Adaptability: Your Most Essential Workplace Skill


 Nothing remains static. Everything is subject to change, and the workplace is certainly not exempt. Processes are always being improved, products are constantly modified, and technologies are evolving fast. The most successful employees are those flexible enough to adapt to these changing conditions.

What exactly is adaptability?

If you're flexible in your approach and comfortable with change, you're adaptable: You learn new skills in response to changing circumstances. You move on from established behaviors and procedures to those that propel the business forward.

In her LinkedIn course "How to be an Adaptable Employee During Change and Uncertainty," strategy consultant and executive coach Dorie Clark says being adaptable allows you to take control and chart your own course, instead of just letting things happen.

What are the examples of adaptability in the workplace?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the importance of workplace adaptability to the forefront. Entire countries and industries have been forced to pivot on nearly no notice. Employees who embrace change, such as suddenly working from home or moving business processes online, and who continue to be productive in these uncertain times, are crucial.

But change is a constant, even without global emergencies.

Co-workers come and go, management styles differ, and corporate goals shift over time. You'll frequently face roadblocks and problems that require innovative solutions. Thinking creatively and being proactive is part of being adaptable and a valuable member of the team.

And adaptability is necessary from the C-suite to the store floor. A recent McKinsey article gives this job-specific example: "A cashier in a supermarket will need adaptability and resilience skills to become a customer service representative when her job becomes automated."

Why is adaptability an important skill to exercise in the workplace?

Simply put, adaptability is a skill employers are increasingly looking for. When you spend time learning a new task rather than resisting it, your productivity goes up. You can also serve as an example to your co-workers who may be having trouble adapting, and can help lead your team forward.

Clark explains it to us this way:

I'd say that adaptability is an important skill in the workplace because, frankly, circumstances change -- competitors introduce new products, the economy might enter a recession, customer preferences differ over time, and more. If you shake your fist at the sky and say, 'Why can't it stay the same?!,' that's not going to do very much good. Instead, you need to recognize when circumstances have changed so you can take appropriate action based on what is, rather than how you wish the world would be. That enables you to make more accurate, informed, and effective choices.

Also, the workplace itself has been evolving. Today's work culture and management style is often based on teamwork, rather than a rigid hierarchy. Brainstorming, which requires creativity, flexibility, and emotional intelligence, is a typical problem-solving technique. Employees who are unable or unwilling to participate will not easily move forward in the company.

Employees who is flexible demonstrate other skills, too? They can reprioritize quickly when changes occur and suggest additional modifications when something's not working. They can also regroup on the fly when a setback occurs, adapting to the new situation confidently and without overreacting. Notes Clark:

Today's work culture and management style is often based on teamwork, rather than a rigid hierarchy. Brainstorming, which requires creativity, flexibility, and emotional intelligence, is a typical problem-solving technique. Employees who are unable or unwilling to participate will not easily move forward in the company.

Can being adaptable help you advance your career?

We asked Jill Chapman, a senior performance consultant at human resources and business solutions provider Insperity, if being adaptable is important in terms of career advancement.

The answer is a resounding yes. Chapman says:

Increased adaptability can bring multiple benefits to individuals looking to advance their career ... When people are adaptable, they seize the opportunity to embrace challenges and enjoy discovering new solutions. Adaptability can also strengthen leadership skills since positivity in the face of adversity can keep teams focused and motivated through tough times. Additionally, it brings a sense of relevancy as the workforce continues to change faster than ever. Individuals must be willing to adapt or be left behind.

What are the ways you can develop this skill?

Adaptability is a soft skill, and it can be developed. Even if you don't like change and tend to resist it, you can learn to become more flexible.

"One of the best ways to develop adaptability is by practicing it in  every day, low-stakes situations, such as taking a different route to work, trying new food, or choosing an opposing position," explains Chapman. "By looking at a problem or issue from the other side, individuals can prevent getting too attached to their own ideas and views."

How you think about change helps, too.

Clark suggests reframing it. In other words, if you look at change as something that might open opportunities for you and as a chance to develop new skills, you'll develop an adaptable mindset. She advises being curious rather than resentful; try to discover why a change is being made.

And if you think younger employees might be more adaptable than those at senior levels, check your ageist fallacy at the door.

Chapman says the reverse is true: "Senior-level employees have experienced a series of changes in the workplace over the course of their career, including the economic crisis, corporate restructures, natural disasters, and pandemics. These experiences likely helped boost this age group's adaptability skills, allowing them to pivot and adjust quickly when change occurs."

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Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors.