Flexible flyers A leaders framework for developing adaptability

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					           Flexible Flyers
        A Leader’s Framework
     for Developing Adaptability
                          In today’s business world the complexity and pace of change can be
                          daunting. In this environment of rapid change, leaders are coming to
                          recognize that they need to develop adaptability to be effective. The
                          process of developing adaptability begins with learning and practicing
                          three types of flexibility—cognitive, emotional, and dispositional.

                         L      eaders all over the world are fac-
                          ing unprecedented challenges: new
                          cultures, new jobs, new markets, new
                          everything. Dramatic change often
                          creates feelings of uncertainty, self-
                          consciousness, and even fear. Most
                                                                             lenges—systemic challenges with no
                                                                             clear-cut solutions. Whereas technical
                                                                             challenges require redistributions of
                                                                             resources and well-defined plans of
                                                                             action, systemic challenges involve
                                                                             creating new processes, systems, or
                          leaders know from experience that                  skills. The increased complexity of
                          even minor change can have a power-                today’s organizational challenges
                          ful effect.                                        requires leaders to work in new ways.
                              Given the current complexities of              They need to be skilled adapters.
                          work, the sheer volume of informa-
                          tion flowing in, and the rapid changes
                          taking place, it makes sense for lead-
                                                                             THREE ELEMENTS
                          ers—and the people they lead—to be                 So it’s a given that today’s leaders
                          adaptable. Adaptability is no longer a             need to respond effectively to change
                          nicety or a coping mechanism—it is a               in the organizational environment.
                          leadership imperative. Without the                 But what is it that allows some lead-
                          ability to adapt to change, leaders                ers to adjust better to change than
                          previously seen as successful and                  others? The answer involves three
                          filled with potential are likely to be             components:
                          derailed—fired, demoted, or held on
                          a career plateau.                                     Cognitive flexibility: the ability to
                              Many of the challenges facing                  use a variety of thinking strategies
                          organizations today are adaptive chal-             and mental frameworks

                          by Allan Calarco and Joan Gurvis


         L I A • V O L U M E 2 5 , N U M B E R 6 • J A N U A R Y/ F E B R U A R Y 2 0 0 6
   Emotional flexibility: the ability           propensity to work well across the                mental changes. When doing so they
to vary one’s approach to dealing               organization. Leaders with cognitive              should develop several possible
with one’s own emotions and those               flexibility readily learn from experi-            strategies, recognizing that it is
of others                                       ence and recognize when old                       impossible to predict exactly how a
   Dispositional flexibility (or per-           approaches don’t work.                            situation will play out. Cognitive
sonality-based flexibility): the ability           Recognizing the characteristics of             adapters are able to move beyond
to remain optimistic and at the same            leaders with cognitive flexibility is             strategies that have worked in the
time realistic                                  one thing, but what is it that these              past because they understand that
                                                leaders actually do? Research shows               these strategies may not work in the
   This three-part framework of                 that they tend to do three key things:            present. In fact cognitive adapters
adaptability was developed in 1999                 Scan the environment. Leaders                  seek out or test new approaches.
by Steve Zaccaro, a professor of psy-           need to be able to identify changes as            They also devise varying strategies
chology at George Mason University.             they occur. It is critical for them to            for leading. In particular they find
Subsequent research conducted by                know the context of their business                different ways to communicate their
Zaccaro, Paige Bader, and Cary                  environment so they will be able to               interpretations of changing events
Kemp in the context of CCL’s                    discern new trends and opportunities              and the needed responses. The ability
Looking Glass Experience program                and not be caught by surprise.                    to persuade effectively and address
has confirmed this framework. These             Managers who are successful at scan-              the emotional aspects of change
studies have identified specific                ning the environment continuously                 becomes critical.
behaviors tied to each component and            solicit information about relevant fac-
have found that having just one of              tors from knowledgeable sources and,              Emotional Flexibility
these characteristics is not sufficient         more important, use that knowledge                Leaders with emotional flexibility
for leader adaptability.                        to reshape their understanding and                vary their approach to dealing with
   Leaders must exhibit two of the              perspectives. They are able to                    their emotions and those of others—
three characteristics to be perceived           acknowledge that a change has                     an area that many leaders often fail to
as adaptable. Scoring high on all               occurred and can visualize how it                 consider. An emotionally flexible
three components indicates that a               will affect the organization.                     leader is comfortable with the process
leader is highly adaptable.                        Develop understanding by engag-                of transition, including grieving, com-
   Adaptability can be developed. All           ing in sense making. Detecting com-               plaining, and resistance. Adapting to
three types of flexibility can be               ing change is the first key to cogni-             change requires give-and-take
learned and improved by practicing              tive flexibility; understanding it is the
the behaviors tied to each. The more            second. Managers need to diagnose
adept a person is at being cognitively,         and interpret the meaning of changes
emotionally, and dispositionally flexi-         for themselves and their units. Sense
                                                                                                    ABOUT THE AUTHORS
ble, the more adaptable he or she will          making, the process of developing a                                      Allan Calarco is group man-
be in leadership roles.                         collective understanding of a situa-                                     ager, open-enrollment pro-
                                                tion, is important for adequately                                        grams, at CCL in Brussels. He
Cognitive Flexibility                           interpreting and comprehending
                                                                                                                         holds an M.S. degree from
Leaders who have cognitive flexibil-            information. Seemingly dissimilar
                                                                                                                         Shippensburg University.
ity are able to incorporate a variety           views often result in powerful oppor-
of thinking strategies and mental               tunities for change once each person
frameworks into their planning,                 or group has come to a full and
decision making, and managing of                shared view. This process may
day-to-day work. Someone who                    include divergent thinking—for
                                                                                                                         Joan Gurvis is CCL’s group
works Plan A while having Plans B,              instance, contemplating a totally new
C, and D in mind is cognitively flex-           direction that turns an obstacle into                                    director—Greensboro campus.
ible. He or she can simultaneously              an opportunity or an old idea into an                                    She holds a master of sci-
hold multiple scenarios in mind and             innovative practice. Dialogue—con-                                       ence in nursing degree in
can see when to shift and inject a              versation balanced by advocacy and                                       nursing administration from
change. Cognitive flexibility indi-             inquiry—is a powerful tool for creat-                                    the University of North
cates nimble and divergent thinking,            ing shared meaning among teams and                                       Carolina at Greensboro.
an interest in developing new                   individuals.
approaches, the ability to see and                 Create strategies. Managers need
leverage new connections, and the               to respond strategically to environ-


                              L I A • V O L U M E 2 5 , N U M B E R 6 • J A N U A R Y/ F E B R U A R Y 2 0 0 6
between the leader and those experi-         emotions, goes a long way toward                     Balance expressions of uncer-
encing the change. A leader without          gaining commitment.                               tainty with a positive attitude.
emotional flexibility is dismissive of           Engage emotionally to help others             Effectively communicating with oth-
others’ concerns or emotions and             get on board. In the midst of                     ers and focusing on the positive must
shuts down discussion. An emotion-           change, leaders often assume that                 be balanced with realism and a will-
ally adaptive leader, however, moves         people will automatically be moti-                ingness to give voice to uncertainty.
the change or agenda forward. He or          vated and engaged. What they fail to              Dispositionally flexible leaders allow
she doesn’t “give in” to emotions or         realize is that others may be resisting           others to understand the questions
get pulled off course by concerns.           or in denial. By acknowledging the                and issues behind their concerns and
    Demonstrating emotional flexibil-        reality of the situation with genuine             doubts. This can often lead to con-
ity requires leaders to do the follow-       emotion and support, leaders can                  structive brainstorming and conversa-
ing:                                         encourage others to connect with the              tions and frequently will uncover
    Understand and manage their own          change and stay engaged. It is                    new approaches and solutions.
emotions. Being emotionally flexible         impossible to move through a transi-                 Support others through the
requires leaders to first demonstrate        tion when colleagues are apathetic                process of change. Leaders who are
an awareness of their own emotions.          and disconnected.                                 adept at the dispositional aspects of
This means acknowledging and pre-                Maintain a balance between emo-               flexibility encourage others in the
senting their emotional responses in         tion and action. Empathy and good                 organization or team to go with the
an authentic way, thereby helping            listening are key; emotionally flexible           flow of change. They elicit contribu-
others to do the same. Leading is            leaders find a balance between allow-             tions from others, sincerely commend
                                             ing enough time for the struggle and              others for their innovative contribu-
                                             helping to resolve it and move on.                tions, and introduce those who are
                                             They allow the expression of negative             new to the organization or team in
     The more positive expe-                 emotions and also discourage wal-                 order to acknowledge that change has
                                             lowing in them.                                   occurred and new group dynamics
       riences that leaders                                                                    will emerge. They are highly visible
                                             Dispositional Flexibility                         and energetic.
      have with change, the
                                             Leaders who display dispositional                    Know their own tendencies related
     more they become com-                   flexibility operate from a place of               to change. Dispositionally flexible
                                             optimism grounded in realism and                  leaders demonstrate an awareness of
     fortable with and skilled               openness. They acknowledge a bad                  their own preferences and behaviors
                                             situation but simultaneously visualize            but are able to modify these tenden-
          at adaptability.                   a better future. Such leaders figure              cies as needed. They are comfortable
                                             out what they need to be optimistic               experiencing new things, trying new
                                             about in the current context, no mat-             approaches, and working through
                                             ter what the difficulties and chal-               ambiguity.
emotionally difficult work. Leaders          lenges. They are neither blindly posi-
who ignore the emotional element             tive nor pessimistic and defeatist.
and deal only with the “reality” will        Ambiguity is well tolerated.
                                                                                               A CHANCE TO GROW
be less effective and will eventually        Dispositionally flexible leaders see              In today’s business environment
suffer from the strain. As a leader          change as an opportunity rather than              change is fast and constant. For leaders
you will need energy and fortitude to        as a threat or danger.                            the implications are both personal and
deal with change; care of your emo-              Dispositional flexibility can be              organizational—and the consequences
tional self can help you maintain the        seen when leaders engage in the fol-              of not adapting to change can be
necessary vigor.                             lowing actions:                                   severe. The key is to embrace change
   Connect with and address the                  Show genuine and realistic opti-              and use it as an opportunity to grow
emotions of others. Emotionally flex-        mism about change, and communi-                   and learn. The more positive experi-
ible leaders are aware of what subor-        cate that optimism to others. Leaders             ences that leaders have with change,
dinates and peers are feeling. They          who are dispositionally flexible are              the more they become comfortable
need to consider this emotional              confident that both they and the team             with and skilled at adaptability. The
aspect and respond to it in helpful          can be effective in the new environ-              process of developing adaptability
and positive ways. Being open and            ment. They identify what is positive              begins with leaders learning about and
forthright, along with creating a safe       about the new experience or situation             deepening their cognitive, emotional,
space for people to express their            and build on it.                                  and dispositional flexibility.


                           L I A • V O L U M E 2 5 , N U M B E R 6 • J A N U A R Y/ F E B R U A R Y 2 0 0 6

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