Don’t get left behind.
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.
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.
“Adapt to Perish”
As a Coach, one fo the critical factors of my work is to challenge peoples mental Scripts. Because we all work of a mental script -someones our mental scripts become outdated from the real world situations.
Our brain has been and will continue to process in information. It creates mental pathways, programming or “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.
Now here’s the challenge -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, 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. Henry Plotkin, a psychologist at University College in London, 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.
Agility in Action
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.
- If you want a test to assess your level of adaptability, consider these 4 statements are give yourself score of 1-10.
- Openness to new ideas.
- Adaptation to situations.
- Handling of unexpected demands.
- Adapting or changing strategy.
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?
How to Become More Adaptable
So how does one do it?
Learning an adaptable mindset does not come naturally to everyone, but there are methods to increase adaptability that any leader can use and be effective.
- Think outside the box– Once in a while, you have to shake things up. If you’re not innovating at all and simply following standard operating procedure, eventually those procedures can become outdated and ineffective.
- Be an early adopter– Being among the first to embrace change can result in the discovery of a helpful technology, system, tool, process or software that can be a game changer for your organization. It can also help make the process of change itself less jarring.
- Don’t just say no– Being open minded and positive about initiatives will help facilitate change.
- Plan for the time of the year– One fiscal quarter may not be as busy as the previous one. There are often cycles of activity regardless of the industry. Planning ahead to take advantage of downtime and pursue long-term objectives improves adaptability.
- It all begins in the morning– Adhering to a morning routine often causes us to create routines and patterns through the rest of our day. Sometimes, it’s important to shake things up in the morning, just to keep that mindset going for the rest of the day.
Business professionals can use these ideas to embrace change and meet the challenges that go with it head on.
Adaptability has to extend beyond leaders, though. Leaders should focus on building adaptable teams around them if they want to succeed in an unpredictable environment. A spirit of inclusion allows leaders to use the insight of the team to identify problems within the organization while drawing on the different skills of team members to find the best solutions.