In my last post, I wrote about career transitions, including promotions. Often, those who find themselves newly in a leadership position can feel a bit lost. That’s because we don’t have a textbook for how to lead. Instead, there are various theories that can guide organizational leaders. In this post, I’ll discuss the theory of adaptive leadership. I’ll outline its key concepts, the principles behind it, and what situations warrant this approach.
The Theory Behind the Practice
As I mentioned, there are plenty of leadership theories out there. For instance, the trait theory of leadership suggests that leaders are just born with certain traits. That’s what separates them from ordinary people. This theory is pretty controversial, though, because it suggests that not everyone can be a leader. This perspective discourages embracing diversity in leadership by perpetuating stereotypes about who can lead.
A more popular theory these days is that of adaptive leadership. This theory can be applied by anyone who learns about it. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World is the definitive work on the subject. It’s written by Ron Heifetz, Marty Linksy, and Alexander Grashow. According to this text, “adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.”
In this video, Heifetz explains what this means. Sometimes, organizations face what this theory would call a technical problem. That’s a clear issue that can be solved by utilizing someone’s expertise. For instance, let’s say your organization needs to streamline business processes with automated workflows. You’ll do some research and discover that Pyrus workflow automation software is a perfect solution. This kind of problem can typically be solved pretty quickly because the answer already exists. By contrast, adaptive challenges require thoughtful leadership and innovation. These issues are not so clear, and you’ll need time to find the solution. Identifying a solution will require a lot of experimentation and creative problem-solving.
Because most issues that organizations face have both technical and adaptive components, it’s good to understand the implications. When you identify that you’re encountering an adaptive challenge, you can implement adaptive leadership to move toward a solution.
Identifying an Adaptive Challenge
This article from Indeed provides further distinction between technical and adaptive challenges. One of the main reasons that technical challenges can be addressed easily is because they don’t require significant change. People are usually receptive to the solution leaders propose. It typically won’t require them to sacrifice anything or change their worldview. For instance, imagine that you suddenly can’t log in to your Pyrus account for work. You contact the help desk, and they send you a link to click. You’ll probably click it without asking any questions. After all, you just want to fix the clear issue that you can’t log in.
Adaptive challenges aren’t so simple to identify or solve. For instance, imagine that your organization notices a drop in employee productivity. What’s the real issue? Someone might say you need to assess for burnout. Someone else will argue that people are just procrastinating too much. Still others will say your onboarding process needs work. To work towards a solution, you’ll need to have buy-in from many different stakeholders. Most likely, any idea you propose is going to meet with resistance from some of those groups.
As you can probably tell, adaptive challenges are typically those where you’ll notice more conflict. That’s a point that Heifetz emphasizes in this video. He identifies several markers of an adaptive challenge. These include persistent conflict, repeated crises, and high resistance to change. For example, imagine you suggest that the organization needs funding for more wellness programs in order to combat burnout. You may hear employees suggest that you don’t really understand the issue and possibly aren’t fit to lead this effort. That’s an indicator that you’re facing an adaptive challenge.
How to Lead Towards Change
So what do you do to overcome that resistance? Heifetz suggests a number of strategies in this video. First, understand that people aren’t afraid of all changes. For instance, no employee will be upset to see a raise or better parental leave policies. However, people do fear changes that involve loss. An adaptive leader needs to anticipate the losses various stakeholders might encounter when they propose change. This is part of managing your stakeholders effectively. Consider that a loss of a sense of “this is how we do things” can be as hard as a tangible loss. You’ll need empathy to guide you through this process.
Ultimately, the best way to lead your stakeholders through loss toward embracing change is to celebrate what has been. This might sound counterintuitive. After all, you’re changing the status quo. However, you need to show respect for the good in it before the stakeholders will let you implement change.
Consider a situation where you require managers to engage in professional development to learn more about supporting wellness. They may lose their sense of competence as workplace leaders for a while. Alternately, they may feel you are undermining their ability to manage teams successfully. Managers may also encounter impostor phenomenon and wonder if they are really fit for the role. Be sure to highlight all the strengths that make you confident they can embrace this change. Underscore the reasons why you believe in their success while encouraging a growth mindset. When you show that you have respect for these managers’ track record already, they’ll be more open to change.
Strategies for Adaptive Crisis Response
Of course, there are times when adaptive challenges come with high stakes. This HBR article from 2020 focuses on the relevance of adaptive leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. The article suggests several key strategies and approaches to managing a crisis adaptively.
First, be sure your decision-making is based on evidence. As I described in an earlier post, data-driven assessment is crucial to successful business growth. Fortunately, software like Pyrus can make this easier for you. When you’re able to collect, interpret, and act on data constantly, you’ll make better decisions. As you go, rigorously question your assumptions. Make sure you’re staying open to new possibilities that you haven’t considered. After all, an adaptive challenge always requires a solution that doesn’t yet exist.
Second, adaptive leadership is inherently collaborative. Bring as many perspectives as possible into your conversations. For instance, consider the input the finance department, Human Resources, and executive leadership can offer. To support dialogue and increase coordination, connect employees across teams and departments. Pyrus can help many employees coalesce around a task. This platform supports task-centered, real-time messaging and lets you delegate portions of tasks or subscribe employees to threads. This is crucial for keeping a wide range of stakeholders and decision makers on the same page. You can also try implementing some of the Agile methodology to reach this goal.
Finally, stay accountable for decisions made. It’s a good idea to regularly review changing data and the outcomes of past decisions. When mistakes happen, identify the lessons learned. Remaining open-minded in this way is a crucial component of practicing adaptive leadership.
I hope this overview of adaptive leadership helps you meet the next challenge at your organization head-on. Good luck, and remember to stay open to out-of-the-box solutions.