“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”
An attitude that most people should have for their own well-being, success and happiness. Sheila, a head nurse in a hospital, was not one of those people. When she got an email announcing the decision to replace an electronic medical record system at the hospital where she worked, she groaned. She didn’t want any changes and was furious that others on the leadership team discounted her concerns. The hospital didn’t have much staff on many units and she was furious that now nurses would spend time learning new software rather than attending to patient needs.
Feeling her heart beat and her face flush, Sheila stood up from her desk and walked past her assistant saying, “I’ll be back for my noon meeting.” Outside, she took a mindful breath, and then another. She strode mindfully across the parking lot, fully aware of each step. She’d pause, do some mindful breathing, and then continue walking with awareness.
Several blocks from the hospital, Sheila paused. She realized that she found it challenging to adjust to new technology. She reminded herself of how she’d successfully managed previous software shifts and that what mattered wasn’t her comfort, but easing the transition for her staff.
She took her time and a bit more mindful breathing. Calmer, her thoughts shifted toward the timeline for implementing the new software. When she walked into her meeting with the unit heads, Sheila smiled and said, “I’m sure you all received the message about the new EMR system. Let’s add that to today’s agenda.”
Changes happen, no matter whether you want them or not. The question is – how adaptable are you? Do you welcome changes?
Regardless of what’s in any job description, I’d ask potential hires: “Tell me about a time when you successfully handled a major change at work.” Whatever your role in an organization, being able to adapt to change helps you succeed. As we mentioned before, if you can’t change the direction of the wind, adjust your sails to always reach your destination. That’s what adaptable leaders do – they meet new challenges with ease and are comfortable with the uncertainty that leadership can bring.
Adaptability is one of twelve emotional and social intelligence leadership competencies. It means you can quickly adjust to new situations and handle multiple demands. Mindfulness practice can also help since its essence is to see the way things change all the time, with our own internal thoughts and moods as the field for learning. When it comes to adapting to changes at work, something more can help: emotional intelligence.
Research by my colleague Case Western Reserve University professor Richard Boyatzis and others shows that being strong in the adaptability competency predicts satisfaction with life and career, as well as career success. This conclusion was based on a research study that tracked a group of MBA students 19 years after they graduated. It showed that those who ranked high in this competency as students were the most satisfied and successful almost two decades later.
Two Keys to Adaptability
Daniel Goleman is the bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence and Healing Emotions. He frequently lectures to business audiences, professional groups, and on college campuses. There’s a reason his new series of primers on the EI competencies is titled “Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence”—many of the competencies build upon each other. While each is crucial for leadership in its own way, emotional self-awareness and emotional self-control are essential first steps in the development of the other competencies.
Emotional self-awareness means you are aware of your emotions and how you respond to the world around you i.e. you are mindful. With emotional self-control, you can apply this awareness to manage your distressing feelings and remain calm even during stressful situations.
Strengthening Your Ability to Adapt
Sheila made a good decision. She recognized and handled her emotions in the face of an undesired change. Taking a walk with mindfulness, and then reminding herself of past success allowed the rational thinking part of her brain (the prefrontal cortex) to regain control from the “respond to threat” part of her brain (the amygdala). Using self-awareness and self-control created the space necessary for adaptability to successfully make progress in her role. If it was the other way round, she would have stormed off to the CEO’s office and shouted her anger or vented her frustration on her assistant or colleagues.
What’s important to become more adaptable is to expose yourself to different ways of doing things, learning and gaining confidence in uncertainty. Even if you fail at doing new things, you’ll expand your capacity to respond to various situations with less stress.
How can you enhance your adaptability?
Using mindfulness of breathing and of walking – just like Sheila did. Those techniques are effective if you practiced them regularly and train your mind and body to recognize their calming signals.
Leave your comfort zone – a little bit of healthy stress can actually act as a catalyst for growth and provide a powerful motivation to act. Intentionally seek out new experiences and opportunities to go beyond your comfort zone.