Adaptability – a core leadership skill in the workplace

If 2020 has taught us one thing then it’s the fact that change is the only constant. I am having countless conversations with leaders reflecting on the challenges they are facing: rapid change, unpredictable environments, challenge to predict trends and development, recent restructures and workplace changes as well as impacted markets.

We experience change at a personal level, and I find that people who have a high amount of adaptability skill are at the forefront of leading well into the future. Because let’s be honest, 2021 is still going to be tough with high amounts of uncertainty and ongoing change.

“And the most successful people are those who accept and adapt to constant change. This adaptability requires a degree of flexibility and humility most people can’t manage.” – Paul Lutus

Adaptability is the ability to act on signals. However, change can be perceived as a threat by our brain which puts us into a fight or flight mode, so when faced with unexpected shifts, we often shut down. But fighting against it or hoping for everything to work itself out won’t work.

Hope is not a plan: we need to be intentional about change


Start with a clear and positive mindset. In a crisis fear can overcome us and negative stories, like ‘the world is going to end’, ‘I will lose my job’, ‘the company is going to go under’ quickly become part of our mental script. Apply a growth mindset and change your stories to ‘this is a temporary situation’, ‘we have always been faced with unexpected change’ and ‘I have the support to make a change’. It’s not just thinking in a positive way, it’s about clarity about what you can and can’t change and celebrate success and progress. It creates capacity and confidence. Adaptability in times of crisis and ambiguity is particularly important as it enables us to see the opportunities, not just the struggle.

Adaptability is not a personality trait, it’s a behavioural skill and can be learned. The high number of people shifting to remote work, home schooling their children and adapting to completely new environments are testimony to this. When facing rapid, constant change, plan in small steps. Don’t think about the whole 12 months if you can only impact the next 3. Things will change along the way again, and being adaptable means to constantly adapt to changing circumstances. Be ok with sitting in discomfort and act anyway, we can’t wait for things to be ok or first to feel happy. Embrace being outside your comfort zone and see it as your ‘learning zone.

Here are the 5 main skills and areas of ADAPTABILITY in the workplace:

  1. Read and act on signals. The ability to read signals of external change and translate and decode them quickly. Being able to have an antenna for external environments. Make sure that your people are connected to the outside world, are updated on news and trends and feel psychologically safe to raise signals. Act swiftly and evaluate the impact of the change and evaluate the strategy your teams or organisation has to put in place. Don’t procrastinate, move forward.
  2. Openness to experiment. Just like change, experimentation happens at a personal level. Encourage curiosity in your teams and organisation, a culture where we ask questions and challenge the status quo from a curiosity point of view, not to criticise someone. Involve everyone in experimentation, don’t leave it to the innovation department. Many of my clients are running constant brainstorming sessions, mini consulting projects and hackathons and keep innovating. Make sure that your leaders have a high tolerance for ‘failures’, not every new idea/product is an instant success. They often build the basis for critical thinking and finding solutions that no one thought of before.
  3. Communicate and mobilise. Experiencing change feels similar to the grieving process. In fact, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ 5 Stages of Grief have been translated to something called the ‘change curve’. Unexpected shifts cause people to feel shock first, then they go into denial, experience depression before they start to experiment and finally integrate. Whilst we seek fast adaptability, we need to understand the stages people go through in order to plan the most impactful communication. There is no point of training people while they are in shock. We need to apply empathy and compassion first, let them go through depression, coach people and give them as much information and transparency as we can. As soon as the energy goes up and people are ready to experiment, we can train and implement. The curve can be a day or 3 months. You will know.
  4. Accountability and focus. Change and uncertainty trigger weird thoughts and emotions. We often get caught up in the media or organisational narrative of blaming people and dramatising context. Stay focussed and help your people to not get distracted by news, gossip or social media. Focus on the things you can change, not the things that our out of your control. Be specific and write these things in 2 columns if you need clarity. When you focus on the things that you are in control of, you can ask for accountability and put plans and feedback structures into place accordingly.
  5. Adapt or change strategy. When external change comes hard and fast, remember to keep your strategies flexible. Recall the back and forth with government regulations in 2020 of moving your workforce home, back in the office and home again with several different lockdowns over a number of months. Nothing was permanent and set in stone. Apply this to all of your strategies. A strategy is a plan of actions designed to achieve certain goals. As the goal post changes, we have to adapt strategies with an agile and flexible approach.

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Jessica Schubert

Jessica Schubert is a Leadership Expert, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Author and Speaker. She is obsessed with helping people realise their potential and unlock their inner genius.

Born in Cologne, Germany, Jessica has travelled the world and has spent more than 20 years leading cross-cultural teams in competitive markets throughout Europe and the Asia Pacific. As she worked with and coached her own diverse, cross-cultural teams, she came to realise that learning about yourself and developing interpersonal skills is the most powerful tool to lead and influence people around you.

In 2013 she launched Intact Teams, where she and her team have worked with thousands of leaders in organisations worldwide, delivering custom-designed leadership programs and workshops. These interactive and engaging programs are offered both virtually and in-person, helping leaders and their teams succeed in a complex and ever-changing business environment.

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Jessica Schubert