Adaptive Leadership: A Leadership Framework for Change Management

Are your leaders adaptive leaders, or are they still relying on some command-and-control leadership behaviors as their primary approach? If you think carefully about change in the modern organization, it's quickly apparent that change today is a complex mix of internal and external issues, events, and influences. Making a non-collaborative top-down decision that addresses one organizational challenge doesn't work anymore because the interaction of multiple challenges creates an ongoing change of circumstances. Adaptive leadership is a behavior leadership theory that says leaders should go beyond addressing current challenges and anticipate future challenges by developing a collaborative, adaptive workforce. Your leaders develop a new perspective and new skills for change management 

Defining Adaptive Leadership 

Some leaders are adaptive, and some have no idea how to adapt to changing circumstances. The latter addresses one issue at a time in the moment. In today's business environment, adaptive leaders are more successful because they can adapt to change, find solutions for existing challenges, and anticipate possible challenges that could emerge in the future.   

The adaptive leadership framework was developed by Harvard Professors Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz after their extensive research found that businesses constantly change. The implication of "continually changing" is that business leaders must go beyond change management of current challenges and anticipate changes that are likely to develop. This has important implications for decision-making because solutions are assessed as to their impact now and in the future. It's a type of risk assessment because adaptive leaders will determine which risks are worth taking and how to best use organizational resources for a maximum return.  

The adaptive behavior leadership theory says that leaders will focus on making critical decisions, are open to feedback, recognize change, and enable changing direction when necessary. You probably have experienced decision-makers who made a decision and then refused to backtrack when it's proven inadequate. They dig their feet in, so to speak, out of pride, arrogance, stubbornness, or perhaps a fear of appearing weak. That approach doesn't work today, nor do top-down decisions made without obtaining employee feedback. In fact, this approach can create disengaged employees

Change is a natural element of organizational growth. There are two types of leadership decisions. One is the technical decisions that address one-time challenges and find solutions that fit the particular challenge. The answer to the problem already exists, i.e., established procedures and compliance requirements. This is situational leadership. Technical skills are applied to fix the problem. 

The second type of leadership decision-making is adaptive because the leader recognizes a need for new solutions that don't exist, are longer-term, and allow employees to thrive. An adaptive leader defines the challenge and mobilizes their team to develop solutions by giving them the tools to solve problems themselves.   

An adaptive leader utilizes both types of leadership depending on the challenge. The Linsky and Heifetz behavior leadership theory is really not about leadership style. It's about teaching leaders how to adapt their decision-making in response to economic, political, and social challenges that impact the workplace.  

adaptive leader

Principles of Adaptive Leadership 

There are multiple elements of adaptive leadership for managing change in the proactive era. The bird's-eye view of the process is as follows.   

  1. Identify core practices to retain, how earlier decisions were made, and the obstacles to be removed 
  2. Develop and test possible solutions with solutions evolving based on testing results, i.e., analytics, feedback, etc. 
  3. Implement the solution that seems best on a small scale 
  4. Test the solution and make necessary changes 
  5. Implement a solution on a broader scale 

Testing is an ongoing real-time assessment that becomes learning input. Mistakes become a path toward adapting the solution to the situation. The assessment results and analytics also support leadership feedback to employees. Adaptive leaders can and should explain how the decisions are being made with input from employees.   

The principles of adaptive leadership intersect with the principles of developing strong employee engagement. That's not surprising, given that successful adaptive change management is only possible with employee support and collaboration. In fact, Heifetz defined adaptive leadership as mobilizing a group of individuals to successfully handle tough challenges by adapting to significant change. This is profound change management in which leadership creates workplace problem-solving capacity and continual learning rather than giving directives and controlling work.   

The underlying principle is that fixed approaches to problem-solving aren't helpful. Instead, adaptive leaders develop contextual awareness and analyze the situation. Instead of relying on their own perspectives, they consider the situation's facts and evidence (assessments). The leader learns with each experience. Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie describe six principles for leading adaptive work in The Work of Leadership.   

  1. Getting on the Balcony – The leader looks at the state of the challenge from above, considering all the factors in play, like changing technologies, changing employee needs, changing social expectations, changing customer and workforce demographics, etc. Recognizing patterns when people get involved in day-to-day work is difficult. By getting on the proverbial balcony, the leader can recognize larger patterns, identify struggles, and recognize patterns of work avoidance. An adaptive leader moves between the balcony and the field of action, gaining a broad and practical view that assists with successfully mobilizing people. 
  2. Identifying the adaptive challenge – What is the big problem and the realities of the situation that are not getting attention? Are current routines sufficient when technical adjustments are made? Or will the challenge require developing new competencies, innovative ways of doing business, and developing teamwork? In a continually changing business environment, it's easy to miss new challenges and fail to adapt to new threats.
  3. Regulating distress – Instead of protecting employee stress, coach employees on adapting to change. People can only learn at a certain pace, but they still must feel the need for change. Your leader can address key assumptions that may limit employee motivations for change and influence their behaviors.  

Adaptive leadership does not encourage employees to depend on management to resolve problems and relieve stress. Heifetz talks about "turning up the heat" in the organization so that employees feel the need for change. However, the leader must also maintain productivity without causing employees to feel overwhelmed. Senior leaders who start new initiatives without stopping other activities create stressed, disoriented, and overwhelmed employees. Your leaders need emotional intelligence to tolerate uncertainty and frustration.   

4. Maintaining disciplined attention – A typical behavior among people who want to avoid unpleasant situations or change is finding distractions. They avoid paying attention to issues or situations that are unpleasant. Everyone has their own experiences and perspectives they naturally fall back on, making it more difficult for leadership to keep employees focused on the changes they need to make.   

Leaders must discover the value of collaboration and convey that importance to employees. Leaders can encourage positive conflict to achieve productive change. As discussed in the IRI Consultants blog, Can Positive Conflict Lead to Positive Employee Relations? positive conflict can generate new ideas and a more inclusive work environment. This is ideal for strengthening employee engagement.   

5. Giving work back to the people – Do you appreciate the knowledge and expertise your leaders and employees gain as they do their jobs? Or is there a reliance on hierarchal decision-making? In some organizations, the organizational culture and processes have developed leaders who depend on higher-ups to make decisions, taking responsibility away from those with the most knowledge based on actual experience.   

Heifetz says, "Getting people to assume greater responsibility is not easy. Many lower-level employees are comfortable being told what to do, and many managers are accustomed to treating subordinates like machinery requiring control. Letting people take the initiative in defining and solving problems means that management needs to learn to support rather than control. Workers, for their part, need to take responsibility." Employees need to recognize the problem and the solution.   

6. Protecting voices of leadership – Giving everyone in the organization an employee voice is important. Unfortunately, supervisors and lower-level managers are often not heard because they are unwilling to speak up when what they have to say is beyond their authority. Yet these are people who can identify the major challenges that need addressing. The organizational members may not be elegant or polished in their workplace communication, are likely nervous about pointing out problems, and may not communicate information at the ideal time. Still, they can provide critical information that upper management needs and isn't in a position to learn. 

This is giving supervisors a voice! 

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Traits of an Adaptive Leader 

Heifetz says that becoming an adaptive leader requires a person who can operate with ambiguity and disorientation and has a tolerance for conflict and confusion. The adaptive leader also understands that mistakes will be made and embraces them to promote shared learning and strengthen shared purpose.  

Transparent and honest communication is at the core of adaptive leadership behavior. This is called organizational justice. Adaptive leaders constantly strive to maintain trust, relying on emotional intelligence and developing a positive culture based on values. They are always open and share the facts, even if they are unpleasant to hear. Some of the traits the successful adaptive leader possesses include the ability to: 

  • Link organizational change to stakeholder values and goals 
  • Predict reluctant employee behaviors and demonstrate emotional intelligence in counteracting them 
  • Promote diversity of perspectives and turn the diversity of views into collective organizational knowledge 
  • Recognize that organizational change is a process requiring patience and persistence 
  • Admit mistakes and change strategies as needed 
  • Take calculated risks that can produce desired change without fearing failure 
  • Empower people to achieve their full potential  
  • Be proactive in finding opportunities for organizational improvement  
  • Admit mistakes and change course when necessary 

While this sounds great in theory, the adaptive leader also recognizes that there are challenges to driving adaptive change. For example, a leader must acknowledge that some change is needed because what the person has been doing is not working well. Also, the adaptive leader must be fully open to other people's perspectives, opinions, and ideas and have a willingness to collaborate rather than exercise authority. Some leadership training in coaching employees is likely needed first.  

A good example is an East Coast hospital that wanted to give hourly employees a voice in a hospital improvement process. First, the change management process identified that employee engagement needed significant improvement. Following the IRI Consultants LEAD Academy development program, four four-hour hands-on classroom training was delivered to voluntary members of employee advisory groups. The result was measurable improvements in the groups' work which increased employee engagement and improved employee-management relations.   

How to Become an Adaptive Leader 

The four qualities of the adaptive leader are character, organizational justice, development, and emotional intelligence. It's important not to lose sight of the fact that adaptive leadership is not simply solving a current challenge. The leaders identify the root causes of everyday challenges, collaborate with the workforce to discover how to best overcome the challenges, and anticipate future needs.  

As McKinsey & Company discuss, when leaders need decisiveness in the face of uncertainty, they "tend to fall back on tried-and-true ways" in what the authors call the "adaptability paradox." 

How do you break that cycle and learn adaptability? One way is to develop a sense of purpose about what truly matters that is aligned with the organization's purpose. Another way is to identify underlying patterns of behavior when faced with uncertain situations. The behaviors are based on mindsets and beliefs that influence perceptions. Adaptable learning mindsets include growth (challenges and mistakes are learning opportunities), creativity (lead with purpose and empower self and others), curiosity (explore and discover), agent (belief in the ability to learn new things and overcome challenges), abundance (belief a challenge is a potential win-win situation), opportunity, and exploration (plan ahead but be flexible).  

Becoming an adaptive leader begins with introspection and an honest assessment of perspectives and biases. A manager who believes he or she always has the answers is unwilling to accept uncertainty, doesn't see challenges as opportunities, and is likely not building strong interpersonal relationships. Leadership development first focuses on opening manager and supervisor minds to thinking outside the box, sharing employee engagement strategies, and helping leaders embrace emotional intelligence and methods for practicing adaptive leadership behaviors.   

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Need Help Developing Adaptive Leadership? 

The leadership behavior theory has never been more relevant than it is today. The myriad of challenges that businesses are balancing is challenging to balance. Just as the business environment is constantly changing, your leaders need to increase their adaptability to meet those changes. Contact our team at IRI Consultants for help in developing adaptable leaders who move away from past leadership practices that don't apply in modern organizations. 

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.