Have you, your colleagues and your family members been surprised by your adaptability to the many recent and rapid changes? The global health and economic crises has forced changes to our work practices, our finances, our health needs and our learning opportunities. Most dramatically, we have had to adapt to a loss of normalcy in our everyday lives. As human beings, we do not like uncertainty and unpredictability, but on the flip side we are adaptable.
There are still more changes ahead, as schools re-open, workplaces resume, team sports start back up and face to face meetings are re-facilitated. What do we actually need to know about being able to adapt to changing situations? The answer to this question requires an understanding of the concept of adaptability and self-reflection to review our own resources and responses to change.
What is Adaptability?
We have all heard about the concept of adaptability before the crisis. Charles Darwin reported, when he was building his theory of evolution, that natural selection favours a sense of flexibility. He went on to describe that it is not always the strongest species that survives, it is sometimes the most adaptable. The concept of adaptability has also previously been viewed as important in workplaces. In this context, adaptability refers to the capacity to quickly respond to changing trends, innovation, disruption and crises.
One definition describes adaptability as “the capacity to make appropriate responses to changed or changing situations; the ability to modify or adjust one’s behaviour in meeting different circumstances or different people” (VandenBos, 2015). Further research has extended this definition to include not only cognitive and behavioural resources, but also emotional resources in response to change, novelty, variability and uncertainty (Martin, 2017).
Being adaptable to new and changing situations can be difficult as it involves challenging our preconceived ideas about how we think things should be. We are naturally attracted to order and stability because it makes our world more predictable. However, learning is inherently about change – new insight, new skills and new knowledge. When does too much change erode our resources for adaptability? Next, we will develop an understanding of our cognitive, emotional and behavioural resources so that we can better protect them.
Cognitive resources for adaptability help us to respond to changing demands positively. These resources have consistently been associated with positive outcomes in performance, health, adjustment and wellbeing. They are dynamic and can change over time as new information and experiences are acquired. The three cognitive resources considered are situation awareness, cognitive flexibility and adaptive orientation.
- Situation awareness
To adapt to a changing environment, we need to be aware that the situation is changing and also realise that a response is required. For example, we can recognise changes in the environment, describe what is new and discern what we need to learn to be able to respond effectively.
- Cognitive flexibility
Cognitive flexibility refers to our capacity to consider new ideas and solutions, change our perception of situations and think about something differently than before. Cognitive flexibility is related to openness, novelty seeking and creativity.
- Adaptive orientation
These are our adaptive thoughts, attitudes and beliefs relevant to dealing with new or changing situations. Adaptive orientations include optimism, positive self-efficacy, hope and personal control.
Emotional resources for adaptability refer to our capacity to respond positively to new and uncertain situations. They also reflect our capacity to recover once a negative emotional experience has happened. The three emotional resources described are resilience, positive emotions and emotion regulation.
Resilience refers to the psychological capacity to “bounce back” from negative emotional experiences associated with adversity, uncertainty and threats. Protective factors in our social network and environment can enhance resilience. Resilience has been studied in the context of traumatic and stressful life events as well as more recently in relation to workplace change.
- Positive emotions
Positive emotions can diminish the effects of negative emotions by quieting or undoing the autonomic arousal generated. Positive emotions such as happiness, contentment and joy also play an important role in recovery processes.
- Emotion regulation
Emotion regulation refers to the ways we influence our emotions, for example, when we have them, and how we express them. When trying to regulate our emotions, we can use different strategies, such as calming techniques and relaxation.
Behavioural resources for adaptability refer to our adaptive responses as well our coping styles in challenging situations. The two behavioural resources described are proactive behaviour and problem-focussed coping.
- Proactive behaviour
Van Dam (2011) described three behavioural tendencies. Proactive behaviour includes actively initiating actions that have a positive effect on the changed environment to maintain our performance and wellbeing. This is in contrast to procrastination (waiting to see how things develop) and denial (holding on to old routines).
- Problem focused coping
Based on Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) model of stress and coping, several coping styles have been defined. The two proactive coping styles are problem focused coping (doing something about the situation) and emotion focused coping (reducing our negative emotional response). Avoidance coping is the tendency to engage in denial and disengagement and is not as effective in adapting to change.
Now that you have developed an understanding of the multi-dimensional and resources based framework for ability, there are a few quick activities that you can try. First, take a brief audit of your own preferred cognitive, emotional and behavioural resources for adaptability. Next, consider the aspects of the situation that you can gain some control of and direct according to your strengths. Finally, consider what social and environmental supports will help members of your family and your team adapt.
Johnston, C.S. (2018). A systematic review of the career adaptability literature and future outlook. Journal of Career Assessment, 26, 3-30.
Martin, A.J. (2017). Adaptability – What it is and what it is not. American Psychologist, 72, 696-698.
van Dam, K. (2011). Cognitive resources of individual adaptabilities. 15th European Congress of Work and Organizational Psychology, Maastricht, Netherlands.
VandenBos, G. R. (2015). American Psychological Association Dictionary of psychology. Second edition. Washington DC. American Psychological Association.
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