Adaptable People Have These 3 Types of Flexibility

Now more than ever before leaders all over the world are facing change and complexity — the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) has presented us all with new challenges, new circumstances, and new uncertainties. Because change is constant and inevitable, leaders must adapt to succeed.

CCL research confirms this imperative to adapt. According to our research, the most frequently cited success factor for North American managers was the ability to develop or adapt. Successful executives in North America and Europe:

  • Adapt to the changing external pressures facing the organization.
  • Adjust their management style to changing situations.
  • Accept changes as positive.
  • Revise plans as necessary.
  • Consider other people’s concerns during change.

Conversely, the inability to develop or adapt was the most frequently cited reason for career derailment among North American managers.

That’s because inflexible leaders limit the adaptability of others. New initiatives may be halted or stifled. Resistance to change may undermine critical projects or system-wide implementation. Employee enthusiasm, cooperation, morale, and creativity are jeopardized, making it all the more difficult to run the business or organization.

The 3 Types of Flexibility That Help You Adapt to Change

Adaptability is about having ready access to a range of behaviors that enable leaders to shift and experiment as things change.

“To survive change in your organization or industry or profession, you must first lead yourself through the process of transition,” notes CCL’s Allan Calarco, co-author of Adaptability: Responding Effectively to Change.

“This includes finding ways to help yourself feel more grounded, understanding the impact that change is having on you, and understanding the impact of your behavior on others.” (For more tips on managing the transition, see How to Transition Through Change.)

Calarco says that adaptable people show 3 kinds of flexibility:

Infographic: 3 Types of Flexibility that Help You Adapt to Change

1. Cognitive flexibility — the ability to use different thinking strategies and mental frameworks.

Leaders who have cognitive flexibility are able to incorporate different thinking strategies and mental frameworks into their planning, decision-making, and management of day-to-day work. They can simultaneously hold multiple scenarios in mind and can see when to shift and inject a change. Cognitive flexibility indicates nimble, divergent thinking, an interest in developing new approaches, the ability to see and leverage new connections, and the propensity to work well across the organization. These leaders readily learn from experience and recognize when old approaches don’t work.

2. Emotional flexibility — the ability to vary one’s approach to dealing with emotions and those of others.

Leaders with emotional flexibility vary their approach to dealing with their own and others’ emotions — an area that many leaders often fail to consider. An emotionally flexible leader is comfortable with the process of transition, including grieving, complaining, and resistance. Adapting to change requires give and take between the leader and those experiencing the change. A leader without emotional flexibility is dismissive of others’ concerns and emotions and shuts down discussion. At the same time, an emotionally adaptive leader moves the change or agenda forward.

3. Dispositional flexibility — the ability to remain optimistic and, at the same time, realistic.

Leaders who display dispositional flexibility (or personality-related flexibility) operate from a place of optimism grounded in realism and openness. They will acknowledge a bad situation but simultaneously visualize a better future. They are neither blindly positive nor pessimistic and defeatist. Ambiguity is well-tolerated. Dispositionally flexible leaders see change as an opportunity rather than as a threat or danger.

By learning and practicing behaviors that boost your cognitive, emotional, and dispositional flexibility, you can become more adaptable and, in turn, help others to adapt.

How to Adapt to Change: 5 Tips

As a leader, you not only have to respond to change, but you also have to steer change. Use these 5 tips as you adapt to change and guide your team through change:

  • Be curious. Ask lots of questions. Wonder, explore, and consider before you judge and decide.
  • Don’t get too attached to a single plan or strategy. Have Plan B (and C) at the ready.
  • Create support systems. Don’t go it alone. Look to mentors, friends, coaches, trusted peers, professional colleagues, family members, and others to serve as your support system in times of change. Encourage employees to do the same.
  • Understand your own reaction to change. You have to be clear about your own emotions and thoughts about changes, so you can be straightforward with others.
  • Immerse yourself in new environments and situations. Do this when you are confronted by change — but get practice by joining activities, meeting new people, and trying new things on a regular basis.


Help your leaders align their team, peers, boss, and organization with their change efforts with our Leading People Through Change Workshop Kit.

Or watch our webinar, How to Foster Flexible Leadership in Times of Instability.    


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