The Challenge of Adaptability When Change is Changing
By Graham Norris
Catherine, a China-based human resource executive, was excited to move to a more senior position, even though the new company was smaller. But a few months into the job, she was struggling to make her voice heard in a corporate culture that didn’t respect the human resources function.
Then one morning, she came to work to find the country head had been fired. She’d finally had enough of the turmoil, and decided to go back to her previous company. But even her previous company had changed and, after several rounds of interviews, she discovered she couldn’t return.
Resigned to life in the smaller company, Catherine’s life got only more difficult as a reorganization shortly after her attempted exit placed her in a matrix structure, reporting not only to a new country head but also to a line manager overseas. Over the next few years, both these supervisors would change on almost an annual basis, taxing her ability to repeatedly build rapport with people who knew little of her, China or even the company. Yet with each change, she learnt to adapt, dialling down the noise of disruption and focusing on how to capitalize on the new situation, so that five years on, when I interviewed her for my research, she spoke appreciatively about the challenges her employer had presented her.
Unfortunately, not everyone is like Catherine, in China or anywhere else. In fact, there is a substantial body of literature looking specifically at resistance to change tracing as far back as Kurt Lewin’s experiments of the 1930s. Theories behind resistance to change have focused on cognitive dissonance, degree of participation in the change, expectations attached to the psychological contract and, more recently, the dispositions that create resistance1. Many psychological models of change are even based on the grieving process, indicating how painful it can be for some people.
As Hilary Scarlett discusses in her book Neuroscience for Organizational Change2, human brains appreciate small amounts of change – novelty is interesting. But because our brains need to conduct a great deal of their business on autopilot, requiring predictability, big changes can be stressful. The ambiguity caused by substantial or frequent change can even elicit a threat response in the most skittish among us.
This is reflected in models of adaptability, which often include an assessment step. The I-ADAPT model by Ployhart and Bliese3, for example, includes the stage “situation perception and appraisal” where changes are recognized and reviewed for their implications. These implications could be positive or negative, depending on how well the person thinks they can adjust to them. But irrespective of implication, each appraisal is itself taxing because of the uncertainty involved. This adds to the load on our already stressed out brains, and one thing we can say for sure: These appraisals are only going to get more frequent and so harder to cope with.
That’s because change itself is changing. Throughout most of human history, change has been incremental or, since the industrial revolution, progressing in a linear fashion. But since around 1950, many important measures of human activity have taken off (see chart)4. For example, to reach 100 million users, it took the telephone 75 years, but the mobile phone just 16 years5. While many of these activities will level off, others are enabling accelerating, exponential change elsewhere, as demonstrated by current expectations around the disruptive influence of artificial intelligence.
Global socio-economic trends (reproduced from Steffen, W., Broadgate, W., Deutsch, L., Gaffney, O. and Ludwig, C. (2015) 'The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration', The Anthropocene Review, 2(1), 81-98.)
And herein lies another problem – humans aren’t good at perceiving exponential change. A recent Harvard Business Review article, “Linear Thinking in a Nonlinear World,” demonstrates several ways that our brains struggle to break free of straight lines, no matter flat, rising or falling. But with change continuing to accelerate, break free we must.
So how can we help to cultivate more Catherines, who will excel as they face increasing amounts of change? My research with Chinese knowledge workers indicates several possible avenues.
First, organizations initiating change need to recognize the stress that uncertainty can generate amongst the workforce. My research revealed that change creates “adaptability gaps” – the gap, after appraisal, between desired and actual situation, according to various dimensions - in the perceptions of knowledge workers. More explicitly identifying these gaps and helping workers close them will aid smooth transitions. Second, training needs to focus not just on skilling or reskilling, but on being more adaptable. This means being more aware of change, its implications and how to think creatively in response to it, such as by cultivating design thinking. As Catherine’s example shows, crucible experiences that increase exposure to change can also help build resilience.
Third, organizations are increasingly using psychometric testing in their hiring and promotion processes, and they could consider including adaptability dimensions (such as the I-ADAPT measure) for those in critical positions most subject to change. Finally, individuals themselves can become more adaptable by becoming more mindful of their situation, accepting the inevitability of change, and seeking ways to close “adaptability gaps,” for example by expanding their knowledge or growing their personal networks to help them better understand change implications.
The Great Acceleration that started in 1950 is picking up speed, creating numerous economic, political and philosophical challenges. Those on the lower rungs of the workforce globally are already struggling to keep up, and the psychological burden of accelerating change can only increase. Catherine has learned to embrace these challenges by adjusting her mindset, but it’s going to be a rough ride for many others.
Graham Norris is a doctor of business administration candidate at Heriot-Watt University, studying adaptability and mindfulness in Chinese knowledge workers. He has worked in Asia for 20 years as a journalist and consultant.
1 - Burnes, B. (2015) 'Understanding resistance to change – Building on Coch and French', Journal of Change Management, 15(2), 92-116.
2 - Scarlett, H. (2016) Neuroscience for Organizational Change: An Evidence-based Practical Guide to Managing Change, Kogan Page Publishers.
3 - Ployhart, R. E. and Bliese, P. D. (2006) 'Individual adaptability (I-ADAPT) theory: Conceptualizing the antecedents, consequences, and measurement of individual differences in adaptability' in Understanding Adaptability: A Prerequisite for Effective Performance Within Complex Environments, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 3-39.
4 - Steffen, W., Broadgate, W., Deutsch, L., Gaffney, O. and Ludwig, C. (2015) 'The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration', The Anthropocene Review, 2(1), 81-98.
5 - Boston Consulting Group (2015) 'BCG Technology Advantage', available: http://media-publications.bcg.com/BCG_Technology_Advantage_April_2015.pdf