The Agile Leader: Adaptability

By Bruna Martinuzzi

Do you "fit" your circumstances?

© iStockphoto/IJzendoorn

There is a well-known Chinese proverb that says that the wise adapt themselves to circumstances, as water molds itself to the pitcher. Perhaps at no other time in recent history has adaptability been more important than it is now. Adaptability – the ability to change (or be changed) to fit new circumstances – is a crucial skill for leaders, and an important competency in emotional intelligence.

A 2008 study conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, entitled Growing Global Executive Talent, showed that the top three leadership qualities that will be important over the years ahead include: the ability to motivate staff (35 percent); the ability to work well across cultures (34 percent); and the ability to facilitate change (32 percent). The least important were technical expertise (11 percent) and "bringing in the numbers" (10 percent).

As a leader, it is therefore crucial to make a concerted effort to understand people of different cultures, and cultural adaptability has become a leadership imperative. As an example, a leader I am currently working with has 22 different cultures represented in his team!

An example of a leader who epitomizes this prized quality is Robert McDonald, chief operating officer of the Procter & Gamble Company, who has spent much of the past two decades in various overseas postings. In a recent interview, he said: "I did not expect to live outside the United States for 15 years; the world has changed, so I have had to change, too. When you look at my bio, foreign languages are not my best subjects. But, when you move out of your culture, you have to learn foreign languages."

This willingness to get out of one’s comfort zone, and learn continuously as a way of adapting to changed surroundings, marks a key difference between successful and unsuccessful leaders.

I have just finished reading "Everyday Survival: Why Smart People do Stupid Things" by Laurence Gonzales, a lecturer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. In the book, Gonzales talks about the dumb mistakes we make when we work from a mental script that does not match the requirements of real-world situations.

He explains that one of the reasons this happens has to do with the way that the brain processes new information. It creates what he calls "behavioral scripts," or mental models that automate almost every action that we take. For example, growing up, we build a behavioral script for the physical motions required in tying our shoes. Through practice, this script is eventually entrenched and it ends up making the action so easy and automatic that we never give it another thought. Another example of a behavioral script that we learn is ducking when something is thrown at us. Behavioral scripts simplify our world, make us more efficient and help us move around faster and with less effort. They influence not only our actions but also what we perceive and believe. Gonzales says that "We tend not to notice things that are inconsistent with the models, and we tend not to try what the scripts tells us is bad or impossible."

The efficiency of these scripts carry with them a downside: they can divert our attention from important information coming to us from our environment. In other words, the models or scripts push us to disregard the reality of a situation, and dismiss signals because the message we get from our scripts is that we already know about it. So we make decisions about a situation that, as Gonzales puts it "aren’t really decisions in the real sense of the word. They’re simply automated behaviors."

Mental scripts may also result in stubbornly clinging to the notion that "this is how we have always done it", refusing to understand and accept the realities of a new situation. Gonzales quotes Henry Plotkin, a psychologist at University College in London, who states that we tend to "generalize into the future what worked in the past." So, whatever worked in the past, do it; whatever didn’t work, avoid it.

This is, of course, the anti-thesis of the quality of being adaptable, of being flexible under the influence of rapidly changing external conditions. It can make us rigid, unresponsive to change, and unwilling to learn and adopt new ways, all of which can have an impact on our ability to survive and succeed in the long run. People who score high on the adaptability competency are able to deal more positively with change, and they are able to do what it takes to adapt their approach and shift their priorities.

Here are a few tips for developing adaptability.

  • When you catch yourself shooting an idea down, take a moment to consider what mental scripts are influencing your behavior. Mental scripts are so automatic that you have to decide intentionally that you want to challenge them, if you want to improve your leadership.
  • Help your people distinguish between observation and inference, between fact and conjecture. Inference and conjecture can be influenced by mental scripts which don’t have a bearing on reality. Be the voice in the room that calls others’ attention to this possibility, and help everyone pause so that they can analyze inferences and conjectures that may or may not be valid.
  • Do you habitually insist on going "by the book"? Is this necessary for every issue? Might you enhance your team’s productivity if you paid more attention to the effect that this might have on the people involved? What would happen if you applied standard procedures more flexibly?
  • Consider that when we push the envelope, and when we intentionally put ourselves in situations that are outside our comfort zone, we grow. Are you trading on old knowledge? Do you need to update your skills? Are you relying too much on your title as the sign of authority? In today’s working environment, surrounded by highly intelligent and specialized knowledge workers, this no longer works. We need to adapt by continually evolving and reinventing ourselves. In "Rethinking the Future", Warren Bennis talks about the importance for leaders to recompose their leadership style and to continue to adapt: "It’s like snakes. What do snakes do? They molt, they shed their outside skins. But it’s not just that. It’s a matter of continuing to grow and transform, and it means that executives have to have extraordinary adaptability." This applies to every level in the organization: change or perish.
  • When we are in a position for a length of time, we may tend to become accustomed to the status quo and fail to challenge the process in order to continue to grow and improve. If you left tomorrow, what would your successor do to improve things? Consider making these changes yourself.
  • In today's environment of complex challenges and rapid change, the ability to solve problems becomes even more crucial. The Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI) measures the way people solve problems and make decisions. Adapters prefer a more adaptable, methodical and organized approach to problem-solving, and are more likely to seek a solution to a problem by working within current framework rather than developing a completely new one. Innovators, on the other hand, prefer a less orderly, more unconventional and ingenious approach to problem-solving and are likely to seek solutions by thinking outside the box. One looks to do things better, the other looks to do things differently. Consider that a team that is composed of extreme adapters or extreme innovators is less successful than a team that is balanced. If you want to know where your team is in this dimension, check out the KAI.
  • If you want a test to assess your level of adaptability, consider the StrengthsFinder or Emotional Competence Inventory (ECI). The latter tests adaptability on four scales:
    1. Openness to new ideas.
    2. Adaptation to situations.
    3. Handling of unexpected demands.
    4. Adapting or changing strategy.
  • To understand what changes you need to make to continue to be successful, read: What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful by Marshall Goldsmith. (We have published a Book Insight covering this great title.)

Adaptability is not just a "nice to have competency." It is a competitive advantage for you, as a leader and for your organization.

So, where does your company stand in terms of adaptability? What do you need to do to keep up with the pace of change, with the increasing complexity of today’s workplace? Long ago, Benjamin Franklin said: "Wide will wear, but narrow will tear." What can you do today to widen your perspective, to stretch the limits imposed, to extend the scope and meaning of what you do as a leader?

Copyright © 2009-2014 by Bruna Martinuzzi. All Rights Reserved.

This article is adapted from Bruna Martinuzzi’s book: The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. Bruna is an educator, author, speaker and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd, a company which specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership, Myers-Briggs and presentation skills training. Visit her website at www.increaseyoureq.com.

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