Build More Adaptable Leaders

Leadership | Collaboration

We’ve entered the 3rd year of the COVID pandemic. Like the first two, we don’t know what’s coming next. Barry Rosen, IA CEO and Peter Gibb, former IA Partner and author of Mindful Conversations, recently had an exchange on how company leaders can help their employees and teams succeed in uncertain times.

Barry: Hi Peter. Given these uncertain times, at home and work, what suggestions might you have for our readers?

Peter: Hi Barry. We could also add the words "unpredictable" and "risky" to our current, collective experience -- like were riding on a wooden roller-coaster.

Barry: I’m taking a deep breath thinking about that image.

Peter: The silver lining is that humans have an ability to adapt to new circumstances. We can do that very quickly.

Barry: What’s an example of that?

Peter: Consider a professional sports team. Circumstances at each game change – the weather, injured teammates, a new player or coach on the opposing side. To win, the team managers adapt their game plan. Players adapt too, and pivot – mentally and physically – to outrun and outflank the opposition.

Barry: The NFL playoffs are a good example of that! Let’s shift to explore the concept of adaptability in organizations.

Peter: Leaders influence all types of performance – individual, team, and the entire organization. These last two years have challenged leaders to develop cultures that help employees to be flexible, resilient, and able to pivot at strategic moments.

Barry: There are several characteristics of an adaptive culture, for example -- engaged employees, effective collaboration, and stakeholder involvement in decision-making. If you were to highlight three, what would they be?

Peter: How about I come up with two and you come up with one?

Barry: Deal.

Peter: The first for me would be: Leaders invite team members to think along with them. It makes a big difference when team members see and hear how a leader thinks, demonstrates both vulnerability and courage, and how they plan to apply the lessons from past mistakes.One format for this interaction is a live, company-wide broadcast interview about a recent or impending decision, or an after-action interview about a failed effort. Your turn.

Barry: Looking at employee behavior, I’d say team members should be able to explain how a new initiative or re-ordering of priorities ties back to mission, values, and strategy. People are more likely to adapt to a change, including an expected change in their behavior, when they can describe the why of change in terms of the company’s core purpose and identity.

Peter: I like that one a lot. One way to develop this ability is to provide talking points to everyone in the company about an impending decision or change and to ask team leaders questions about it in team meetings: “Regarding this change, why do you think we’re doing it and how does it relate to our core mission (values, vision, strategy)?”

Barry: Ok, what’s a third characteristic?

Peter: This next one has to do with curiosity. Routine business conversations generate useful insights and practical next steps.

Barry: Please say more about that.

Peter: Readiness to adapt is strengthened by mindful conversations:

  • Less talking, more listening
  • Less answering, more asking
  • Less fault finding, more success seeking
  • Less presenting, more collaborative problem solving

Barry: Can you give me an example of that? 

Peter: Sure. Here’s short story to highlight this last characteristic on a personal level.

I was consulting with a hospital system and coaching a few senior staff. One day, the medical Chief of Staff called me and said: "Peter: I want you to work with Dr. Kramer (not his real name). He's the best technical orthopedist we have, but he's demanding and unwilling to listen. Nurses are refusing to work with him. Even some patients have asked for a different doctor."

The day arrived for my first meeting with Dr. Kramer. Five minutes into the meeting, Dr. Kramer interrupted me: "I was here before you showed up. I'll be here after you leave." 

Not a great start to our conversation. Talking to Dr. Kramer was like dropping cash into an empty wishing well. I had to tap into something important to him and to acknowledge his achievements without fawning. 

I said: “I've heard that you're very knowledgeable and highly skilled. What do you think makes a great doctor?" 

He looked directly at me, for the first time. His tone shifted, a mixture of wonder and interest as he answered the question. I reflected his answers back to him. He nodded in agreement and provided substantive additions.

I asked Dr. Kramer if we could invite a few more people into the conversation. He agreed and, in a few minutes, another doctor and two nurses joined us.

When the three were seated, I asked the same question and facilitated the exchange. There were nods of agreement along the way.

Then I asked: "What blocks a good doctor from being great doctor?" Dr. Kramer became visibly anxious. The answers from his three colleagues were honest and uncompromising. I think Dr. Kramer knew that his colleagues were talking about his behaviors.

After 30 minutes, I brought the meeting to a close, and thanked our guests. Dr. Kramer and I then sat alone, in silence. After a few minutes, he spoke: "About that second question, I don't want to be that kind of doctor.”

Over our next few sessions, and through a simple process of inquiry, Dr. Kramer explored the beliefs and fears beneath the behaviors that negatively impacted his colleagues and patients. We also replayed several successes and gleaned insights about his mindset and approach at those times. After a month of working together, I was hearing a very different story about Dr. Kramer. "A great doctor, the best orthopedist we have."

Barry: Dr. Kramer needed a few good questions and an active listener to hear his responses without judgment. That process activated his innate ability to adapt and pivot. Before we end our conversation, Peter, what last suggestion can you offer to our readers?

Peter: I’ll refer you to someone who has influenced my thinking. Dr. Judson Brewer a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center. They conduct research into mindful behaviors that shift the gameboard of day-to-day life. "Of all our human capacities, curiosity is at the top of my list of most essential," he says. It’s an untapped resource waiting to serve you and your organization, the key to reprogramming a brain, away from a small, defensive posture to accepting, learning, leading, and greatness.

Barry: I’ll add one more thing. I invite people to find out about Peter’s work and soon to be released book, Mindful Conversation.

Build more adaptable leaders and teams by attending IA’s flagship Facilitative Leadership. Learn to tap the power of curiosity and collaboration.

About Barry Rosen

The CEO of Interaction Associates, Barry consults with company leaders on how to empower people and teams to work across functions and other boundaries to get important things done. He leads the assembly of IA's collaboration tools and learning content, including programs on facilitative leadership, inclusive teams, and task-focused group facilitation.