8 minute read 19 Jul 2021
Two employees having a discussion via zoom

Why adaptability is the key skill needed for change

By Chris Hempsall

Director, EY Lane4, EY Professional Services Limited

Passionate about unlocking people’s potential by boosting mindset, skill-set and toolset. Driven to democratise performance development to enable people to be the best version of themselves.

8 minute read 19 Jul 2021
Related topics Workforce

An adaptable workforce is key for success in this fast-changing world.

In brief:

  • Adaptability is the key skill needed in a world where we don’t know what tomorrow’s challenges will bring.
  • There are five types of adaptability which organisations and individuals alike will need to survive in today’s complex and unpredictable working world.

Over 2000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus remarked, “The only thing that is constant is change.” He’s still right, but today the pace of change seems faster than ever, with few signs of slowing down anytime soon. This rapid change impacts us individually and collectively. It forces upon us fresh problems and challenges to which we need to respond.

In this fast-shifting working world, organisations will have to raise their workforce’s adaptability to remain successful. Every person, at every level of an organisation, must be able to adapt quickly and effectively. Without doing so, organisations risk being left behind.

Why focus on adaptability ?

Think about your life 10 years ago. What was happening then that isn’t happening now? What is happening now that didn’t happen then?

Like most people, you’ll probably find that your life has changed quite considerably. We each have our own unique challenges and changes to which we need to adapt. These changes may be personal or professional, big or small, chosen or forced upon us. Regardless of the type of change, it is an inescapable part of life.

In addition to our own personal changes, there are also macro-level changes at play that impact us all. Research has revealed 14 ‘megatrends’ that are impacting the way we live and work.1, 2 From aging populations to big data, conflicting ideologies to sustainability, these megatrends all warrant our attention. This is especially true now that COVID-19 has turbocharged many of the effects.

What does all this change mean for us and our organisations?

In this landscape, an inability to let go of old, tried-and-tested behaviours will ultimately lead to failure. Simply doing as you have always done and resting on your laurels is a sure-fire route to disappointment. This is well-documented at an organisational level, with scholars and institutions noting that the average lifespan of organisations has dropped significantly over the last few decades.3

To survive, most modern organisations invest great effort in equipping their people with the skills needed for success. These skills may be technical or interpersonal — programming, collaboration, influencing, and so on. Although these skills are important, there is one skill that we all need in a world where we don’t know the challenges of tomorrow: adaptability.

We’re not alone in this belief. Adaptability has been voted in the top five skills that companies need most in annual LinkedIn surveys year after year.4 Academic research on adaptability has also grown exponentially over the last 30 years.5

This paints a compelling picture. It tells us we should seek to understand and develop adaptability, both in ourselves, and our organisations. To do this, we first need to clarify exactly what we mean by ‘adaptability’.

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Chapter 1

Five types of adaptability

Adaptability is not a single skill. There are, in fact, five distinct types.

In 1859, Charles Darwin articulated the biological importance of being adaptable — but what does ‘adaptability’ mean for us today, as individuals in the modern world? If we want to understand, measure and develop this skill, we need to be clear about what we mean by ‘adaptability’.

In its broadest sense, we define adaptability as, ‘The ability to anticipate, adjust and evolve to be effective in your environment’. However, research suggests that adaptability is not a single skill.5. In fact, there are five distinct types of adaptability:

1. Learning adaptability

Scientists have shown that our brains are purpose-built to continue learning across our lifetime — we just need to keep fuelling this process.People who demonstrate learning adaptability are excellent at this, constantly keeping an eye on their personal and professional growth. This proactive form of adaptability helps them to stay ahead of the game and successfully tackle future change and challenges.

Although it may sometimes feel uncomfortable, learning adaptability is about stepping outside of your comfort zone. This could involve actively inviting developmental feedback and immersing yourself in situations where you’re far from the expert. Together, behaviours such as these can help you to anticipate and respond successfully to future change.

2. Reactive adaptability

Life can feel like a beautiful symphony when things go to plan. More often though, it’s like jazz — unpredictable and unscripted. When things go wrong, we have to improvise in the moment. People with high levels of reactive adaptability are better at this improvisation than others.

Although our ‘fight vs flight’ instinct will almost inevitably kick in when faced with change, setbacks and pressure, reactive adaptability is about being able to remain present and ‘in control’ in these moments. This type of adaptability helps you to continue thinking and acting rationally, instead of getting hijacked by your emotions.

3. Social adaptability

At our core, human beings are social creatures. To adapt, we need to adjust our approach based on the views, feelings and needs of others. This is what social adaptability is all about.

People who exhibit social adaptability continuously seek input from others, rather than simply trusting their own judgment. The outcome is that they’re much more likely to improve their work by drawing on the knowledge of people around them.

Social adaptability also includes seeking meaningful, two-way interactions rather than just focusing on getting a message across. This means being much more likely to understand others’ viewpoints and adjust your approach in the moment. The result will inevitably be strengthened relationships and more well-rounded viewpoints.

4. Creative adaptability

Each day, we face tough challenges, often with limited time and resources. Creative adaptability is all about coming up with the best solutions to these problems.

People who demonstrate creative adaptability don’t solely rely on tried-and-tested strategies. They’re more likely to think ‘outside the box’ and consider problems from different angles. People with high creative adaptability are also more inclined to consider the bigger picture, helping them to connect the dots between seemingly unrelated problems. All these behaviours help to identify both marginal improvements and totally original solutions to challenges.

5. Lifestyle adaptability

We all know it would be impossible to sprint a whole marathon. Slowing down to catch our breath is sometimes needed to stay at our best. People with high lifestyle adaptability are much better at understanding and applying this knowledge in their day-to-day lives. They recognise their limits and carefully monitor their work-life balance, taking the time to recharge after busy periods.

Lifestyle adaptability brings various benefits. Although it might cause you to sometimes ‘push back’ on short-term demands, it also boosts your long-term effectiveness. This type of adaptability also prepares you for dealing with pressured situations and, more generally, helps you to live a healthier, happier life in the long run.

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Chapter 2

Developing adaptability in practice

Adaptability is not a fixed skill and can be developed on both a personal and organisational level.

Many human characteristics, such as height, are relatively fixed once we reach adulthood. Is adaptability one of these fixed traits or can we improve it? And, if so, how might we do that?

Research has suggested that adaptability is not a fixed skill.7, 8 This means we have the power to boost our own adaptability, as well as the adaptability of others. To help you with this, we’ve provided some tips here for developing personal and organisational adaptability.

Building adaptability in organisations

1. Hire people who demonstrate adaptability

Many organisations use their own competency frameworks with the goal of hiring those with the right skills for specific roles. Given its futureproofed value, adaptability should be a skill listed in every organisation’s hiring competencies.

This could mean assessing how well the candidate displays each type of adaptability. In other words, how well the candidate:

  • Proactively learns and develops
  • Bounces back from and thrives during pressure, challenges and change
  • Adjusts their approach during and following social interactions
  • Produces creative solutions to daily challenges
  • Ensures their approach to work is sustainable
2. Create a formal focus on developing adaptability

For many organisations, formal training plays a key role in upskilling the workforce with critical technical and interpersonal skills. In terms of the latter, these skills are often wide-ranging, including communication, innovation, collaboration, emotional intelligence and conflict resolution amongst others.

Given the inevitability of change and our unclear future, adaptability is a crucial skill that should become a prime focus of formal learning and development strategies. Ask yourself, “Is adaptability on our learning and development curriculum?”

Building your own adaptability

1. Learn about your own adaptability

American author Gretchen Rubin stated, “Self-awareness is a key to self-mastery.” You may wish to follow this advice by reflecting critically on your own adaptability. Even better, you could seek feedback from people who you know will be balanced and honest.

Ask yourself and others:

  • Which of the five types of adaptability do you already show in abundance?
  • Which of the five types of adaptability would you benefit from developing?
2. Purposefully develop your adaptability

When you first learned to ride a bike, you probably didn’t get it right first-time around. You were willing to practise and try, time and time again, to keep your balance. Unfortunately, this tenacious practice is something many of us lose as we enter adulthood. Such unwavering focus would clearly prove useful when attempting to develop any skills today, not least your adaptability.

Take a moment to consider:

  • What benefits would you and others reap from growing your adaptability?
  • What’s your plan for developing each type of adaptability?
  • How are you going to make sure you stay on track?
  • Show article references#Hide article references

    1. A. Maitland, “The 14 megatrends shaping the future of business”, Lane4 white paper, 2019.
    2. V. Hlupic, The management shift: How to harness the power of people and transform your organization for sustainable success (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
    3. S. Anthony, S. Viguerie, E. Schwartz & J. Van Landeghem, “Corporate longevity forecast”, Innosight publication, 2018.
    4. “The skills companies need most in 2020—and how to learn them”, LinkedIn, 13th January 2020, https://learning.linkedin.com/blog/top-skills/the-skills-companiesneed-most-in-2020and-how-to-learn-them.
    5. C.W. Rudolph, K.N. Lavigne & H. Zacher, “Career adaptability: A meta-analysis of relationships with measures of adaptivity, adapting responses, and adaptation results”, Journal of Vocational Behavior, 2017.
    6. B. Kolb & R. Gibb, “Searching for the principles of brain plasticity and behaviour”, Cortex, 2014.
    7. M. Furness, “What predicts career adaptability? An application of Achievement Goal Theory and Adult Attachment Theory”, Journal of Career Development, 2018.
    8. S. Park & S.Y. Park, “Career adaptability of South Korean engineering students”, European Journal of Training and Development, 2020.


Change is an inevitable part of life. To be successful in our personal and professional lives, we need to be adaptable. The same goes for the organisations to which we belong. Fortunately, the skill of adaptability has entered the limelight in recent research. It has revealed itself as a multidimensional skill that can, and should, be developed. Although this might not always be easy, purposefully focusing on the development of adaptability will quickly pay dividends, both for you and your organisation.

About this article

By Chris Hempsall

Director, EY Lane4, EY Professional Services Limited

Passionate about unlocking people’s potential by boosting mindset, skill-set and toolset. Driven to democratise performance development to enable people to be the best version of themselves.

Related topics Workforce