Developing Adaptability

Date:   Sunday , October 03, 2010

In the earlier issues, we discussed various competencies needed to succeed in organizations. E-MBA or no MBA, being able to adapt is increasingly becoming one of the most critical leadership competencies. The business environment today is increasingly complex and marked by rapid change. Being adaptable on a real time basis becomes a key success factor. While by nature most of us build flexibility and adaptability over time, three specific types of adaptability become critical for leaders to succeed in corporate. This has been the subject of study and research for many years. Prof. Steve Zaccaro from George Mason University has done some seminal work in the area of flexibility including the three types we will cover in this issue.

Adaptability is no longer a nicety or a coping mechanism. It is a leadership imperative. Organizational challenges are becoming more and more adaptive challenges. This is also otherwise known as systemic challenges with no clear-cut solutions. The three types of flexibility that leaders need to build are:

Cognitive flexibility: this involves the ability to use a variety of thinking strategies and mental frameworks. These are particularly useful in planning processes while this can be very helpful in daily operations as well. MBA curriculum teaches scenario planning, but the key requisite for scenario planning is flexibility in cognitive skills. This indicates nimble and divergent thinking, an interest in developing new approaches, the ability to see and leverage new connections, and the propensity to work across the organization. Managers with flexibility readily learn from experience and recognize when old approaches do not deliver. How do you know you have this flexibility or are building this? Three specific things characterize people with this flexibility:

* Scanning the environment: Alert managers scan their environments all the time. They are able to identify changes as they occur. This capacity increases with understanding the context of the business environment. Soliciting information from knowledgeable sources and more importantly using that knowledge to reshape understanding and perspectives become a habit for managers with this flexibility

* Sense making: Sense making involves detecting the change at it appears on the horizon and understanding it. Being a keen observer of what is happening in the industry and in the neighborhood helps hone this skill

* Creating strategies: Responding to changes in the environment requires the ability to identify multiple strategies and choose the most optimal one for implementation. No one can predict with complete accuracy how the changes will finally play out. However, cognitive adaptors are known for seeking out new approaches rather than looking to the past for familiar solutions.

Emotional flexibility: Managers with emotional flexibility vary their approach to dealing with their emotions as well as the emotions of others they work with. Without this flexibility, managers will be seen as dismissing other’s concerns and emotions. The result is they tend to shut down discussions and dialogue. Demonstrating emotional flexibility requires mangers to do the following:

* Understand and manage their own emotions: Leading is emotionally demanding work. Managers who deal only with “reality” and ignore “emotions” will be less effective and will eventually suffer from stress and strain.

* Connect with the emotions of others: Emotionally intelligent leaders know what their peers and juniors are feeling. Armed with this understanding, they respond to it in helpful and positive ways. Being open and forthright while at the same time creating a safe ground for people to express their emotions wins them great latitude in gaining the commitment of their colleagues.

* Engage emotionally: Many managers and leaders tend to assume that people will automatically be motivated and engaged. Far from it. Such an assumption leads often to apathy and at best a compliance that cannot be sustained for long.

* Maintain balance between emotion and action: Smart managers allow expression of negative emotions and also discourage wallowing in them.

Dispositional flexibility: Managers with this flexibility operate from the place of optimism grounded in realism and openness. They are comfortable to acknowledge a difficult or bad situation, but at the same time they also visualize a better future. They figure out what they must be optimistic about despite the current difficulties and challenges. They are neither blindly positive nor defeatist in their tendencies. Such flexibility reveals the following behaviors on the part of the managers:

* Show genuine optimism and share the same with others
* Balance expressions of uncertainty with a positive attitude
* Support others through the process of change
* Know their own tendencies related to change
In today’s word, change in the business landscape is real, fast and constant. For corporate leaders across different levels, the implications are both personal and organizational. And the consequences of not being flexible and adaptable can be severe. The key success factor here is consciously learning about and deepening their cognitive, emotional and dispositional flexibility. It is back to basics in every sense: remember the old saying that the fittest will survive. The new version for those in the fiercely competitive corporate environment is: the most flexible and adaptable would survive. Keeping the time tested values constant and as the true north, managers will do well to hone these three flexibilities.

C. Mahalingam is the Executive Vice President & Chief People Officer with Symphony Services Corporation. He can be reached at