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Science says it’s better to be adaptable—here are 5 ways to make it happen

Enhancing our adaptability helps us to perform at our best, creatively overcome problems, navigate adversity, and respond to unexpected situations and changing demands.

Science says it’s better to be adaptable—here are 5 ways to make it happen
[Source images: Kroljaaa/iStock; Poike/iStock]

In what became his groundbreaking work, On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin introduced the foundations of his theory of evolution, as he sought to explain how some species survived while others dwindled toward extinction. His theory eloquently demonstrated that the best predictor of survival was not a species’ intelligence, nor its physical strength but its ability to adapt to changes in its immediate surroundings.

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Being able to adapt is now less about survival in its literal sense, and is more about our ability to see things from different perspectives—adjusting how we think about or approach certain situations to help us be more effective in achieving our goals.

Having the ability to adapt how we think or behave, depending on the situation we’re in, allows us to stay focused on our goals but modify how we go about realizing them in a more useful way. Research shows there are a number of benefits associated with our ability to consider alternative ways to think about, approach, and react to different challenges.

Improved relationships

Developing our ability to change the way we communicate with people depending on their individual character can help us grow a quicker and more meaningful connection. By recognizing when the personality preferences of those we are working with differ from our own, it can be beneficial to adapt our tone of voice, body language, and the way we frame a message based on those we are interacting with, rather than a use default approach based only on our own personality preferences.

This may require us to be more direct when communicating with those who prefer to operate at a faster pace while emphasizing the logic behind an idea to those who value attention to detail. By adapting our interactions with others, we can influence the quality of our relationships, establishing stronger understanding and trust.

Higher levels of performance

Enhancing our adaptability also helps us to perform at our best, creatively overcome problems, navigate adversity, and respond to unexpected situations and changing demands. By developing our ability to see situations from multiple perspectives, we are able to make better, more well-rounded, decisions. This allows us to appreciate different ways of solving the same problem, considering both the opportunities and risks that each solution may pose and shifts the focus of our attention to a more relevant and ultimately more useful perspective.

When faced with a difficult problem or challenge, it may be worth considering how you are viewing the situation before considering potential solutions. In doing so, reflect on how you are currently framing the problem. Consider the insight that can be gained by thinking about the way in which someone else, from a different team or organization, might view the same situation.

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Better mental well-being

Switching the way we approach different scenarios is also associated with a range of mental health benefits such as increased life satisfaction, higher self-esteem, and a greater sense of purpose. It has also been highlighted as a potentially protective factor against mental health difficulties.

This ability, which helps us to see alternative ways of viewing challenging situations, results in the experience of more positive emotions, and a more realistic perspective about the control we have over negative external events. While we cannot control everything that is happening around us, by taking a mental step back from the event, we can subsequently regain a sense of control by asking ourselves how we want to respond to the situation.

Smoother transitions

Adaptability can also help us transition between new phases of life and work–whether it’s starting a new job, changing roles, being made redundant, entering retirement, or even professional relocation. For instance, we are better able to respond to a change (e.g., the possibility of losing our job) by seeing opportunity where we may usually only see danger. Or, we can respond to the demands of a new culture by recognizing the need for alternative behaviors in keeping with our new surroundings.

When facing a transition, we can benefit from an adaptable perspective by considering both the threats and opportunities that the change may present. Think carefully about all the difficulties that might lie ahead—asking yourself how you might prepare to best to deal with each of these possibilities? At the same time, consider what you might gain as a result of the transition and the potential opportunities that this might offer you.

More effective leadership

Increasing our adaptability can also enhance our effectiveness when in a leadership position. It allows us to create better relationships with key stakeholders, increase engagement levels within our team, and respond effectively when in a crisis. Leaders with greater adaptability are able to take into account multiple perspectives, move beyond their preferred methods when needed, and tap into leadership styles and behaviors that may be less natural to them.

More techniques to achieve better adaptability

Developing our adaptability starts with a curiosity to take a mental step back and consciously consider how we are thinking or approaching a situation. By creating this space, we are then able to consider alternative perspectives, different points of view, and choose the best way to approach a situation that is more useful to us achieving our goals.

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Within this space, consider which mindset and approach may be the most useful to help you achieve what you are trying to do. Be interested to see situations from multiple perspectives, different angles, and borrow insights from how other people might view the challenge at hand. Ask yourself, “How might someone else, who is different from me, view this challenge?” Then, allow these perspectives to help you to shape the approach you take to achieve your goals.

Being adaptable requires us to not get overly wedded to our own worldview, and instead to have the humility to appreciate the many different ways the same situation can be viewed from. It requires us to see the world from other angles and viewpoints, and purposefully consider situations as if from the perspective of others.

In a world that appears to be becoming increasingly polarized, perhaps we should not be aiming to be right per se (which may sometimes fuel the antithesis of adaptability, which is fixedness), and instead, look to get a more complete picture by valuing multiple perspectives as we approach different challenges.


Liam Burnell and Tim Pitt, PhD, are part of the team at mindflick, a performance psychology company that focuses on creating tools to help develop adaptability and make psychology more accessible and impactful.

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