Adaptive leadership and managing change

Nov 3, 2020 | People Analytics

As the pandemic continues to unfold, leaders continue to face unpredictability, multiple unknowns and the need to make decisions quickly.

For managers, the response has to lie in adaptive leadership. Harvard Business review suggests that it involves the 4 A’s:

  • Anticipating future needs, trends and business options
  • Articulating those needs to the team, building understand and support for action
  • Adaptation so the team continuous to learn and change their responses as needed
  • Accountability, ensuring transparency in the decision making process and being open to feedback

Essentially adaptive leadership can be described as the ability to perceive, observe and intervene. In their book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky likened this to continuously moving between a dance floor and a balcony. Your experiences and observations will be very different, depending on where you stand. When you’re on the dance floor, you’re focused on the music and probably get the impression that everyone is having a good time. However, when you step away and onto the balcony, you might notice the people around the edges who aren’t as engaged, or even some people leaving the room.

This approach allows you to see the bigger picture, taking steps towards creating a better and more satisfying outcome for all involved. It’s an approach that can be used to face business changes and shifts in corporate culture too. It’s a chance to exercise your empathy muscles, looking at different points of view within the wider company context. The result? A more personal approach that connects with employees and customers on an emotional level.

So, how can we practice adaptive leadership? We’ve rounded up a few ideas to get you started.

1. Get off the dance floor

When change is constant, it’s important to be able to change direction quickly to adapt to the environment. To do so, as leaders we need to regularly create space to review the situation, reflect on what is happening and gain perspective. Once we have observed and come up with an action plan, we need to then go back to the dance floor to make interventions. Ultimately, you need to determine the right amount of time to spend on the dance floor versus the balcony.

2. Lead with empathy

Here at Lifeed, we often talk about the concept of generative leadership, or rather investing in people and projects that will outlive our own tenure. Empathy is a big part of that, but a recent DDI analysis of high performing leadership found that only 40% of business leaders have proficient empathy skills to lead in this way. What’s more, 51% of Lifeed users believe that empathy is shown through understanding and putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes. When you can truly stand alongside your team and understand the lenses that they see the world through, you build a deeper level of trust with them and a positive work environment. 

3. Embrace failure

When we’re surrounded by uncertainty and situations are changing so quickly, the decisions we make are based on an element of risk. So it’s inevitable that sometimes we will get it wrong – we are human, after all. The key thing is to reflect together on the lessons learned as well as any issues that may have arisen through the situation. It’s a chance to transform failure into new ideas and processes that will fuel future success. That’s also why as leaders we need to hold ourselves accountable. When our teams see this behavior modelled to them, and that you’ve created a safe working environment, they will be more willing to open up and share with each other too.

4. Empower your team

Earlier, we talked about determining how much time you need to spend on the balcony vs the dance floor. The same also applies to how active you are in executing plans vs empowering your team to build the solution themselves. It can be likened to being a coach on the sidelines of a football match: we need to be able to listen to concerns, provide feedback and give people the tools they need to succeed. 48% of Lifeed users believe that this support can be demonstrated through being present, patient and taking note of non-verbal signals. Your team will undoubtedly pick up on this awareness and feel more engaged with their everyday work.

5. Embrace uncertainty

Now more than ever, change is a reality. Organizational change expert Karen Ferris suggests that leaders shouldn’t see this as a threat or a worry. Instead, we should see it as a chance to build dynamic teams and channel that uncertainty into positive outcomes through collaboration and communication.

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