for. A 2020 Harvard Business School survey showed that 71% of 1,500 executives from more than 90 countries said adaptability was the most important quality they looked for in a leader. And data from a 2021 McKinsey & Company study revealed people proficient in adaptability were 24% more likely to be employed

To thrive in the new workplace today – and stand out to employers – getting familiar with the idea of adaptability as well as learning how to strengthen yours can help you get ahead. 

What is adaptability? 

Adaptability isn’t just about surviving a change when it hits you – that’s resilience. Instead, experts say, to be truly adaptable, you need to be actively prepared for change, even advocate for it, and be consistently adding more capabilities into your repertoire so your skillset can meet emerging needs. 

“Resilience is about bouncing back,” says Jacqueline Brassey, chief scientist at McKinsey & Company’s People & Organisational Performance Practice. Resilience is an important skill, of course, but it doesn’t move you along, says Brassey. In contrast, she explains, adaptability is about “bouncing forwards”. “Adaptability means you’ve gone beyond simply enduring a challenge to thrive beyond it,” she says.

Adaptability is much more important now than it has been in a generation – Dorie Clark

Often, being adaptable isn’t about responding to change, but being a proactive catalyst for it. An adaptable executive, for example, wouldn’t make a plan for what to do if their industry is disrupted; rather, they would take actively evolve their company ahead of the curve, planning for change. An adaptable employee, on the other hand – a sales associate, for example – might pre-emptively eschew tried-and-true methods, and instead experiment with new buyer-targeting technologies, learn different cold-call techniques and develop themselves so when things shift, they’re ready. 

“Adaptability not only helps us avoid being overwhelmed, it helps us get creative and seize opportunities amidst the chaos,” explains Brassey. As such, being adaptable allows you to stay calm in a crisis of change, meaning you’re less likely to take knee-jerk decisions. 

How Covid-19 has changed adaptability 

The idea that adaptability is a crucial trait in workers wasn’t forged in the coronavirus crisis. It’s long been relevant: in a 2019 TED Talk, US venture investor Natalie Fratto explained that adaptability had become increasingly important “because the world is speeding up … each of us is being forced to grapple with more change than ever before in human history”. A huge part of that is the speed and scope of technological innovation in recent years that has required people to adopt new skills at breakneck pace. 

But – perhaps unsurprisingly – the pandemic has bolstered adaptability’s significance even further. “Adaptability is much more important now than it has been in a generation,” says Dorie Clark, a consultant and adjunct executive-education professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, US. 

“Change is not necessarily easy in general, but it is manageable for most people if you are only altering one variable at a time,” she says. But the pandemic triggered a total overhaul of the way we work – a wealth of professional, technological and even social change in a small window to which companies and workers are still adjusting. 

“When there is a jarring shift in expectations or norms, adaptability moves to the front of the line as an essential skill, because you need to survey the new terrain very rapidly to understand that things have changed,” says Clark. “You need to be both willing and able to adjust your mentality and behaviour so you can participate effectively in that new reality.”

Doing something that challenges you - like giving a presentation - can help develop an adaptable mindset, say experts (Credit: Getty)

Doing something that challenges you - like giving a presentation - can help develop an adaptable mindset, say experts (Credit: Getty)

Honing your skillset 

After working through a global pandemic, some workers might assume they have adaptability in spades. Others, who are more set in their ways, may think it’s not feasible for them to alter this part of their character. But anyone working in this ever-evolving time could benefit from honing their adaptability skills, and there are plenty of techniques that people can implement to do so – even the seemingly most unmalleable. 

A key step is to focus on breaking out of entrenched habits, patterns and approaches. Brassey suggests replacing your various default mindsets – which we often revert to in moments of flux – with more curious alternatives. "We call them ‘protection’ versus ‘learning’ mindsets,” she says. “Both can be good, both can be relevant, but protection mindsets don’t help you when you need to do something new, when you need to be creative and innovate.” 

You might, for example, think you know the right way to do something because you’ve been doing it a certain way for years – that’s a protective mindset. But by intentionally asking yourself if that is the best way, or even trying a different approach, you can foster a more curious outlook. “Being willing to learn and being willing to respond to changing circumstances is what enables you to continue to be successful,” says Clark, “and not just be the person shaking your fist at the sky.”

Adaptability means you’ve gone beyond simply enduring a challenge to thrive beyond it – Jacqueline Brassey

On a very basic level, that might mean changing small aspects of how you work to incorporate new elements into your routine. Volunteering to lead a presentation may be terrifying at first, but it may also unlock the next rung of your career ladder. Trying two days in the office rather than five, or three rather than none, might be uncomfortable at first, but it may also uncover your ideal working week. 

Brassey also points to adopting Carol Dweck’s growth mindset as a way to become more adaptable. Those with a growth mindset believe their abilities can change over time, whereas those who stick to a fixed mindset believe they are born with intrinsic talents – so if anything is too hard, it’s not the right thing for you. 

You can start your shift towards a growth mindset by actively leaving your comfort zone. Don’t wait for change to be thrust upon you, seek out new methods or technologies, see how they work, learn something new even if you’re terrible at it. When you make a decision, ask yourself what mindset was driving it – if you were on autopilot, see if you can pivot the other way. Brassey believes that will help you build these learning and growth mindsets and exercise your adaptability muscle, so it’s ready to work when another major event comes along. 

Research by McKinsey shows honing adaptability brings gains: when workers at one company were supplied with online modules designed to improve adaptability, even brief exposure to the material helped them see meaningful increases in adaptability-linked behaviours such as learning skills, empathy and self-awareness. Separately, McKinsey reports that because adaptability acts as a buffer to damaging workplace factors, employees engaging in adaptability training experience significant improvements in wellbeing compared to control groups. 

As workplaces and working practices continue to evolve, honing adaptability can equip workers with the tools they need to “bounce forwards” with the change. 

The essence of adaptability, says Clark, is being able to recognise that if something goes wrong, it’s not a mortal wound. “It’s about understanding that, with an experimental mentality, you might find something better.”