Last updated June 12, 2024

There are 4 areas of adaptability in the workplace that we can use to better understand adaptability and how we can improve these skills.

Adaptability in the workplace and adjusting

What Is Adaptability in the Workplace?

The key element of adaptability is the ability to adjust to change.

This includes adjusting your goals and your emotions to change, whether this change is expected or unexpected, and particularly when it is outside of your control.

Adjusting to change entails being open to new ideas, challenges, approaches (e.g., different ways of doing things) and circumstances.

An adaptable person can tolerate ambiguity and can fit in different circumstances and environments.

Last but not least, being adaptable does not just mean coping with change, but thriving through change.

An adaptable person is willing to learn and take on challenges, to be able to reap the benefits of change, rather than just being a passive receiver of change.

Some people confuse and misunderstand the difference between adaptability and change management.

Change management is a process that managers and businesses adopt, to help their employees adapt to change and make the change smoother for the business and all those involved.

On the other hand, adaptability is a skill that individuals have, which helps them cope with change and even thrive through change because they see opportunities in it.

4 Areas of Adaptability in the Workplace

Here is a diagram of the four areas of adaptability in the workplace that I created that help visually show the areas I will explain.

4 areas of adaptability in the workplace

>> From the Adaptability training course materials

1. The Cognitive

There are many characteristics that adaptable people share, and these can be expressed in four different areas, which together contribute to how a person shows adaptability.

The first area involves the cognitive (i.e., intellectual) domain. This is the way we think rationally.

So, the cognitive area includes skills such as:

  • Learning – an adaptable person is eager to learn new things.
  • Strategizing – when you are adaptable, you tend to think of strategies you can adopt to deal with changes in circumstances.
  • Planning – an adaptable person tends to think of alternative plans to cover multiple outcomes and scenarios.

Example

Jane from accounts is told that the accounts department are going to be using new software.

Rather than worry about what might happen if she struggled with the new software, Jane embraces the challenge and sees it as an opportunity to add something new to her CV (resume).

She sets her mind to learning the new software and learns how to use it in no time at all.

2. The Emotional

The second of the 4 areas of adaptability is the emotional. The emotional area relates to our feelings and how we manage them.

The emotional area includes considerations such as:

  • Self-awareness – an adaptable person tends to be aware of their emotions and what they feel in response to change. This awareness can help you get a better perspective on change and why you might see it as a threat, thus helping you to find ways to respond to it.
  • Stress management – as change can be stressful, an adaptable person is able to find ways to keep their stress under control (learn more from the stress management training materials).
  • Attachment/Expectations – these relate to anything that can affect your emotions when it comes to change. If you experience attachment to something, for example, your habitual way of working, this can impair your ability to adapt to change. Likewise, having set expectations about things can limit your adaptability.
  • An adaptable person is able to understand if their resistance to change might be due to an irrational attachment to something. They can also remove their expectations so they can be more open to experiences, whatever they may be.

Example

Mike is a project manager and works for a publishing company.

During an important project that Mike is working on, the company’s main server crashes, causing significant delays and the potential of data being lost.

Mike though remains calm and composed doesn’t let the pressure get to him.

He holds a brief meeting for the whole team and reassures them that they will overcome the issue.

John created a brief but structured plan, to address the issue. He assigns tasks based on each team member’s strengths and keeps everyone updated on the progress.

His ability to manage his emotions and stay positive helps maintain team morale, reduces panic, and ensures that the project gets back on track as quickly as possible.

3. The Social

The social area involves how you deal with other people in such a way as to help you adapt to change.

The social area includes skills such as:

Communication

Communication for adaptability is important in two ways.

Firstly, an adaptable person takes the time to understand other people’s communication styles and cultural norms.

As such, they can adapt their own communication style to the people they are dealing with, which can help them fit in better in changing circumstances.

Secondly, if you are adaptable, you tend to want to communicate with others to understand the situation as well as you can.

So, you tend to be proactive and ask constructive questions that can help you get a better understanding of what the change involves. Also, if you need help, you are more likely to proactively ask for it.

Empathy

To be adaptable, empathy is useful as it helps you understand other people’s points of view better.

An adaptable person tends to be open to seeing situations from different perspectives.

Empathy can help you do this and so, for example, you may realize that change is not bad after all if you consider it from a different perspective.

Negotiation

An adaptable person is open to negotiations with other people to find solutions that are good for everyone.

Example

Joleen is from London, England but has just moved to Austin, Texas to become a social media manager.

She has several years of experience managing a team in London, and she is confident in her work.

This is a whole new experience though and very different culturally and with a whole new team to manage.

Furthermore, three members of the old team have left to follow the previous manager to a new company and so Joleen needs to ensure that productivity and team cohesion continue, while also settling in herself.

Joleen takes proactive steps to adapt by doing the following.

  • Initial Assessment: Joleen observes the new team members’ working styles, strengths, and preferences and begins to allocate tasks accordingly.
  • Learning and Mentorship: Joleen soon recognizes that some new hires are less familiar with some aspects of social media so she decides to mentor them. She not only supports her new colleagues but also reinforces her understanding of the team’s evolving dynamics.
  • Promoting Team Bonding: To strengthen team cohesion, Joleen organizes virtual team-building activities and encourages informal interactions, such as virtual coffee breaks.

Through these efforts, Joleen demonstrates behavioural adaptability by adjusting her actions and approaches to suit the new team dynamics.

Embracing the 4 areas of adaptability, Joleen then turns her attention to the behavorial.

Her proactive and flexible behaviour helps the team transition smoothly, maintain productivity, and foster a positive and collaborative work environment.

4. The Behavioral

The behavioural area refers to how adaptable people act and includes things such as:

  • Actions – an adaptable person acts accordingly. So, you would do what it takes in practice to adapt to a situation.
  • Implementation of plans – this means that an adaptable person strategises and plans and implements steps to carry out their plans.

Example

Petra, an events coordinator, sees a new manager take over her department and the manager has new ideas about how he prefers to communicate with his team.

To adapt, Petra needs to adjust to communicating more online using a mix of video calls, chat, and email.

Furthermore, the new manager proposes agile methodologies such as daily stand-ups and sprint planning to harmonize workflows.

By creating clarity and building trust, Petra quickly develops into her role.

She also gets more involved with organizing virtual team meetings for the new manager, with new colleagues who will want to work by distance. Petra is flexible and proactive and is willing to adapt her behavior to the new work environment in which she finds herself.

Benefits of Being Adaptable at Work

There are numerous benefits to working on the 4 areas of adaptability, so let me explain four of the main benefits:

1. Increased Resilience

When you are adaptable, you will find that you develop and will have far greater resilience.

You will find that you can handle unexpected changes and setbacks more easily, without losing your composure and panicking.

From an organisational point of view, this resilience also helps maintain stability during turbulent times and helps maintain productivity.

2. Enhanced Problem-Solving

You will also find that adaptability breeds creative thinking and the ability to approach problems from different angles, leading to innovative solutions.

3. Improved Collaboration

Having adaptability also helps you to be a better team player, because you will be able to adjust your working style to work with others more easily. You are, in other words, more likely to thrive in a diverse team.

4. Career Growth

If you can demonstrate adaptability as an employee, you are more likely to be in a position to seize opportunities when they arise.

Final Thoughts and Further Resources

All 4 areas of adaptability in the workplace are important and worth working on, also with your collaboration and communication skills.

These resources that are adaptability skills related might help:

Dr Valeria Lo Iacono