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Book Review of "Adaptability: Responding Effectively to Change"

Sunday, January 04, 2015  
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By Al Calarco and Joan Gurvis

Reviewed By Sarah Stewart

{Headlines} January 2015

Change is a part of life and has been a hot topic due to the many changes brought by the digital age. In education, changes in how we teach, learn, communicate, and prioritize have been rampant and ongoing. Additionally, changing values, demographics, norms, and expectations in our country are also the norm. During times of rapid change, organizations that want to survive must constantly identify how to adapt. Great leaders must be able to identify trends that will impact their industries. In Adaptability: Responding Effectively to Change, Al Calarco and Joan Gurvis from the Center for Creative Leadership discuss why this skill is critical for leaders. They offer real world examples, and lists of practical ways that leaders can become more adaptable. “Adaptability is a leadership imperative,” said the authors. “Given the current complexities of work, the sheer volume of information flowing in, and the rapid changes taking place, it makes sense that leaders (and the people they lead) must be adaptive.” 

Calarco and Gurvis rely on a framework that defines three realms of adaptability – cognitive flexibility, emotional flexibility, and dispositional flexibility.  The framework was originally developed by Steve Zaccaro of George Mason University in 1999. Since that time, faculty from CCL have confirmed the accuracy of the framework via a program, called The Looking Glass Experience. Leaders require two of the three characteristics to be perceived as adaptable, and those who score high on all three types are considered highly adaptable. Moreover, all of these skills can be learned. 
Cognitive Flexibility
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to use different thinking strategies and mental frameworks. Someone who is cognitively flexible is able to follow a Plan A, while keeping a Plan B, C, and D available as possibilities. Their thinking is open to new approaches or variances. There are three ways leaders can increase their cognitive flexibility. First they should constantly be aware of changes and trends in their field. To do so, they should actively solicit feedback and information from their teams, and apply that knowledge to their strategies. Second, leaders should concentrate on understanding and making sense of the changes they see. Dialogue among different groups during times of change can be very productive and can foster a collective vision. Third, leaders need to develop several alternative strategies to address changing circumstances, and be able to switch between these strategies as needed. Leaders also need to find different ways to communicate their interpretation of the changes, and be able to persuade their teams as well as address the emotional aspects of change. 

Ways to practice cognitive flexibility:

  • Be curious. Ask questions. Wonder, explore, and consider before you judge and decide.
  • Accept different. It is neither right nor wrong; it is just different.
  • See and be seen. During times of change, employees need to see the management team.
  • Plan for problems. Clarify your approach and procedures for dealing with resistance, managing a crisis, or making a quick decision, but also have a Plan B and C ready.
  • Understand resistance and be informed about the underlying concerns and issues that are creating it.
  • Stay informed about the changing pressures facing the organization and the industry.
  • Commit to learning. Adapting requires learning and good learners find solutions by experimenting.
Emotional Flexibility 

Emotional flexibility is the ability to use various approaches in dealing with emotions. An emotionally flexible leader is comfortable with the process of change, and the grieving, complaining, and resistance that occur. However, they are not pulled off course by these natural reactions, and are able to move the agenda forward.

The first way to improve emotional flexibility is to understand and manage your own emotions. Leading is an emotionally taxing job, and leaders who ignore their emotions will be less effective and can quickly burn out. Dealing with your emotions in an authentic way is healthy, and also models healthy behavior. Second, leaders should address the emotions of others. They should be aware of what their teams are feeling and provide a safe environment to express and process emotions. 

Third, leaders should engage emotionally to get others on board. This means that while in the midst of change, leaders should be alert to the possibility of resistance or denial. They should acknowledge realities with genuine emotion and support, and encourage people to connect with the change and stay engaged. Fourth, leaders must maintain a balance between emotion and action. They must be comfortable letting people express their negative emotions, but be able to keep them moving. The use of “and” is much more effective than “but” at this stage. A leader should say, “I’m listening to and understanding what you are saying, and this is what I think we need to do to move forward,” instead of “I’m listening to and understanding what you are saying, but this is what I think we need to do to move forward,” as the latter can sound dismissive.

 Ways to practice emotional flexibility: 

  • Create support systems. Cultivate relationships with mentors, friends, coaches, trusted peers, professional colleagues, family members, and others for support.
  • Commit to feedback. Provide prompt feedback, both positive and negative, to employees. This exposes leaders to a range of emotional reactions from others, as well as their own reactions.
  • Act decisively. When faced with a tough decision such as laying off workers, be clear, make a decision, and stick with it. It can be detrimental to everyone to waver or avoid reality.
  • Avoid bulldozing change. Manage resistance by explaining, answering questions, and patiently listening to concerns.
  • Motivate. Consistently interact with employees in ways that are motivating and encouraging.
  • Confront problem employees. Move quickly to address problem employees in order to maintain morale and avoid resentments.
  • Listen. Learn to use effective listening skills to gain clarification from others. This will also help identify resistance and concerns while modeling healthy behaviors.
  • Collaborate. Involve others in the beginning stages of an initiative in order to gain perspective and boost engagement.
  • Face reality. Adapt to changing situations with realism, openness, and optimism.
Dispositional Flexibility
Dispositional flexibility, also called personality-based flexibility, is the ability to remain optimistic and realistic at the same time. Leaders with dispositional flexibility see change as an opportunity rather than a threat. The authors offer four ways leaders can demonstrate this trait. First, be genuinely and realistically optimistic about change and communicate that optimism to others. Second, balance expressions of uncertainty with a positive attitude. “Communicating with others and focusing on the positive should be balanced with realism and a willingness to give voice to uncertainty,” the authors write. Third, leaders should support others throughout the process of change. Fourth, they should know their own tendencies related to change. This can better equip them to work through areas of ambiguity. 
Ways to practice dispositional flexibility: 

  • Be genuine. Leading through change requires honesty and authenticity.
  • Accept change as positive. Find ways to see the benefits of change for your organization, your teams, and yourself.
  • Adapt your plans. Accept that you cannot control or predict every change and be prepared to shift strategies.
  • Cast a wide net. Involve key people in the design and implementation of change.
  • Rehearse. Practice new skills and behaviors.
  • Coach employees. Mentoring and teaching employees allows you to set clear expectations and guide employees in how to meet those expectations. It also provides a venue to deal with resistant employees.
  • Pay attention to your personal life. Use the way you transition between work and home or other areas as a way to practice adaptability.
  • Seek feedback. Find ways to receive feedback, both positive and negative, from others.
Adaptability is a quick read with many real world applications for today’s leader. There are additional sections with questions for further reflection where the readers can explore their individual struggles and identify their adaptability profile. 

Calarco will be moderating the SAIS Heads Leadership Retreat in 2015. Calarco has been working with CCL for almost 20 years and serves as a Global Solutions Faculty Member and Executive Coach. He has designed a program especially for heads of schools where they can grapple with their unique challenges and explore methods for growing talent in their schools. The Heads Leadership Retreat is scheduled for April 19-20 in Nashville, TN.

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