Adaptability Quotient: The Secret To A Successful Career

Do you have the ability to adjust to change in an ever-evolving world?

Be honest: are you adept at dealing with change? When life throws you a curveball, do you swim with the tide, or find yourself floundering? Your answers to these questions, according to the experts, are an indicator of your Adaptability Quotient; that is, the ability to adjust to change in an ever-evolving business world.

So, what is AQ? And how does it give an indicator of how successful you might become in your career? Venture investor Natalie Fratto coined the term in her TED Talk ‘3 Ways to Measure Your Adaptability and How To Improve It’, causing business owners, and their employees, to sit up and pay attention. Now, adaptability has become the buzz word of the business world, becoming as important a trait in potential new hires as both intellectual and emotional intelligence. According to Fratto, adaptability means “how well a person reacts to the inevitability of change. Adaptability is itself a form of intelligence.”

For some, adaptability is second nature. We all know people who seem totally adept at changing course at a moment’s notice. They’re the ones who remain calm during a crisis, when flights get cancelled, plans fall through, when a pandemic hits. Adaptable individuals understand that rolling with the punches is a fact of life, wholeheartedly accepting new circumstances and taking them in their stride.

Take, for example, Ireland’s response to the current COVID-19 crisis. Businesses are learning to adapt in this new #SocialDistancing world: employees who previously worked in office environments are now working from home. Shops are providing dedicated hours for the most vulnerable in our country to get the supplies they need. Gyms are hosting online classes via Skype. These instances are examples of adaptability, proving that many businesses can find ways to stay afloat in an unprecedented crisis.

For those of us not blessed with natural adaptability instincts, it’s important to remember that a high AQ is not a personality trait we’re born with. It’s a life skill, like learning to cook or riding a bike. This means that adaptability, like any other skill, can be learned and improved upon over time.

There is, however, one particular character trait that can hold us back from becoming the best, most adaptable version of ourselves: perfectionism.

The link between the two may not seem obvious, but the disease of perfectionism is the death of adaptability. Basically, perfectionists are allergic to adaptability because they are afraid to make mistakes, much to their own detriment. Forbes contributor and psychotherapist Susanna Mittermaier wrote of those plagued by perfectionism: “Instead of being ‘present’ with a project – adaptable in approach and aware of when things need to be changed – the perfectionist is more inflexible.” In this way, perfectionists hold themselves back in their own impossible quest to get everything ‘right’. Those who are unwilling to adapt, change course, make mistakes and learn from them are doomed to fail, both in business and in life. Perfectionists are afraid to take risks, to go against the grain, and therefore, they become profoundly overwhelmed when a curveball comes.

So, how can you identify if your perfectionism is holding you back from becoming truly adaptable? Firstly, it’s important to identify whether your brand of perfectionism is adaptive, or maladaptive. As the name suggests, adaptive perfectionism means that despite striving for perfectionism, you still have some leeway in which to mess up, try and try again. The more insidious type of perfectionism, however, is the maladaptive kind, which makes no allowances for error or bending the rules.

This brand of perfectionism is highly toxic: those with it are highly critical of both themselves and others. They often feel the need to be in control of every aspect of their lives and become overwhelmed when plans change, mistakes are made or things don’t go their way. Picture the worst kind of Bridezilla you can imagine, but the issue isn’t a wedding, it’s every aspect of her life. The maladaptive perfectionist is a micro-manager; someone who breaks down when criticised by her boss, who loses the rag when she messes up, and whose life is severely impacted by her own self-critical monologue.

If this sounds like you, know that you can reach out to a qualified counsellor for help. Allowing yourself the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them can vastly improve your quality of life and your relationships, and impact positively on your self-esteem.

So, what are the key steps to a higher AQ? The first, according to Fratto, is to ask yourself “what-if questions”. These are open-ended questions which seek to activate the problem-solving part of your brain, showcasing the depth of our adaptability – and they’re very relevant right now. “What if your main revenue stream were to dry up overnight?” Fratto asks potential entrepreneurs. “What if a heatwave prevented every single customer from being able to visit your store?” By imagining multiple versions of the future, we prepare ourselves for both the best and the worst potential outcomes. Thus, when shit inevitably hits the fan, we feel more prepared to find a solution to the issue, because we had anticipated it. This is an essential component of adaptability: the ability to foresee potential problems, and their solutions, before they arise.

The second step is to become an “active un-learner”. Fratto posits that these “seek to challenge what they presume to already know,” allowing for greater potential to adapt to new circumstances. Active un-learners do not presume to ‘know it all’ when it comes to their career; in fact, they presume to know nothing at all, no matter how vast their experience or expertise, and thus refuse to get stuck in their ways. Instead, they recognise that although their methods have found success in the past, this does not guarantee favourable results in the future.

Because our human instinct is to repeat what has worked for us before in order to retain success, Fratto agrees that “previous success becomes the enemy of adaptability.” So the next time you succeed at work, give yourself an encouraging pat on the back, then keep moving forward. That same “successful” action may prevent you from seeing the bigger picture in the future.

The final aspect to improving adaptability is prioritising “exploration over exploitation.” When a particular business model proves successful, the instinct is to milk it for all its worth. Take for example Fratto’s prime example of failure to adapt: John Antioco, the CEO of Blockbuster. When a young entrepreneur approached him with an offer to develop the company’s website, Antioco refused, preferring to place his sole focus on Blockbuster’s already successful model. This inability to change ultimately led to the company’s downfall, while its competition, Netflix, continues to thrive.

Training yourself to be more adaptable at work can only stand to benefit you in the long run. So, let’s all collectively try to let go of the lie of perfectionism and start becoming more adaptable, so that we can grow into the best boss versions of ourselves.

Words by: Catherine Taylor

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