This CQ Dossier will define and describe adaptability and adaptive performance. We will describe why it is important for individuals and organizations to foster adaptability. In addition, we will include best ways to measure adaptability and the outcomes of being adaptable in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment. Furthermore, we will also provide recommendations on how best to increase adaptability through innovations and cultural shifts within the organization.
The twenty-first century has spawned rapid changes in technology and working conditions. The capacity to adapt to these changes is important. Consequently, researchers have focused on examining employees who are capable of adapting their performance in an environment characterized by a high level of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). The ability to be adaptable is important at both the individual and organizational level.
At the individual level, adaptive performance is an employee’s ability to adapt to rapidly changing work situations (Park & Park, 2019). When an employee is adaptive this can lead to improved job performance and career success (Park & Park, 2019).
At the organizational level, when employees are adaptive, this can lead to gains in change management, organizational learning and customer satisfaction (Park & Park, 2019).
The ability to define and describe adaptability has yielded mixed results with a full range of words and phrases to describe an employee’s ability to adapt (Park & Park, 2019). Researchers and practitioners have utilized the terms, “agility, flexibility and adaptive behavior” to describe adaptability and this has led to some confusion in explaining the antecedents of adaptability (Park & Park, 2019).
Moreover, the confusion in terms has negated efforts to develop a theoretical model that explains adaptive performance and to formulate recommendations to organizations (Park & Park, 2019). Based on Park and Park’s critique, we adopt the term ‘adaptability’ in order to reconcile the confusion within the field.
The model by Park and Park (2019 is partially based on the taxonomy developed by Pulakos and colleagues (2000)) who provided a multiple-dimension taxonomy of adaptability including eight dimensions:
solving problems creatively;
dealing with uncertain work situations;
learning new tasks;
demonstrating interpersonal adaptability;
demonstrating cultural adaptability;
demonstrating physically oriented adaptability;
handling work stress and handling crises.
What are the benefits of adaptability?
There are several benefits to adaptability. When employees are able to change and are versatile in their performance and ways of working, this can lead to important changes within the organization that promote success. Individuals who excel in adaptability have a more positive attitude in their work and have a better ability to handle stress (Niessan, Swarowsky, & Leiz, 2010).
Being able to handle stress is particularly important especially when an organization is experiencing disruptions from the external environment. Work stressors can decrease an employee’s ability to perform well and is linked to nonproductive performance and turnover (Agolla & Ongori, 2008).
When employees can adapt to change, they are better able to deal with workplace stressors and utilize effective coping strategies to deal with stress; this can lead to positive organizational changes (Folkman, Lazarus, Dunkel-Schetter, DeLongis & Gruen, 1986).
Organizational agility or simply called agility is another management tool to excel in a VUCA environment. In contrast to adaptability, agility is a more holistic concept that covers a wide range of evidence-based practices such as team mental models, goal settings etc. Interested? Learn more in our CQ Dossier Agile for all: The principles of agility.
How can organizations measure adaptability?
Researchers have developed several measures of adaptability. The best known was developed by Elaine Pulakos and colleagues (2000) who examined critical incidents in the military across 25 occupations and identified eight dimensions, mentioned earlier.
However, as Park and Park (2019) point out the instrument has its limitations because it was designed for business rather than for research purposes. To circumvent these issues, Charbonnier-Voirin and Roussel (2012) developed a new instrument that utilized both quantitative and qualitative methods to ensure the scales were psychometrically sound. Their analysis revealed five dimensions:
creativity (ability to find new solutions for complex or previously unknown problems),
reactivity in the face of emergencies (ability to manage priorities and adapt to new situations),
interpersonal adaptability (ability to adjust interpersonal style to work effectively with different others),
training and learning (tendency to initiate action to promote personal development), and
managing stress (ability to maintain his or her composure and to channel team’s stress).
The measure also showed satisfactory levels of reliability for each of the dimensions (Cronbach’s Alpha = .78 to .87).
What are the antecedents of adaptability?
The majority of research on adaptive performance has explored individual characteristics as predictors, including (Park & Park, 2019)
While useful, this focus does not account for situational factors such as job characteristics and team and organizational climate.
How can organizations boost adaptability?
Park and Park (2019) view adaptability as being a key behavior that can be increased through employee training and development. There is also research evidence that employees can be trained to be more adaptive.
Conduct adaptability training and treat errors as learning opportunities
For example, Joung and colleagues (2006) found that error exposure training enhance adaptive performance among a sample of firefighters. In fact, research by Michael Frese and colleagues has shown that error-encouragement framing has a more positive impact on adaptive performance than error-avoidance framing (e.g., Dormann & Frese, 1994).
When HRD professionals are implementing training, they can encourage individuals to treat errors as learning opportunities rather than tell individuals to prevent errors.
There is also research on boosting adaptability in teams. In a study examining team training on a stimulated flight task, those who reacted favorably to the training and did well on post-training tests did best on adaptive performance criteria at both the individual and team level (Chen, Thomas & Wallace, 2005).
Foster strong social connections and work autonomy
Organizations can increase employees’ ability to be autonomous in their work roles and to increase decision-making. Employees also tend to be more adaptive when they have strong social connections with the organization (Park & Park, 2019).
Engage in transformational leadership behaviors
Managers also play an important role in fostering adaptability. When managers engage in transformational leadership behaviors and empower their employees, this tends to boost adaptability (Park & Park, 2019); managers can give positive feedback and provide rewards to encourage adaptability and adaptive performance.
Promote a team learning climate
It is also important that organizations foster a climate to increase adaptability and adaptive performance. This can include promotion of a team learning climate and provide training to enable team members to be effective as a unit (Park & Park, 2019).
Establish a vision or strategy that is linked to growth and adaptability
When organizations have a clear vision or strategy that is linked to growth and adaptability, this can lead to adaptive performance (Park & Park, 2019). There is also evidence that organizational culture is important for adaptability.
In developing a measure of adaptive organizational culture, Costanza and colleagues (2016) found that organizations that have positive values towards change (i.e., are prepared and respond to change in a positive way) and action-oriented culture (i.e., take action when change is needed) were more likely to survive.
In conclusion, adaptive performance is important within organizations. For individuals and organizations to thrive, it is important to have a climate that encourages individuals to engage in adaptability and adaptive performance. Organizations can select individuals who have the propensity to engage in adaptive performance and also provide employees with training and development. During times of change, having an adaptive organizational culture allows organizations to survive.
Adaptive performance is an employee’s ability to adapt to rapidly changing work situations
Adaptive performance includes solving problems creatively, dealing with uncertainty, learning new tasks, demonstrating interpersonal adaptability, and handling crises.
Individuals who excel in adaptive performance have a more positive attitude in their work and have a better ability to handle stress
Organizations can increase employees’ ability to be autonomous in their work roles and to increase decision-making.
Managers can give positive feedback and provide rewards to encourage adaptive performance.
Organizations that have a strong adaptive organizational culture are more likely to survive within the business environment.
References and further reading
Agolla, J., & Ongori, H. (2008). Occupational stress in organizations and its effects on organizational performance. Journal of Management Research, 8, 3, 123-135.
Charbonnier-Voirin, A., & Roussel, P. (2012). Adaptive performance: A new scale to measure individual performance in organizations. Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, 29, 280-293.
Chen, G., Thomas, B., & Wallace, J. C. (2005). A Multilevel Examination of the Relationships Among Training Outcomes, Mediating Regulatory Processes, and Adaptive Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(5), 827–841.
Costanza, D., Blacksmith, N., Coats, M., Severt, J., & Decostanza, A. (2016). The Effect of Adaptive Organizational Culture on Long-Term Survival. Journal of Business and Psychology, 31, 361-81.
Dormann, T., & Frese, M. (1994). Error management training: Replication and the function of exploratory behavior. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 6: 365-372.
Folkman, S., Lazarus, R. S., Dunkel-Schetter, C., DeLongis, A., & Gruen, R. J. (1986). Dynamics of a stressful encounter: cognitive appraisal, coping, and encounter outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 5, 992.
Joung, W., Hesketh, B., & Neal, A. (2006). Using “war stories” to train for adaptive performance: Is it better to learn from error or success? Applied Psychology, 55, 282-302.
Nieseen, C., Swarowsky, C., & Leiz, M. (2010). Age and adaptation to changes in the workplace. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 25, 4, 356-383.
Park, S., & Park, S. (2019). Employee Adaptive Performance and Its Antecedents: Review and Synthesis. Human Resource Development Review, 18, 3, 294–324.
Pulakos, E. D., Arad, S., Donovan, M. A., & Plamondon, K. E. (2000). Adaptability in the workplace; Development of a taxonomy of adaptive performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 4, 612-624.
Annette was born in England and now lives in the United States. She has a PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and has taught at several institutions. Annette has published in several journals, including Journal of Applied Psychology, Personnel Psychology, Human Resource Development Quarterly, and Organizational Research Methods. She worked in the public and private sector for many years, primarily as a management trainer.