IT leadership: Why adaptability matters

Of all the leadership skills related to emotional intelligence, adaptability is arguably one of the most important. Consider these three elements that shape an individual’s ability to adapt
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Editor’s Note: This article is the first of four to be published in the coming months that will explore the concept of adaptability.

Even Daniel Goleman – author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ – may not have anticipated the heightened role that emotional intelligence (EQ) plays in today’s workplace. EQ is now considered an essential leadership skill, the cornerstone of many management and leadership development programs.

Understanding EQ creates a foundation for exploring other aspects of human behavior. Decision-making, stress management, positivity, risk tolerance, and psychological safety are based on emotional intelligence.

While some skills are considered useful assets in modern organizations, others have become must-haves. One of the most critical is adaptability. Organizations like IBM and the United Nations are investing significantly in understanding, exploring, and developing adaptability: What makes one person, team, or organization adapt while another does not?

As a general concept, adaptability refers to a person’s willingness and ability to alter their behavior to accommodate changing circumstances or situations. The challenge for leaders and organizations is that adaptability is complex, dependent on factors such as the emotional investment a person has in a situation or setting, their underlying psychology, and the environment in which they operate.

[ Also read Workplace culture: 4 ways to foster healthy conflict. ]

3 components of adaptability in IT leadership

Understanding the following three elements of adaptability is key for successful leadership.

1. Traits

Some elements of adaptability are a function of a person’s underlying traits. For example, some people are particularly hardy, whether due to their fundamental psychological makeup (nature) or experiences that have helped them better understand their capabilities (nurture). Hardy people are more likely to withstand challenges that come with adaptation and may even see them as positive opportunities to grow.

2. Preferences

Other elements of adaptability are a function of a person’s inborn preferences. A common example is the Introversion/Extroversion preference, which refers to how people prefer to interact with the world around them: Introverts tend to be stimulated by their internal world, whereas extroverts prefer stimuli from outside themselves, such as interaction with others.

Consider that some people will prefer to process changes on their own or in small groups. In contrast, others may like to experience new things as part of a larger group or with considerably more interactivity.

3. Environment

In the right environment, even the most change-averse person can be willing to adapt; conversely, in the wrong environment, even the most adaptable among us will prefer to play it safe.

While a person’s adaptability is guided largely by these traits and preferences, the environment in which that person operates also plays a significant role in supporting adaptability. In the right environment, even the most change-averse person can be willing to adapt; conversely, in the wrong environment, even the most adaptable among us will prefer to play it safe.

Why adaptability is key to business success

Now more than ever, organizations need to understand and support adaptability. McKinsey & Co. forecast that up to 375 million people may need to switch occupations and learn new skills.

The rise of technology has incentivized industries to adapt in recent years. Still, that push is becoming a pull as realities like The Great Resignation and remote work push organizations to change how they interact with and relate to their customers and employees. The return on investment of developing adaptability in organizations comes from talent attraction and retention, increased innovation, improved employee engagement – and potentially, organizational survival.

In the past, leaders have been able to draw from models such as William Bridges’ Transitions to understand adaptability. But while these approaches may help us to understand how a person adapts and what behaviors leaders should expect as people move through change, few have explored the why. And without that knowledge, it can be challenging for leaders to create supportive, psychologically healthy workplaces that support people as they adapt. Because adapt they must.

The key to unlocking the potential of emotional intelligence is first to understand the construct and then identify the areas for development. The same goes for AQ. To support adaptable behaviors in others, leaders must first learn the elements of adaptability and understand what makes one person adaptable when another is not. They must also never assume that their approach to adaptability, or the way they experience their work environment, is the same as anyone else’s. We will explore these concepts and more in the coming months.

[ Check out essential career advice from 37 award-winning CIOs! Get insights on leadership, strategy, and career development from IT executives at Mayo Clinic, Dow, Aflac, Liberty Mutual, Nordstrom, and more: Ebook: 37 award-winning CIOs share essential IT career advice. ]

Drew Bird, MSc, MA, and author of "The Leader’s Guide To Emotional Intelligence," is a coach, trainer, facilitator and speaker. He is founder of The EQ Development Group. Over 20 years in the IT industry has helped Drew understand first-hand the opportunities and challenges senior leaders face in this complex field.