6 minute read 19 Jul 2021
Female employee having a meeting via zoom

How adaptability skills can help to tackle novel problems

By Mark Wheatley

Partner, EY Lane4, EY Professional Services Limited

Innovates by partnering with other organisations and clients to create best-in-class solutions that will generate a sustainable impact.

6 minute read 19 Jul 2021
Related topics Consulting Workforce

The need for adaptability in the workplace — to learn and unlearn — is critical to navigating new and novel situations.

In brief:
  • Adaptability skills help leaders to manage unusual situations without explicit instruction.
  • 150 C-suite leaders found that adaptability was one of the top five skills they felt they needed to succeed in the future.
  • Adaptability skills can be developed in several ways including increasing self-awareness and deliberate practice.

Over the past couple of decades softer leadership skills have been increasingly recognised as one of the key components required to lead successfully. But, our research and experience shows that a lot of leadership failures arise from an inability to adapt and let go of old behaviours.1

Whilst it’s important to use our past experiences of change to inform how we might tackle the next unexpected challenge, being adaptable is about remaining open and flexible in our approach, accepting that we may succeed or fail along the way.

In a world that is going to continue to throw new situations for leaders to navigate, the need for adaptability in the workplace — to learn and unlearn — is critical to future success.

  • What is adaptability?

    Adaptability is a soft skill that means being able to rapidly learn new skills and behaviours in response to changing circumstances. Employers usually look for adaptability when hiring new staff and the skill is often included in job descriptions because of its importance for growth within a role.

    Someone demonstrating adaptability in the workplace is flexible and has the ability to respond effectively to their working conditions — even if things don’t go as planned. They usually work well on their own and with team members.

    People in leadership positions are often expected to manage unusual situations without explicit instruction. An adaptable leader must be able to solve problems in a fast-paced environment and trust their judgement when making difficult decisions, whilst still recognising that what worked before is not necessarily the answer

Why adaptability is a critical leadership skill

A week hardly goes by without a report from a business school, consultancy, government or think-tank telling us that the future of work is changing. But how will that impact the world of work?

Our research team set out to discover an answer and found this change is driven by what are termed megatrends — the underlying forces shaping the world. Taking the megatrends as a starting point, we surveyed C-suite leaders and found that adaptability was one of the top five skills they felt they needed to succeed in the future.2

Whilst adaptability is something we can all benefit from in a changing world; it’s particularly critical for leaders. As leaders make the leap from being a supervisor to a middle manager and finally onto more senior positions, they will need to adapt their style. Leadership roles increase in complexity as you progress through an organisation, calling for more subtle influencing and persuading skills. And, as a leader’s seniority increases, they need to learn to empower, delegate, form strategic alliances and let go of some of the skills that enabled them to perform effectively in earlier leadership roles.

So, not only do leaders need to adapt as they move between roles in their career, they also need to flex constantly within any given role, as they lead their people and organisation in a continually changing world.

How to develop adaptability skills in your leaders

Whilst every leader’s journey to raising their adaptability is unique and different depending on their specific strengths and development areas, here are a few key tips which could help your leaders improve their adaptability skills in the workplace:

1. Be confident but open to improvement

Leaders need to become aware of any gaps between their actual performance and desired performance levels, as this insight will drive behaviour change. But self-awareness must be balanced with self-belief. Without it, increased awareness of development needs can be demotivating and disheartening. In contrast, leaders with very high levels of self-belief may dismiss or underestimate the need to act on development feedback.

2. Focus on improving not proving

Goal orientation describes whether, on approaching a task, you focus more on what you can learn from it, on performing well, or on avoiding failure. Although typically subconscious, our goal orientation has a strong impact on how much we will learn from our experiences. Leaders with a learning orientation tend to see challenges as opportunities to improve, and so are more accepting of failure as a necessary step towards better performance.

3. Think about your thinking

Metacognitive ability is our ability to think about the way we think, and it’s crucial for maximising learning. Seeking feedback and reflecting on it are key elements, enabling us to extract critical lessons from our experiences. Leaders should be aware that not all reflection is conducive to learning; self-reflection can be adaptive (helpful) or maladaptive (unhelpful). Adaptive self-reflection accelerates leadership development because it is characterised by openness, positivity, and a learning, goal-orientated perspective.3

4. Practise deliberately, not mindlessly

Those who excel in their field take a much more deliberate approach to trying to implement new learning to improve their performance. For instance, they make much better use of strategies such as goal setting, and adopt more specific goals about how they will improve their performance as well as just what performance improvement they’re aiming for.4

Deliberate practice involves highly structured and intense activities, adapted to each individual to stretch their performance beyond its current level, with immediate feedback focusing on errors or weaknesses. Errors are important in helping leaders to adapt since “failing to fail” restricts individuals from exploring alternatives, potentially leading to complacency.5

Effective leadership not only requires technical and contextual knowledge and skills, but increasingly calls for higher level competencies such as the ability to adapt.

When a leader is under a high level of pressure, they can become ‘rigid’ in their reactions. They can respond to challenges in ways that have become ingrained or habitual. This can be problematic when those habitual responses are no longer appropriate for the situation; which is increasingly likely in our complex, turbulent and rapidly changing world. As such, adaptability is an increasingly important and valuable skill for leaders to develop.

  • Show article references#Hide article references

    1. A. Maitland & K. McGrane, “Navigating Leadership Transitions,” Lane4 Management Group, 2013.
    2. Survey carried out by Lane4 Management Group in December 2018 with over 150 C-suite leaders, from businesses with a turnover from £10 million to over £500 million.
    3. Trapnell & Campbell, “Private self-consciousness and the five-factor model of personality: Distinguishing rumination from reflection,” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 1999.
    4. Cleary & Zimmerman, “Self-regulation differences during athletic practice by experts, non-experts, and novices,” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 2001.
    5. Sitkin, “Learning through failure: The strategy of small losses,” Research in Organizational Behavior, 1992. 


Adaptability is a vital skill for leaders to develop if they want to thrive in an ever-changing environment. It is especially vital for people as they transition through different levels of leadership. Leaders can develop their adaptability skills in several ways including increasing their self-awareness and deliberate practice.

About this article

By Mark Wheatley

Partner, EY Lane4, EY Professional Services Limited

Innovates by partnering with other organisations and clients to create best-in-class solutions that will generate a sustainable impact.

Related topics Consulting Workforce