Adaptability: Build your ‘Triple A’ capability for high performance

What is the science behind 'adaptability'? What are the tangible benefits and can you develop it?
By: | September 9, 2020

By Helen Soulsby, Managing Partner, APAC, SRI

Charles Darwin laid out the foundations of his theory of evolution, as he sought to explain how certain species survived and multiplied, while others perished into extinction.

The basis? It wasn’t the intelligence or physical strength of a species that predicted its survival. Instead, it was those species that best adapted to changes in their immediate surroundings that ultimately survived. In contrast, those that failed to adapt fizzled into extinction.

A few years ago Dr Tony Allesandra explained his ‘meaning of adaptability’.‘Adaptability combines flexibility & attitude; flexibility being your willingness to adapt and attitude is your ability to adapt’.

Put simple, adaptability is the capacity to spot a changing context and shift our behaviours or mindset.

Much has been written about adaptability in the work place – within people, teams  and organisations. The likes of Forbes, the Harvard Business Review and McKinsey have banged the drum for many years that adaptability may just be THE key trait needed to survive, thrive and lead through anything that can be thrown at us (including a global pandemic). And it is not ‘just’ management theory, our partners at Mindflick (a dynamic group of leading Performance Psychologists) simplify the science for us: The hippocampus in the brain detects changes  in our environment by comparing the  current situation to those we’ve been  in before. It then communicates this information to the pre-frontal cortex, (linked to personality and behavioural control,) which then chooses whether to shift  our behaviours to meet the demands of the situation.

When these regions become damaged or impaired due to stress, we are no longer able to identify changes in context or exhibit behavioural control. The hippocampus is highly sensitive to cortisol, the hormone our body releases when under stress. When exposed to it for long periods of time  the cells of the hippocampus begin to  die. The hippocampus is then less sensitive to detecting change when we are under stress, resulting in a distinct lack of adaptability. The conclusion… a stressed brain is  less adaptable!

There are 5 key benefits to adaptability

  1. Relationships: adaptability is a key building block for emotional intelligence. This combined with a flexible communication style allows a depth of interaction and understanding across all your relationships.
  2. Performance: with increased adaptability we can look at different ways to solve situations and learn new skills more effectively
  3. Mental Health: adaptable individuals recognise situations that require a different approach or mindset. A happier, healthier, more engaged  workforce has the ability to  navigate uncertainty and change.
  4. Transitions: adaptability eases transition; from promotions, moving countries, joining new teams, moving industries or even exiting the workforce
  5. Leadership: responding effectively to changing situations and building deeper relationships – adaptable leaders  can stretch beyond  their preferred methods and tap  into leadership styles they may not  naturally use.

Often characterised as agile, flexible or versatile, individuals who are highly adaptable bring benefits  not only to themselves, but also to their whole team.

The good news is that adaptability can be developed. Research across a range of contexts, has demonstrated that adaptability is not a fixed trait, and that individuals can learn to grow and expand their ability to adapt.

Key to development is

  • Developing self awareness
  • Recognising overplayed strengths, and
  • Applying a framework for movement

2020 has intensified the need to start strengthening our  ‘Triple A’ capability for high performance: Adaptability, Self Awareness and having the right Attitude to change or move will win out!