How to Demonstrate Adaptability in the Workplace

Illustration of a group of colleagues drinking coffee and discussing ideas in a team meeting

Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who lived around 500 BC, developed an entire philosophy around the fact that life is nothing but constant change. Having to adapt to those changes is a basic element of being human, but it’s not always easy to excel at it. Adaptability requires an ability to positively alter your mindset and your actions, often in ways that are initially uncomfortable or even stressful, to conquer new challenges.

You can easily find examples of adaptability in the success stories of both individuals and companies. Tennis pro Roger Federer has acquired a record number of major titles by adapting his playing tactics and racquet to suit not just the changes in the modern game, but to compensate for age-related issues of strength and speed, too. On-demand media giant Netflix adapted both its delivery system, from mail to streaming, and its content offerings to keep up with rapidly shifting consumer demands.

Technology companies like Microsoft and Apple have built empires on their constant innovation and adaptation. Most of us have then had to adapt to the changes they brought to our jobs, both positive and negative. Modern workers must continually learn and excel at new software, apps, equipment and machinery. This and other elements of change in a fast-paced world means employers are always more willing to hire and promote workers who demonstrate excellent adaptability in the workplace.

Like many of the soft skills that modern businesses are looking for, adaptability can be learned and practised. We’ve put together 10 important steps to help guide you to success.

1. Redefine your motivation

Change is not easy for most people, especially if things were going well and the new world order at work is full of uncertainty. Jeff Boss, a former Navy SEAL Team 4 operator, suggests first altering your motivation for change. Rather than something like the unhelpful and negative ‘I have to do this because my boss said to’, find a perspective that’s more personally inspiring.

If you’re always on the lookout for methods of self-improvement, for instance, this is a prime opportunity to learn how to be more accommodating and flexible at work.

Interested in your future marketability for better jobs? This could be a chance to learn a new skill that could further your ambitions. Changes in your department structure, management or location could also lead to the new relationships you seek, for either career networking or friendship.

The key first step to excelling at adaptability is finding a motivator that makes it easier for you to adapt.

2. Observe and learn

Every successful person has learned something from the people around them, whether colleagues, family, friends or a helpful mentor. The millions of how-to videos on YouTube attest to the fact that it’s easier to learn when you can watch someone who’s already mastered that particular task. It’s the same principle here.

If your colleague Whitney has moved up the corporate ladder faster than you, even switching departments more than once to take advantage of available promotions, observe how she adapts to these new roles. What is her attitude? How does she prepare? How does she interact with those around her? Learn from her positive efforts and try incorporating them into your own routine.

Observing others can also help when dealing with clients, competitors and even your boss. Like athletes studying video of their opponents, knowing how the other person thinks and acts in certain situations can help you prepare your own response. That advance preparation allows you to more quickly adapt to sudden problems or challenges.

3. Ask questions

In addition to observation, we learn by asking questions. When big changes happen at work, including restructuring or a whole new computer system, some apprehension or confusion is understandable. The only way to combat that is to ask questions until you fully comprehend all the changes taking place.

Obviously, you don’t want to be like a pestering three-year-old asking ‘But why?’ repeatedly. Thoughtful questions that help you adapt to the change and get your work done during the transition, however, is something your bosses will appreciate.

This is another case where teamwork also helps with adaptability. Save some of your questions for your coworkers who may have understood some aspects of the change better than you. Friends in other departments may also have access to different information. The more knowledge you have, the better you’ll be able to transition to the new system.

4. Prepare alternative solutions

People who only see one way to do things tend to stagnate in their job. Using your knowledge and creativity to come up with alternate solutions to a problem is much more valuable to your superiors. They value someone who isn’t held back by a possible rejection of their first idea and is immediately ready with other ideas to benefit the company. If you’re looking for a promotion, this one action demonstrates your adaptability as well as your status as a team player and eager problem-solver at work.

This is also a useful technique to use with clients. Whether you’re pitching an ad idea, something from your product line or a property for sale, there’s always a possibility your first pitch won’t land. It’s one of the skills of negotiating to always have additional options that show you can adapt to the needs or preferences of the customer.

5. Make easy transitions

Cost-cutting measures, mergers and takeovers can all lead to a shake-up in job roles at your company. It can be frustrating to suddenly have a larger workload or be transferred to a department where you have little experience. There may even be a looming threat of losing your job altogether.

Despite the desire to dig your heels in and demand your old job back, you need to go with the flow. This is a crucial time to illustrate how well you handle pressure at work and adapt to the changed position. Show your bosses your initiative in learning the new role, and use your organisational and time management skills to conquer additional responsibilities.

6. Stay calm and confident

Your attitude can be as important as your actions when problems arise at work. Stay calm and poised and be ready to make quick and confident decisions. How you overcome obstacles will communicate volumes to your bosses.

Focusing on solutions without freaking out or complaining will also have a favourable effect on your coworkers and subordinates. Confidence and adaptability in the face of upheaval are both important aspects of being a good leader and will inspire your staff to also remain calm and focused.

7. Acquire new skills

Take every opportunity to acquire new skills at your job. This can include anything from taking an offered training course, asking for permission to sit in on additional meetings to learn more about sales or marketing techniques, or taking on a teaching or mentoring assignment. Any knowledge you pick up can help you adapt to upcoming changes as well as make you a more well-rounded candidate for promotion or on a job hunt.

Lifelong learning is a crucial part of any career development strategy. This includes areas outside your exact job description. Acquiring knowledge and skills in other subjects and industries can offer a different perspective that inspires unique innovation, an important form of adaptation that helps you stay ahead of the competition.

8. Set small goals

Whether it’s a sudden assignment with a short deadline or a new accounting system that will change every single facet of your workflow, a big challenge in your daily work life can leave you feeling overwhelmed. It’s difficult to adapt when you only look at the enormity of a task, like the months it will take to fully integrate that new accounting process.

The key to tackling this problem is to break it down into smaller assignments. It’s much easier to embrace the challenge when you have an orderly to-do list that gives you attainable goals to work on. Crossing each item off that list is satisfying and helps you remain calm and focused as you cut through an initially daunting task.

9. Find the upside

No one really wants to hear a ‘Think positive!’ adage when they’ve just lost a client or when a marketing strategy completely bombed. Finding the upside in a disaster is the best way to move forward, however. Try to create some distance, and view the problem objectively.

Many successful people cite failure as a great learning tool. Figure out what went wrong and formulate ideas on how to fix the issue or at least avoid it in the future. There can be other benefits as well. Maybe the team really pulled together in a way they hadn’t before, or perhaps you got unexpected data that revealed a better market for your product.

Learning from your mistakes and creating strategies for better results is a perfect example of adaptability in the workplace. It’s also a useful skill for all facets of life.

10. Be willing to make mistakes

One thing that can really stall someone in their career is being afraid to take risks. If you know your job in and out, are sought out as an expert in your field, and have received praise and accolades for your work, it can be tough to step outside of that comfort zone. Taking on a new challenge means making mistakes and exposing yourself to failure and criticism.

There are benefits to taking risks, however. Being willing to learn new things, take on new roles or suggest new ideas are the only ways to truly advance in your career. You’ll be more able to adapt to changes in technology, market trends, workflow, leadership styles and more.

If you want to be a good boss, remember that it’s crucial for supervisors and business owners to allow employees this kind of freedom. True innovation happens when your staff feel free to experiment and are given the space to learn from their mistakes.

As you can see, there are several ways to demonstrate your adaptability in the workplace. Can you think of another example or an additional benefit to this kind of learning, risk-taking, positivity and flexibility at work? Join the discussion below and let us know!


This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 31 December 2014.