The importance of adaptability skills in the workplace

Adaptability is the ability to learn new skills in response to evolving circumstances. Adrian Moorhouse offers some tips

Reading time: 5 minutes

The paradox at the heart of many careers is that when you are good at your job, you are most likely to get promoted into a different one.

The skills required to be a great civil engineer are very different to those needed by a senior leader in a civil engineering firm, for example, yet it is the great civil engineers who are most likely to be asked to take that step up.

Even once you become a leader, the ever-changing business environment means you can’t become complacent. Certain behaviours and hard skills can become ineffective even if your job title remains the same.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that over the past couple of decades there has been an increased recognition of the soft skills leaders need to lead successfully.

But research and experience demonstrates that a lot of leadership failures arise from an inability to adapt and let go of old behaviours.

Drawing on our past experiences is very important to informing how we might tackle the next unexpected challenge.

However, this can’t come at the cost of creativity; adaptability is the ability to remain open and flexible in your approach, accepting the fact that you may succeed or fail along the way.

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

What is adaptability?

Adaptability is a soft skill that refers to the ability to rapidly learn new skills and behaviours in response to evolving circumstances.

Employers typically look for adaptability when hiring new staff, and the skill is increasingly included in job descriptions due to its importance for growth and development within a role. 

Someone who demonstrates adaptability in the workplace is flexible and is able to respond effectively to their working conditions, even in situations where things do not go as planned. They typically work well on their own and with team members.

The need for adaptability in the workplace – to learn and unlearn – is crucial to future success

People in leadership positions are often expected to manage unusual situations without explicit instruction. Therefore, an adaptable leader must be able to resolve problems in a fast-paced environment and trust their judgment when making tough decisions. However, at the same time, still recognising that what worked before may not necessarily work every time.

Adaptability is a critical leadership skill

Research by Lane4 has revealed that the changes to the world of work are being driven by ‘megatrends’ – the underlying, macroeconomic forces shaping the world.

After surveying C-suite leaders, it was shown that adaptability was one of the top five skills they felt they needed in order to succeed in the future.

Additionally, recruitment experts Michael Page named adaptability as the most desirable skill of 2019 and LinkedIn place it in the top four for 2020.

We can all benefit from adaptability but, in an ever-changing world, it is particularly crucial for leaders. As they make the leap from being a supervisor to a middle manager and finally on to more senior positions, they must adapt their style.

Leadership roles become more complex as you progress through an organisation, requiring more subtle influencing and persuading skills.

Additionally, as a leader’s seniority increases, they must learn to empower, delegate, form strategic alliances and let go of some of the skills that enabled them to perform effectively in previous roles.

Ways to develop adaptability skills in your leaders

Although every leader’s journey to raising their adaptability is unique and varies depending on their specific strengths and development areas, there are some key tips that can improve their adaptability skills in the workplace:

Remain confident but open to improvement

Leaders must be aware of any disparities between their actual performance and desired performance levels, as this insight will drive behavioural change.

Self-awareness, however, must be balanced with self-belief. Without the latter, increased awareness of development needs can be demotivating and disheartening.

On the other hand, leaders with extreme self-belief may dismiss or underestimate the importance of acting on development feedback.

Focus on improving not proving

Goal orientation describes whether, in approaching a task, the focus is more on what can be learned from it to perform well, or avoiding failure so as to impress others.



Although typically subconscious, our goal orientation strongly impacts how much we will take away and learn from our experiences.

Leaders with a learning orientation tend to see challenges as opportunities to improve.

Think about your thinking

Metacognitive ability is the ability to think about the way we think and is crucial for maximising learning. Seeking feedback and reflecting on it are key elements that enable us to extract critical lessons from our experiences.

Leaders should be mindful that not all reflection is conducive to learning; helpful self-reflection is characterised by openness, positivity, and a learning, goal-orientated perspective.

Practice deliberately, not mindlessly

Experts take a much more deliberate approach when trying to implement new learning to enhance 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 in addition to what performance improvement they are aiming for.

Ultimately, leaders must not only adapt as they move between roles in their career, they also need to flex constantly within any given role. This will be key as they lead their people and organisation in a continuously changing world.

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 significant amount of pressure, they can become “rigid” in their reactions, and 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 and turbulent world.

As such, adaptability is an increasingly important and valuable skill for leaders to develop.


About the author

Adrian Moorhouse is managing director at Lane4 Management Consultancy



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