1 APRIL, 2022


What is adaptive thinking and leadership?

Perhaps the most widely used definition of adaptive thinking comes from the Swedish psychological researcher of expertise K. Anders Ericsson. In Ericsson’s view, adaptive thinking utilises one’s ability to “recognise unexpected situations, quickly consider various possible responses, and decide on the best one”. Adaptive leadership, meanwhile, is a model that involves readying a company’s employees to better handle the process of change and positively react to challenges as they crop up.

To develop novel and adaptive thinking in the workplace, it is essential for your company to practice adaptive leadership at a managerial level. By doing so, this focus on situational awareness and flexibility will, over time, become part of the organisational DNA.

Promoting novel and adaptive thinking in the workplace

In the modern workplace, change occurs at a continually increasing pace. The need for fresh, agile approaches to thinking and problem-solving is clearer than ever, making this a skillset highly valued by forward-thinking companies. Understanding how you can foster adaptive mindsets in your organisation is essential to succeeding and creating a foundation for long-term growth.

The importance of adaptive mindsets

In DeakinCo.’s newly-published report The Business Return on Learning and Development, developed in partnership with Deloitte Access Economics, a survey of businesses found that adaptability and flexibility was considered to be one of the top five skills gaps. Soft skills such as these that rely on effective communication, teamwork and problem solving are unable to be automated and thus their importance continues to grow.

Qualities of adaptive leadership

Introduced by Harvard professors and leadership theory experts Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz, the adaptive leadership model emphasises four key qualities needed to thrive in today’s world of business:

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence refers to the ability of a person to recognise and understand not just their own emotions and feelings, but those of others as well.

Organisational justice

This quality refers to the degree to which employees view a workplace’s sense of fairness through its decision-making processes. Adaptive leaders foster the development of honesty and integrity throughout a company, and make sure that the input of others is appreciated and valued.

Leadership character

An adaptive leader works in a flexible and transparent manner, leading with empathy and embracing diversity. Importantly, adaptive leadership requires the ability to recognise when an approach is not working, as well as the trust and confidence needed to abandon this and start afresh.

Team development

An adaptive leader provides the resources and support necessary to nurture a culture of organisational growth and empowerment.

Challenges of implementing adaptive thinking

Though the benefits of adaptive thinking are clear, the conditions that require its presence – transformational change, for instance – can also create anxiety and fear, leading us to stick with what has worked previously rather than challenging our preconceived notions. Labelled the “adaptability paradox” in a recent article by McKinsey consultants, there are a number of steps you can take to help reorient your workplace in a positive direction.

Constant learning

Establishing a culture that prizes perpetual learning at the individual and organisational levels is crucial to developing an adaptive thinking mindset.

Shift in thinking

Adaptive thinking can often require a systemic change in the way a company problem solves and approaches challenges. Having the trust and belief of your employees to make such a seismic shift is essential.

Change of values

Implementing adaptive thinking across an organisation generally necessitates a change in company values. Clear and consistent communication is key to this.

Culture of innovation

Being able to abandon the tried and tested methods in favour of a culture of innovation can prove to be difficult and requires the integration of a curious and determined approach to problem solving.

Benefits of adaptive thinking and leadership

Adaptive mindsets are beneficial not just on a company level, but also at an individual one. Here are some of these key benefits.

Leadership expects change and disruption, rather than reacting to it

Instead of avoiding uncertainty, adaptive leaders embrace it and view it as an opportunity for growth. This positive attitude can inspire employees to do the same.

Leaders embrace a diversity of often conflicting opinions

The benefit of seeing a problem from every angle is that a particular solution’s opportunity cost can be better understood.

A flexible organisation that can sometimes bend the rules

By emphasising an adaptive mindset, a company can increase buy-in on decisions that might seem to fly in the face of previously established rules of thumb – provided the potential benefit is clearly communicated.

An organisation that doesn’t emphasise hierarchy and top-down leadership

The flexibility in adaptive thinking can carry over into decision-making processes, where a solution is valued on its own merits rather than who said it.

Leaders respond to employees’ emotional needs

Adaptive leaders realise that not all employees react similarly during times of intense change, and are able to provide the guidance needed to help them view these as opportunities for growth.

Leaders delegate work according to employees’ strengths

Collaborating in groups of people with different skills and areas of expertise, and delegating work based on these strengths, is an elemental ingredient of adaptive thinking.

High-achieving employees are empowered with autonomy

Employees who respond best to this increased freedom are given the space and time to thrive.

How to develop adaptive thinking in organisations

There aren’t any shortcuts when it comes to developing an adaptive thinking culture in a company. However, several steps can be taken to make the transition easier.

Demonstrate how employees exercise adaptive thinking

A great way of integrating adaptive mindsets is to provide examples, if possible, of how your employees already use these skills in their day-to-day tasks.

Promote opportunities for adaptive thinking in non-critical decisions

Providing employees with the freedom to think expansively and creatively in low-pressure scenarios is pivotal. This will help instil the confidence necessary to react quickly and positively during more challenging times.

Discourage impulsive decision making

Give employees the time and space to synthesise new and existing information so that they can see the benefits of thoughtful and considered problem-solving.

Encourage open-mindedness

If an employee has an unconventional yet possibly beneficial idea, explore its potential! Encourage others to apply heterodox and agile solutions to commonplace problems.

Start fostering adaptive mindsets in your organisation

With our corporate training, DeakinCo. is able to deliver personalised training in technical and soft skills, including leadership skills and innovation. Whether it be an individual course or a complete training program, DeakinCo. has what your company needs to succeed.

Talk to us today