Adaptability is a requirement in the work world. As jobs expand, shrink or disappear; co-workers and teammates come and go; and technology drives change at all levels, we need to respond effectively to changing events.

So, how can you learn to adapt?

CCL’s Allan Calarco, co-author of Adaptability: Responding Effectively to Change, has studied the process of dealing with change and transition. He’s worked with numerous people and organizations to bolster their ability to adapt. Along the way, he’s faced countless personal and professional changes, including several expatriate assignments.

“To survive change in your organization or industry or profession, you must first lead yourself through the process of transition,” says Calarco. “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.”

First, consider your personal approach to change. Think about a specific change you’ve been through recently. How did you respond? Did you:

  • Accept the change as positive?
  • See the change as an opportunity?
  • Adapt plans as necessary?
  • Quickly master new technology, vocabulary, operating rules?
  • Seek corrective feedback?
  • Lead the change by example?
  • Take into account other people’s concerns?
  • Sort out your strengths and weaknesses fairly accurately?
  • Admit personal mistakes, learn from them and move on?
  • Remain optimistic?

If few or none of these responses describes you, you’re not alone. Many of us get stuck, have a hard time letting go or simply don’t know how to proceed in unknown territory.

If you want to improve your responses in the future, Calarco says you need to practice the three components of adaptability: cognitive flexibility, emotional flexibility and dispositional flexibility.

Leaders who have cognitive flexibility are able to incorporate different thinking strategies and mental frameworks into their planning, decision-making and managing 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.

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.

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.

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