Across fields, business leaders are navigating through challenging times. How can leaders solve challenges with adaptive leadership? Leading an organization through difficult but necessary change is filled with high-stake risks. This is where adaptive leadership is vital.
In today’s post, Strong Cincinnati explains how the management framework of adaptive leadership combined with a leaders’ own character strengths helps organizations embrace both change and ambiguity. While staying true to their values, a leader can guide their organization to successfully adapt.
What is adaptive leadership?
Harvard professors, Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz, introduced Adaptive Leadership Theory as leaders navigating businesses according to their constant changes and developments. Instead of simply addressing and solving challenges, adaptive leaders anticipate issues and identify the root causes.
By recognizing what risks are worth taking and which to avoid, they ensure their organization is agile enough to pivot directions when necessary. While technical problems can be addressed with a one-time solution, an adaptive issue requires cultural shifts within the organization.
In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (2009), the authors describe adaptive challenges. They write:
“Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits and loyalties. Making progress requires going beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilize discovery, shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses and generating the new capacity to thrive anew.”
When Do You Need Adaptive Leadership?
To give an example from the education world, I faced a lot of classroom management challenges as a first-year teacher. Students were talking out in class, not following directions, walking out of class without permission, and even fighting. What was my solution?
I pulled from a huge toolkit of classroom management strategies. I changed seating arrangements, created new rewards systems, called parents, reviewed rules and consequences, and narrated behavior. Each of those strategies were useful and had some positive effect, but the impact always dwindled over time. I had to continue to drum up new strategies every couple of weeks to keep up with the challenges my students were throwing at me.
I was making a mistake that confounds many leaders – I was approaching an adaptive challenge with technical solutions.
Related Page: Benefits of Leadership Coaching
How can you tell whether you’re dealing with a technical or an adaptive challenge?
Technical challenges have clearly defined problems and solutions that work when applied effectively. If your employees have poorly running computers that make them take twice as long to finish a project, that’s a technical challenge. Your solution is to find or purchase newer computers. In the world of medicine, a doctor may determine that a patient needs a new heart valve to fix a cardiovascular issue. The doctor performs surgery to replace the valve and the problem is solved. Technical challenges are easy to identify, solve, and people are generally receptive to the solution.
On the other hand, adaptive challenges require significant learning, reflection, and investigation to understand both the problem and the solution (or set of solutions). Think about an organization with different departments (silos) with competing interests that must work as a united front. Both the problem and the solution are much more complicated. Think of technical issues as the tip of the iceberg. Changing mindsets and mental models is at the heart of adaptive leadership work.
There is a simple question you can ask yourself when you’ve been working on a challenge for an extended period: has the approach (or the approaches) you’ve tried in the past made a measurable and sustainable improvement?
Consider a company that is struggling to build stronger organizational culture. Over the course of 5 years, smart and capable leaders try dozens of different approaches to improve culture – moving to a newer office space, launching employee happy hours, writing new slogans (with t-shirts), and orchestrating employee training days. But over time, nothing really changes, and the benefits of each approach are temporary.
The issue is not that the strategies were implemented poorly (or that they weren’t well-intentioned). It’s that they weren’t addressing the incredibly complex and deep-rooted issues that were impacting culture – the mindsets and mental models (and after that, the systems and actions that demonstrate change). The leaders were addressing an adaptive challenge with technical solutions.
If you are in a position of authority, you might be concerned if you don’t have leadership in your top strengths. Every leader has their own leadership style, and your unique character strengths will inform it. For example, you might lead through your character strengths of love and perspective to build trusting relationships, You might lead through your character strength of zest to energize and encourage your team. Using your unique character strengths will bolster your leadership and allow you to lead authentically.
5 Questions To Ask As an Adaptive Leader
“One can lead with no more than a question in hand.”
- What is the adaptive challenge?
Find the core of the issue. As objectively as possible, write the essence of the challenge in 1-sentence.
- What is your role in the challenge?
How are you contributing to the problem? Are you making any assumptions or facing any competing goals? Are there any fears or loyalties keeping you from making progress on this issue?
- Who are the major stakeholders and what is their role?
Ask them to explain the challenge to you. Why is it important to them? Why would they resist a solution to this problem? Don’t rush to creating solutions to get out of the discomfort. Sit with it as you seek a shared understanding.
- How will you motivate people to make change?
Do people need to feel the internal pressure or is there an external threat? Expose the hidden conflicts. Challenge unproductive routines. Challenge people to get out of their comfort zones.
- How will you support people through the change?
Manage the rate of change. Foster psychological safety for people to share concerns. Focus on building trust and cohesion.
It’s important to note here that many challenges are a mix of both technical and adaptive. For example, the challenge of two organizations merging involves many technical challenges (integrating computer software) as well as adaptive challenges (staff coping with change, assimilating to a new culture, creating a new identity, etc.). Ignoring either of those challenges is a bad choice, but ignoring the adaptive challenges will only lead to even more issues down the road.
Contact Mayerson Academy for Strengths-Based Leadership Coaching
Are you the leader of a team or organization going through a high-stakes change? Our experienced team of consultants is ready to help you make a successful shift towards a positive and equitable workplace culture. Start a conversation with us to learn about the customizable Leadership Coaching engagements we offer. Connect with us here.
The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (2009), Alexander Grashow, Marty Linsky, and Ronald Heifetz
5 Principles to Guide Adaptive Leadership (2020), Harvard Business Review