Birkman logo Get Started

Whether you’re starting a new job, your company announces an unexpected merger, or you’re thrown into the deep end of a new team, the one safe bet in life is change. It’s all around us, so while we may not all like it, it’s essential to have the skills to adapt to it. 

With the world of work a continuously moving target, it’s no surprise that adaptability has become a critical soft skill in business. In fact, research from Harvard Business School reveals that 71% of executives believe having strong adaptability skills is important in a leader, while data from McKinsey shows that adaptable people are 24% more likely to be employed.

In times of uncertainty and adversity, embracing a change mentality and being able to respond to different scenarios and challenges will help you navigate the ups and downs of life. And it’s not just about being flexible, but rather intentionally developing skills that enable you to be an adaptable employee who quickly and efficiently deals with stressful situations as they arise.


What is Adaptability?

According to Jacqueline Brassey, Chief Scientist at McKinsey & Company’s People and Organizational Practice, adaptability is about “bouncing forwards”–going beyond simply being resilient and enduring a challenge to thriving beyond it. 

Adaptability is a crucial skill incorporating emotional intelligence, flexibility, and proactive thinking. To be truly adaptable means you’re actively prepared and ready for change, you confidently embrace and support it, and think ahead to new and unexpected situations you can thrive in.


Why Adaptability Matters

The world around us is constantly evolving. Digital transformation, new technologies, industry disruptions, and rapid change in the workplace mean adaptability is a survival ‘must-have’ for today’s organizations.

The significance of adaptability is perhaps best summed up in a quote by Louisiana State University Professor Leon Megginson, all the way back in 1963: “It’s not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it’s not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” This need for adaptability has consistent applications across all industries and verticals.

To stay ahead of their competition, organizations cannot simply rely on what many experts deem the most dangerous words in business: “We’ve always done it this way.” Instead, they must cultivate a foundation of adaptability that values innovation and continuous improvement, welcomes new ideas and fresh perspectives, and allows teams to take smart, calculated risks that help keep them one step ahead of their competition.

And for individuals, aversion to change will continually put them in a position of stress and uncomfortable uncertainty as workplaces continue to shift. From whom they work on their team to what insurance covers and which projects are now top priority, change will always be a part of every individual’s workplace experience.


Adaptability in the Workplace

Though employees and team members may be able to quickly understand why adaptability is important, they may struggle with actually developing this mindset. Here are three common examples illustrating intentional adaptability in an ever-changing world.

#1. Meet Sam. He’s just survived a second round of lay-offs and although he’s relieved, it’s short-lived–the next round of cuts is looming. Added to this, his core team of five has now dwindled to three, so workloads and roles aren’t quite what they used to be. Sam is an analyzer, placing a high value on system and order, and preferring to work from a plan. Being detail-oriented, he likes to focus on one task at a time, and to work methodically through his to-do list with as little interruptions as possible. But Sam realizes that with how much teams are shifting, he’ll need to adapt his style and have more patience when there’s not a detailed plan in place. In his case, this means focusing on becoming more responsive and flexible as he’s asked to take on new tasks, and as he adjusts to the new team makeup.           


#2. Sam’s colleague, Ava, heads up the creative side of the team. She prefers not to make hurried decisions, carefully considering all the possibilities in front of her before making a final choice.

But when Ava has several great ad concepts in front of her, along with a looming deadline, time isn’t on her side. She can’t weigh up the pros and cons of each as thoroughly as she’d like, and she’s forced to pick her favorite concept quickly and decisively. It makes Ava uncomfortable, but she knows her team is under huge pressure to perform. Ultimately, mking sure the ad campaign hits the market as soon as possible is her number one priority–after all, it could mean the difference between the success or failure of her entire team.


#3. Moving away from Sam and Ava, one doesn’t have to look far to find the epitome of adaptability in the real world either. 

Entrepreneur Jeff Bezos launched online bookstore Amazon from his garage in 1995. Just three years later, after witnessing the massive growth of the internet and online shopping firsthand, he expanded his product line, venturing into CDs, videos, clothing, electronics, toys, and other items. Despite a number of failures in the early 90’s, Bezos was unafraid to adapt and challenge the status quo, with Amazon–and e-commerce–thriving as a result. 

Creative thinkers like Bezos thrive on innovation, abstract thinking, and discovering new ways to solve problems. And just like Bezos, they purposely seek out new situations that challenge them to think differently, visualizing new ideas and possibilities that others often can’t even begin to imagine. 


Embracing Adaptability 

Keep these pointers in mind, and you’ll be well on your way to improving your adaptability skills:

1. Encourage a growth mindset

Having a growth mindset means believing your abilities aren’t innate, but can be improved through intentional, active effort, continuous learning, and persistence. 

It’s all about the attitude with which you face unexpected challenges, how you process failures, and how you adapt and move forward – finding creative solutions as a result. When you commit yourself to growth, it’s easier to accept that change will come with it.


2. Develop problem-solving and decision-making skills

Adaptability is rooted in the capacity to make informed decisions quickly and confidently when faced with ambiguity. 

This comes from experience and reflection, a knowledge of the world around you, and taking the time to better understand the thoughts and needs of others. Become more comfortable with not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good, and making more decisions with the 80% rule. 


3. Build self-awareness skills

Developing self-awareness allows you to recognize when you need to change your approach, or learn new skills to achieve your goals. It also allows individuals to understand their strengths, weaknesses, values, beliefs and stress triggers, in order to be their very best selves. 

Data such as that measured in the Birkman Signature Report can help individuals understand their own unique perceptions of the world, and how these perceptions can work for or against them in areas such as adaptability.

Connect with us to actively nurture and improve your adaptability skills for personal and professional success. Use our adaptability blueprint to learn more.

Register for The Birkman Method Certification

Gain access to over 40 reports, including the Birkman Signature Report, and data-driven insights to improve your organization or consulting practice.

Register to Attend

Featured Resource

Nav Resource Panel Webinar

Watch the webinar on demand.

Learn how shifting from feedback to feed forward helps you develop talent in real time.

Watch Webinar