Today’s constantly evolving, uncertain and changing work and business environments need leaders who have the ability to adopt themselves to unexpected changes and challenges. As a leader, your leadership style determines how well your organisations and businesses thrive in times of changes or uncertainty. Even though you tend to develop particular leadership style that is unique to you as a leader, as changing circumstances and situations demand different workload, teams or resources, so should be your leadership and management style that must adapt accordingly in order to embrace change.
Also, the most effective are those who don’t just stick to one style of leadership, but are skilled at several. They have the flexibility to switch between styles as the circumstances demand. But in most of the uncertain circumstances or crisis, many find it difficult to adapt to all the changes. Failing to make appropriate adjustments results in disarray and confusion. During such times, leadership is no more a measure of an individual single handedly generating results by enforcing his or her will but is more of a team effort.
In order to survive and thrive, one needs to move from a command and control style of leadership towards high performing adaptive leadership to build diverse work force and teams. In times of change, employees, teams or workforce must be well-equipped and properly motivated to navigate through change and this requires adaptive approach to leadership to go beyond simply addressing challenges to finding ways to solve them.
What is adaptive leadership?
Adaptive leadership is a practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organisation adapt and cope with changing or challenging environments to effectively respond to recurring problems through teamwork and collaboration. It involves leading with empathy and learning through self-correction and reflection.
You know you are facing an adaptive challenge when your deeply held beliefs are challenged or when your existing ways of working or strategising become less relevant and less effective. You need adaptive leadership in restructuring, implementing new strategy or bringing major changes to your ways of working. The following are the four principles that are necessary for adaptive leadership.
Character. Adaptive leaders adhere to moral and ethical principles which makes them transparent and trustworthy. They practice what they preach or recommend and thus earn respect of those they work with. This ability helps link change to their primary values, purpose and abilities of people involved in building trusting, quality relationships with their teams, employees, workforce or other stakeholders.
Organisational justice. Another important trait of adaptive leaders is to be open and honest. While adapting challenges that have no clear solution available, being transparent is important to present people or stakeholders with hard facts. Implementing effective solutions requires transparency where one needs to be completely open and comfortable with admitting mistakes and to accept changes when something isn’t working.
Development. They are aware that adapting to challenges requires creativity and innovativeness for which they create an amicable environment for diverse view points and perspectives. They accommodate different views in order to come up with large number of options to reach a solution or to achieve common goals in uncertainty. This often results in building engaging teams, work force or individuals who feel driven and valued to come up with creative ideas.
Emotional awareness is the ability to recognise and effectively manage one’s own emotions and those of other people. Change often is an uncomfortable process bringing up challenging emotions and requires adaptive leaders to be aware of complexities and address them in a mature and thoughtful way. Being emotionally resilient, makes them sensitive and empathetic to theirs and others’ needs in times of change or uncertainty.
What makes adaptive leadership different?
Like the other leadership styles, adaptive leadership focuses on making informed decisions and increased productivity but what distinguishes this particular style of leadership is that they face adaptive problems and challenges. Adaptive problems or challenges differ from other problems that often have a clear solution in sight. Adaptive problems on the other hand, have no clear, one-size-fits-all solution. Adaptive leaders meet such organisational challenges and survive tough and uncertain times with the right skill set and taking decisive action. Some more competencies of adaptive leaders are:
- They observe patterns, interpret the situation in various ways and intervene to address a challenge or a problem.
- They build adaptive teams that embrace change, face adaptive challenges, innovate, create and adapt.
- They believe in the value of sharing leadership and develop leadership at every level.
- They build team of right combination of backgrounds, styles and perspectives and are not limited to keep positions occupying top talent.
- They delegate and entrust teams with clearly defined goals, roles and accountabilities.
- They channel uncertainty into positive outcomes through collaboration and effective communication.
What can you do to embrace adaptive leadership
Although adaptive leadership requires a great effort, it provides positive outcomes and better equips leaders to rise to the situation during periods of change and uncertainty. Here are some aspects that you can undertake to become adaptive in your approach as a leader or as a team member.
Encourage constructive disagreement to ensure that assumptions are challenged. Constructive conflict keeps teams or employees to share their differences, expectations, conflict about issues and new ideas. Being open to feedback and willingness to consider different perspectives helps in moving from old, not so effective ways to potential new methods, ideas, possibilities or solutions.
Gain a distanced perspective Or a ‘balcony view.’An adaptive challenge requires you to have a distanced or a ‘balcony view’. All too often leaders remain in what is termed as ‘dance floor’ where they are involved in day-to day activities or interactions which makes them devoid of a clear picture of emerging problems or the big picture. Stepping back to gain a bigger perspective lets you see what is really happening or what is required to adapt to a changing environment or how a solution can be achieved.
Stressful scenarios require effective communication to clearly articulate your intent to refocus everyone’s attention on the real challenge. It is often easy to get distracted by things that are easier or more comfortable to deal with. Clearly communicating your priorities helps them avoid distractions of lesser importance in pressure situations. Thoughtfully frame and communicate in a way that enables team members to understand why the change is important.
Identify the challenge. As an adaptive leader, it is important to identify the challenge in its correct perspective. Assess the challenge in detail and context. Does it represent a problem or a challenge that can be tacked with existing skills, workforce or tools and techniques or Is it an adaptive challenge that requires new competences? This result in identifying on what exactly you need to be working on, is it the beliefs or skills of your team or your own approach or both thereby you can implement the change initiatives accordingly.
Create an environment of trust. Reluctance to voice their opinions or concerns makes the teams passive and unwilling to learn or change. It is important to listen to their perspectives and leverage them to create an environment of trust and respect. Creating a sense of shared purpose and values results in people making independent and autonomous decisions that align with organisational goals and priorities. This further results in increased participation.
Encourage experimentation and continuous learning to get to best possible solution. Adaptive leaders need to embrace failure as a learning opportunity. Constantly assess your actions by testing your underlying beliefs, assumptions and correcting mistakes. Reflecting on the impact of your decisions and new procedures helps you anticipate possible future needs or challenges.
Check your emotional awareness and readiness. Adaptive approach to changes or challenges generates discomfort and is often faced with resistance by employees or team members as there are no clear solutions. Resistance to change or challenge will have less to do with the merits of your idea and more to do with discomfort of change or hard work. Be aware of your emotional capability to tolerate uncertainty and resistance to change.
Test your own interpretations. Getting people to assume responsibilities and letting them take the initiative in problems needs support rather than control. 0Listening to individuals who disagree with you does not necessarily mean abandoning individual goals. It simply means you are better informed about the organisational needs and therefore you can work more effectively to execute change. Testing your own interpretations against others’ to make well informed decisions.
Questions for self-reflection
As a leader, how adaptive do you get in face of challenges or uncertainty?
How often do you step back from action to gain a distanced perspective and come up with creative alternatives?
How engaging do you get with your teams by listening to their perspectives and involving them in decisions?
Do you encourage constructive disagreements as a leader or team member?
How strongly do you pitch your change initiatives to your team and how convincing do you get in implementing them?
How resilient are you in the wake of adapting yourself to change or uncertainty?
Do you recommend learning opportunities to address people’s skill gaps?
How often do you face challenges that require a different skill set or expertise other than yours?
Dealing with challenges or uncertainty as a leader often requires flexibility to adapt to the circumstances and requires you to let go of certain beliefs, behaviours or identities and develop a willingness to self-reflect and self-correct. Adaptive leadership better prepares you to thrive in the face of challenges and helps you build engaging teams to take on the process of change. Apply the above competencies in the context of adaptive challenges or problems or changing organisational needs that you might face for better outcomes.