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Using the core principles of adaptive leadership to help navigate change

Change is hard, messy, and it’s not always a choice. It’s also a fact of life. Knowing this, how does a leader guide their team through unforeseen circumstances and complex problems? Without a playbook or game plan, how does a team succeed in the face of radical change? The answer is through adaptive leadership.

Adaptive leadership is more important today than ever before. Workplaces are faced with unprecedented changes that have completely upended the traditional office setting. How does a leader lead when they don’t know what to expect from one day to the next? How do employers oversee important work while locked inside their own homes? How do managers keep their team connected when each member is forced to work apart, sometimes separated by time zones or oceans?

In this post, we’ll discuss the principles of adaptive leadership, including real-world examples and practical applications.

What is adaptive leadership?

Adaptive leadership is a framework designed to help teams and organizations make lasting change. It prioritizes creativity, innovation, collaboration, and mutual respect. It also rejects the antiquated, top-down hierarchical form of transactional leadership that views employees as little more than lemmings subject to the will of one leader. “Show up; do as I say; get paid,” is a thing of the past.

Adaptive leaders work with their employees; everyone has a seat at the table. And what’s more, under an adaptive leader, people want a seat at the table. Through empathy, emotional intelligence, and integrity, an adaptive leader is able to bring employees and stakeholders alike inside the decision-making process, making each person feel valued.

An adaptive leader knows that it’s not all about them. They’re able to articulate the root of complex problems and inspire their team to find the solutions.

A personalized leadership approach for each team member.

PI’s behavioral insights help leaders inspire and coach each employee in a way they truly connect with.

Adaptive leadership principles

Adaptive leadership is essential in situations when there is no concrete fix or established procedure for handling a problem. Especially when the issue is complex and there is no clear problem, adaptive leaders know how to make the right connection and find the critical areas of focus inside the chaos. And they do this by leaning on the following set of core principles:

  • They embrace change. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ability to successfully deal with change is essential for adaptive leaders. They should not only recognize it as inevitable, but see it as an opportunity for growth.
  • They promote flexibility. Adaptive leaders must not only be flexible themselves, but know how to make those around them flexible too. This is especially important when it comes to decision-making and problem-solving processes, as this will enable organizations to respond quickly despite changing circumstances.
  • They empower others. The ability to make their employees better at their jobs through motivation, encouragement, and support is a core principle of adaptive leadership. They should also know when to give them autonomy to make their own decisions so that they can confidently take on more responsibilities.
  • They build resilience. Like change, challenges and setbacks are inevitable. That’s why adaptive leaders know how to cultivate resilience, both in themselves and throughout their team. They do this by teaching others how to learn from their failures, spring back from setbacks, and when to reach out for help when they need it.
  • They encourage collaboration. Adaptive leaders should know how to help teams cohere and work better together by employing a variety of methods. For example, they should encourage open communication and dialogue among employees. They should also create a safe environment where diverse perspectives are valued so that everyone feels like their contribution is important and welcome.
  • They lead by example. Adaptive leadership is not just something that can be practiced. It must be lived instead. Adaptive leaders should be seen as role models. They need to inhabit their role fully in order to be seen as authentic and accountable. This way, they will be able to inspire others to follow their lead.

Characteristics of adaptive leaders

Unlike their principles, the individual traits and characteristics that make up adaptive leaders will necessarily depend a lot on their individual personalities and circumstances. That said, the following are some of the most common ways you might describe a successful adaptive leader:

  • Adaptability: Adaptive leaders must be adaptive of course. This means they can easily adjust their approaches and strategies as needed in response to changing circumstances.
  • Open-mindedness: Having an open mind means remaining receptive to new ideas, perspectives, and feedback (including criticism) no matter where they come from. 
  • Empathy: This quality means they take the time to truly understand others. That may involve listening to them, validating their feelings, and considering alternative or even contrasting viewpoints.
  • Curiosity: Adaptive leaders are constantly learning and exploring. They want to uncover new insights and possibilities that can help them become better leaders and help their employees do better at their jobs.
  • Courage: Knowing how to stand by their principles and when to challenge the status quo is a central trait of adaptive leaders. They should be comfortable taking risks and making tough decisions, even in the face of uncertainty.
  • Humility: Adaptive leaders can be confident, but not cocky. That’s because they should have the self-awareness to recognize their own shortcomings and the humility to ask for help or guidance when they need it.
  • Optimism: A sense of hope and an enduring positivity allow adaptive leaders to inspire confidence in their teams, especially when times get tough.

Adaptive leadership examples

We don’t have to look far to see how vital adaptive leadership is to success. Consider the COVID-19 pandemic. Practically overnight, businesses across the world had to figure out a new way of working just to survive. And beyond survival, how does an office maintain employee wellness and productivity with the entire world engulfed in misinformation, uncertainty, and fear?

The radical change brought on by the unconventional circumstances of 2020 and beyond shows how important it is for offices to make adaptability one of their core values. If adapting is a key part of your company culture, teams can better roll with the punches and evolve in the face of change. You can’t predict the future, but you can be more adaptable.

With the shift to remote and distributed teams, leaders had to embrace a new way of working. In the face of such a monumental change, leaders had to quickly decide if they were going to adapt or fail. It meant learning and implementing new forms of technology and finding new ways to keep their team connected. Adaptive leaders were better equipped to problem-solve when facing the dumpster fire that was 2020. They also shared a strong mutual trust with their team, which went a long way toward maintaining workplace relationships and wellbeing.

For a real-world example of an adaptive leader, look no further than American politician and entrepreneur Stacey Abrams. In 2018, she lost Georgia’s gubernatorial race to Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Secretary of State at the time, due to widespread voter suppression on Kemp’s part. It was the state’s closest election since 1966.

Rather than accept defeat, Abrams embraced change and used the loss to spark a movement dedicated to getting as many people registered to vote as possible—no matter their skin color or economic status. In her own words, “The most important leaders… create pathways for more people to be a part of the power structure and the power dynamic.

She adapted. And two years later, Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia in 28 years. It’s a win that many credit to Abrams’ tireless work, innovation, and adaptability.

How to apply adaptive leadership theory

Applying adaptive leadership takes consistency and patience. Don’t expect complete trust from your team and wondrous results right away. You need to stick with it and give your team time to accept you as an adaptive leader.

Although it may be difficult to maintain the level of openness and integrity expected from an adaptive leader, the results are well worth it. By prioritizing your team’s wellbeing and your reaction to and acceptance of change, you create a work culture that’s ready to take on whatever the future has in store.

Adaptive leadership strategies to hone your skills as a leader, manager, or business owner:

  • Cultivate a culture of continuous improvement with two-way constructive feedback.
  • Establish transparency and accountability in the workplace.
  • Question your assumptions and consider all possible angles.
  • Foster a work environment that takes risks and sees failure as a learning opportunity.
  • Embrace innovation and diversity of views.
  • Build your team’s Adaptability Quotient with ongoing adaptability training.
  • Make hiring choices based on adaptability.
  • Accept that change is constant and help your team work through change constructively.

Challenges to the practical implementation of adaptive leadership

Adaptive leadership can be a very effective framework for navigating change and promoting agility and flexibility among employees. That said, there can still be a variety of challenges when it comes to successfully implementing this management style, especially when considered in the context of different organizational structures. Let’s look at a few of these, as well as their possible solutions.

Hierarchical structures

In hierarchical organizational structures, there are strict divisions between the responsibilities of different roles. This means they typically use a rigid decision-making process and have a centralized authority, both of which can make the decentralized decision-making process that adaptive leadership encourages difficult to implement. In particular, middle managers may feel threatened by the lack of control.

The best way to overcome this challenge and implement an adaptive leadership framework is probably to lean into the hierarchy itself. By gaining leadership buy-in from the top, it will be easier to overcome any entrenched power structures and start fostering a culture of empowerment and collaboration.

Matrix structures

Organizations that use matrix structures will have teams that report to multiple leaders at once. While this can help promote open communication between teams and encourage innovation, it can also lead to role ambiguity, conflicting priorities, and competing agendas — all of which will pose a challenge when trying to implement an adaptive leadership framework.

In order to overcome this, it will be necessary for leadership to balance the need for a centralized system of coordination with a more decentralized decision-making process. However, by building out a clear process for communication, continuously seeking out alignment on cross-functional goals, and making coordination across teams an ongoing priority, it will be much easier to build a successful consensus on top of an adaptive framework.

Flat structures

In many ways the opposite of hierarchical organizations, flat organizational structures involve few or now distinct divisions between employees. Although this style may be more conducive in many ways to an adaptive leadership style, challenges can still arise when it comes to decision-making bottlenecks, lack of oversight, and, ironically, a lack of hierarchy and organization.

In order to successfully implement adaptive leadership in this type of organization, it will be necessary to establish a clear decision-making framework and sense of accountability among employees. It’s also vital that a culture of trust and collaboration exists so that employees can work together successfully. And by empowering employees through encouragement and support, they’ll be more likely for them to take full ownership of their various roles and responsibilities.

Measuring the impact of adaptive leadership 

So now that adaptive leadership has been introduced and implemented throughout the organization, what’s the best way to gauge its impact? While there are a variety of ways to do this, the following three are the core methods of measuring its success:

  • Organizational performance: This is probably the most straightforward method of determining the success of an adaptive leadership approach. Depending on where leadership is focusing or what its goals are, metrics for measuring performance could include revenue growth or profitability, or the efficiency of the team. It could also be smart to include customer satisfaction using metrics like NPS, retention rate, and churn.
  • Employee engagement: Successful adaptive leadership should result in employees that are measurably satisfied and engaged. This can be determined by regularly sending out employee surveys and collecting feedback on how employees feel about the organization’s leadership, direction, and progress toward its goals. Employee turnover and retention rates can also be a good indicator of their satisfaction.
  • Innovation: Done right, adaptive leadership should also boost creativity and innovation within a company. To see how well it is accomplishing this, it can be useful to look at the number of new products or features that have been developed since the adaptive approach was adopted, or the number of ideas or suggestions employees have submitted. Alternatively, assessing the level of collaboration between teams can be an indirect but effective method of gauging innovation.

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David is a freelance writer and PI contributor. When he’s not writing, he’s probably thinking about food. He believes pretzels are superior to potato chips and you can’t convince him otherwise.

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