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Resilience and Adaptability: How You Lead Matters

Discover how targeted training is essential to fostering resilience and adaptability, preparing teams for success in the evolving workplace.

Resilience and Adaptability: How You Lead Matters

The pandemic proved that how, when, and where people work can be flexible. With that flexibility comes a lot of freedom—but also new kinds of stress and uncertainty. Add the rise in disruptive generative AI to the mix, and the very idea of what work is—and who does it—is shifting faster than ever. 

People often ask how employees react to change. But a better question is how do managers lead through change? What are some of the skills they can build for themselves—and their teams? How can organizations shift from thinking of resilience and adaptability as individual traits to thinking of them—and building them—as organizational traits? 

Understanding Resilience

Let’s start with some definitions. Indeed defines resilience as “the ability to recover from a challenge and to use that challenge as a learning opportunity.” The Center for Workplace Mental Health states that it “exists when a person can bounce back and thrive from major challenges.” Key resilience traits include:

  • Self-compassion
  • A strong community to lean on
  • Patience
  • Sense of humor
  • The ability to recognize and regulate negative thoughts 

As Marcus Buckingham notes, “resilience is a reactive state of mind caused by exposure to suffering.” No challenge? No resiliency. 

The good news, as Elizabeth Perry points out, is that “resilience is also associated with increased work engagement, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment.” So, challenges and change at work don’t have to derail individuals, teams, or the organization. And more good news is that “resilience is not a fixed trait but a dynamic process that can be learned and developed,” writes Cheri Rainey

So, even though building resilience through exposure to challenges isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time, the next time difficulties hit, you can be better prepared. 

Understanding Adaptability 

If resiliency is the ability to bounce back from challenges, experts like Jacqueline Brassey define adaptability as the ability to “bounce forward.” Brassey notes that “adaptability not only helps us avoid being overwhelmed, it helps us get creative and seize opportunities amidst the chaos.” 

Being adaptable is about developing skills to meet change without being battered by it. Adaptable people not only actively look for change, according to Sophia Epstein, they advocate for it. And, crucially, even if they don’t know what change will look like, they’re constantly learning new skills to better prepare for emerging needs. Some of these skills include:

  • Active listening
  • Asking questions
  • Expanding your comfort zone
  • Being willing to change directions and make mistakes
  • Understanding your strengths
  • Knowing how to self-regulate in uncomfortable situations 

At work, Jennifer Herrity points out that adaptability means “you can respond quickly to changing ideas, responsibilities, expectations, trends, strategies and other processes.” Scanning your workplace, society, or industry for potential changes and building capabilities along the way is essential to bouncing forward. It doesn’t mean change is easy, but it can be easier—or at least less shocking—with an adaptable mindset and some skills to match. 

From Change to…Burnout? 

So, resilience is the ability to bounce back from challenges. Adaptability is the ability to bounce forward into change by developing key communication, interpersonal, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

But why do we need these skills at all? 

Because change is constant. And employees and managers who struggle with it are more likely to be stressed, burned out, or even leave the workplace. 

Writing for Gallup, Dean Jones notes that “change creates a loss of control, an increase in uncertainty and discomfort. Employees may question their value, contributions and even their competence and efficacy” and that “dealing with change can be a major factor in burnout.” 

Caroline Forsey made the same argument, stating that “a non-resilient workforce is one that feels vulnerable, mistrustful of leadership, or tired and de-motivated. These are the workers who are most likely to quit, or who feel incapable of handling workplace changes with any sense of confidence or security.” 

Resilience and adaptability—often seen as individual skills—are hugely important at the organizational level. While companies can hire for resilience and adaptability, they should also consider how to build and support these skills to retain employees. Remember, Rainey notes that these skills can be learned, which means they should be taught and modeled at an organizational level. 

Managers Make the Difference

Jones is clear: “Managers have the greatest impact on the people they manage. Even disengaged employees might look to their direct manager for stability and guidance in uncertain times.” 

Managers largely communicate and enact organizational culture, so it makes sense for them to teach and model resilience and adaptability—supporting their teams through change. 

One of the main stressors around change is a lack of transparency, which managers can mitigate by simply talking with their teams. According to Jones, managers can prepare their teams for change by having “regular, meaningful conversations with their employees.” These conversations help employees understand what the change is, why it is happening, and how they can use their strengths to respond. 

Managers can also show their teams how to deal with change practically. This can happen, as Kathryn McEwan found in her research, by identifying things that cause unnecessary stress. Change often happens to employees so it’s important to bring attention to things they can control, like adjusting an inefficient workflow to make change more manageable.

Building Individual Resilience 

Managers can help employees build resilience in several specific ways. 

Identify and build talent. This is less about recruiting new employees and more about nurturing your team’s skills. You may notice talents that aren’t obvious to the individuals who possess them. Finding ways to nurture these talents helps people try new things, build new skills, and develop confidence. For example, a team member may have great project management skills, even though that’s not part of their primary job. Bring it to their attention and try to find ways to use those talents on your team or across the organization. As Dean says, “If you start by identifying talents and then develop them into strengths, you’ll give your employees the tools they need to thrive.”

Reframe problems as opportunities. When asked how he manages fear, the great climber Alex Honnold said he thinks of it as excitement instead. Perry and McKinsey both offer similar advice: turn challenges into learning opportunities. Encourage curiosity about change or challenges by helping your team ask questions, brainstorm, and look for what’s positive—or at least not negative—in a situation. Noelle Akins recommends asking what can be controlled at the moment. Once you figure that out, you can see where your skills or talents can contribute to making things better for your team. 

Set stretch goals. Stretch goals help people practice resiliency in a safe, controlled environment. Encourage your team to try new things and to have a growth mindset while doing so. Remind them they can learn new skills. For example, you could encourage them to work on a project outside of their comfort zone. When they see they have reached a goal and learned something, they can be more adaptable in less controlled situations. Just remember to balance what McEwan calls “pressure and growth”. You want employees to see they can do something they didn’t think they could. But you also don’t want to set them up for stress and failure. 

Recover and reflect. Even though no one wants to fail, it happens. People may not meet their goals, or they might make mistakes along the way. Again, curiosity and a growth mindset help people see the situation in a new light. Encourage employees to ask the following questions to gain perspective:

  • What went wrong here?
  • What could have been different?
  • What did I do well?
  • What will I do differently next time?

You can also help people recognize their emotions and how those emotions fuel reactions so they can build emotional and behavioral self-regulation. Psychological safety is key here—reflection and recovery are difficult if employees feel like they can’t share honest feedback. And don’t just recover and reflect from failure! Help employees recognize where they’ve overcome challenges in the past, what skills they used, and how they can use these skills in the future. 

Model resiliency. Employees look to leaders for direction. They watch what you’re doing and take their cues on how to act—and react—from you. So practice what you preach! Indeed advises that “you can showcase strong leadership skills and resilience by establishing workplace priorities, facing challenges confidently, and managing stress constructively.” Take breaks and maintain a healthy work-life balance. When you’re faced with a challenge, think critically about how you deal with it, then share insights with your team. And modeling doesn’t just benefit your team—you’ll build resilience in the process, which is essential since, as the Center for Creative Leadership points out, “the inability to develop or adapt was the most frequently cited reason for career derailment among North American managers.”

The key with all of these strategies is that you can practice them before you’re presented with change and challenge! Use a low-stakes environment to build resiliency so that, when employees need to rely on it, they already have some practice. You don’t have to tell them you’re helping them build resiliency, but when they exhibit it, point it out and let them know you’re proud. 

Building Organizational Resilience

Building organizational resilience is as important as building individual resilience. McEwan cites Denyer’s definition of organizational resilience as “the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper.” 

In fact, an organizational culture that prizes and practices resilience will reinforce individual behaviors. Employees won’t feel solely responsible for maintaining resiliency in the face of challenges. As Bromley, De Smet, Lazaroff-Puck, and Mugayar-Baldocchi note, organization resilience “provides an overarching sense of identity and a distinctive culture for employees. It creates a cultural core that helps individuals thrive in ambiguity and uncertainty, giving them a sense of autonomy, belonging, and competence.” Here are a few of the many ways to do it.

Prioritize psychological safety. If you’re not prioritizing psychological safety in your organization, you should. It’s key to everything from teamwork to wellness. McKinsey defines psychological safety as “a shared belief held by team members that interpersonal risk-taking is safe—that ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes will be welcomed and valued.” It’s important to resilience and adaptability because “by creating psychological safety, leaders simultaneously demonstrate their own adaptability and create an environment where adaptability can flourish for their teams.” 

Build better teams. One of the markers of resiliency is having a community to lean on when times are tough. Cross, Dylan, and Greenberg state that resilience is “heavily enabled by strong relationships and networks” and that we can “become more resilient in the process of connecting with others in our most challenging times.” At work, those networks are often found in teams. Prioritize relationships and take the time to enhance teamwork throughout the organization. You’ll create strong networks employees can rely on when faced with change or challenges.

Build better leaders. Maor, Park, and Weddle argue that resilient organizations need “adaptable leaders who can coach their teams and develop capabilities for short and long-term responses to change.” But Natale, Poppensieker, and Thun point out that “managers are promoted for expertise in pattern recognition and for avoiding mistakes; however, resilience leadership requires creative thinking, first-principles problem solving for navigating through disruptions, and a predisposition to learn from and adjust to crises and downturns.” Asking candidates to share how they overcame a challenge allows you to gauge resilience when hiring. Then promoting people for it once they’re in the organization, will shape the culture over time.

Be transparent. Being transparent, even about the things you don’t yet know, creates an organizational culture where vulnerability is accepted. When employees and managers see the highest leaders telling the truth, even if the truth is “I don’t know yet,” they learn that the organization values honesty. Such transparency can create a sense of being in the challenge together. As McEwan points out, “in times of change and uncertainty, communicating clear purpose and linking teams firmly to the ‘why’ behind the work is important. Leaders also need to develop a strong connection and shared identity within their teams.” Akin provides practical tips: “Ask more questions, and make fewer statements. Have transparent, one-on-one conversations. Be curious, and adopt an attitude of openness.”  

Embrace change and challenge. According to McEwan, leaders who embrace change and challenge create a “culture that is adaptive and able to rebound from adversity more strengthened and resourceful.” Resilient organizations need leaders who demonstrate agile thinking, the ability to assess and update team skills, and who can balance innovation with recovery. Maor, Park, and Weddle argue that resilient organizations have teams and leaders who can “quickly assess the situation, reorient themselves, double down on what’s working, and walk away from what’s not” and that “the companies that cultivate organizational resilience—driven not only by crisis but also by opportunity—can gain an important, lasting advantage over competitors.”

Create a culture of learning and reflection. It bears repeating. Resilience and adaptability can be learned, and training at work is key. The Center for Workplace Mental Health says that “in a dynamic work environment, resiliency training elevates job performance and work engagement.” They point to the American Heart Association, which recommends training in topics like interpersonal challenges, burnout, coping with stress, dealing with difficult people, improving communication, and taking on new challenges. And training doesn’t have to be onerous. McKinsey recommends bite-sized training that can help put skills into practice. Short pieces of training, along with learning communities, visible role models, and a way to track progress and share feedback, are all essential to creating a culture of continuous learning. 

Moving from Resilience to Adaptability 

A lot of what’s written about resilience and adaptability focuses on individuals. But in the workplace, employees should not be left to develop their skills alone. 

Quality training is key to building resilient and adaptable teams. Niche Academy’s tutorials on topics including conflict resolution, creating feedback loops, developing goals, and encouraging a speak-up culture allow you to quickly learn and practice important skills. Assigning tutorials to your team and tracking their learning lets you see where more support is needed.

Actively applying some of the practices listed here will create a shift in organizational culture that allows you to bounce back from challenges and bounce forward into future opportunities. Eventually, your organization will be able to move from resilience to what McKinsey calls the mata-skill of adaptability, the “ability to learn flexibly and efficiently and to apply that knowledge across situations [which happens by] learning how to learn and being conscious of when to put that learner’s mind into action.” Over time, organizations and the people in them will get “faster and better at learning” and be oriented “toward the opportunities ahead, not just the challenges.”

This post is the third in a series of articles we are publishing on topics related to building a human-centered workplace. Subscribe to our blog using the form below to be notified when the next article is published.


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Adapting to change requires flexible leaders. (August 24, 2021). Center for Creative Leadership

Buckingham, M. (September 29, 2020). What really makes us resilient? HBR. 

Bromley, T., De Smet, A., Lazaroff-Puck, K., and Mugayar-Baldocchi, M. (November 22, 2021). The great attrition: The power of adaptability. McKinsey.  

Epstein, S. (September 19, 2022). How adaptability helps you “bounce forward” at work. BBC.

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Future proof: Solving the “adaptability paradox” for the long term. (August 2, 2021). McKinsey.

Herrity, J. (February 27, 2023). 6 important workplace adaptability skills (with examples). Indeed. 

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Maor, D., Park, M., and Weddle, B. (October 12, 2022). Building the resilience of your organization. McKinsey. 

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Rainey, C. (July 11, 2023). Building resiliency in the workplace: Strategies for success. Forbes. 

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Resilience in the workplace: How to build it in 6 steps. (February 3, 2023). Indeed.

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