Culture is what makes companies “best places to work” in great times and holds them together during tough times. But when so much about the world (and work) remains in flux, it’s the organizations that embrace uncertainty that seem to fare the best. So how do you make adaptability part of your company’s culture?
At Lattice’s Resources for Humans Virtual Conference, HR experts weighed in on what adaptability really means in the context of the employee experience and how to develop it.
1. Normalize uncertainty.
For less-experienced employees, 2020 represented a wake-up call to vulnerability. In just a matter of weeks, unemployment went from record lows to record highs — and even Silicon Valley unicorns had to adjust goals and scale back operations. So how can HR teams motivate these individuals to not just carry on, but ultimately grow through adversity?
“Earlier-career folks will never learn to weather storms if they don’t actually weather those storms,” said Grayden Holubar, Associate Director of People Operations at Artsy. Supporting employees through change doesn’t mean shielding them from reality. Instead of sugarcoating the situation, HR teams benefit from being honest while shining a spotlight on the positives. That means being available for questions and, through coaching, helping employees identify the opportunities inherent to change.
“One of the hard pieces can be understanding and labeling the opportunity, the learning experience. That is one the things where HR teams can really help,” Holubar said.
As an HR team, it’s also fine to admit that you don’t have all the answers. When leadership exhibits vulnerability, it has the effect of normalizing uncertainty. Megan Thornton, Vice President of Human Resources at Kasasa, believes it can even rally employees.
“COVID has been a brutal teacher, but it’s an equal opportunity teacher,” Thornton said. “It’s been a great opportunity to think through how we can be more agile, innovative, creative, and lean on our friendships…Having a calm senior leadership presence that can say, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do this, but I know that we will. And because we have each other and we’re so interdependent, we’ll figure it out,’ that’s the most important thing.
2. Add it to your management playbook.
Managers are just as susceptible to the pressures of change. But unlike their reports, managers are responsible for more than their personal adaptability — they’re also expected to support and coach their teams. For new or even veteran managers, navigating a crisis like this year’s pandemic can feel overwhelming. Linette Jensen, Director of Global Benefits & Programs at InVision, encouraged HR professionals to reach out to managers and let them know they’re not in this alone.
“The worst thing that any organization can do is isolate managers and just assume, they’ve got the title, they’ve led people forever, they know how to do it and they can manage any scenario. That’s not the right approach,” Jensen said. If change management isn’t already part of your manager training curriculum, bring it in — sooner rather than later.
“Change management is something that’s crucial for management and for leadership, and we often don’t train managers on it until later in their career as a manager,” Holubar said. “We learned this year that, that maybe that order isn’t the right way.”
Jensen agreed, adding that these classes become more impactful when they’re collaborative and include a mix of new and experienced leaders. Who better to learn from than those who have been there, done that?
“Some of my fondest memories of working with managers or collaborating with managers is when they’re working together. I think managers learn best from other managers, being in the same room or Zoom and having discussions around real-life scenarios that are happening,” Jensen said.
3. Make adaptability a company value.
If you want to build a company where change represents business as usual, consider making adaptability a core value. That’s exactly what Holubar and the Artsy team did — coincidentally just a few months before the start of the pandemic.
“We actually rolled out a new set of values at the beginning of this year. One of our new values is ‘transform together,’” Holubar said. He credits the change with bringing adaptability into greater focus and making it a regular part of performance conversations. “We put a stake in the ground and said, ‘Hey, we really do think that change is inevitable for our company and is core to our vision. That’s what we’re going to ask all of our employees to be on board with.”
Still, adaptability doesn’t have to be a value to feature in performance conversations. Thornton was quick to admit that, for some companies, codifying it as a value might not make sense. Even in cases like these, managers should still coach their reports and provide feedback with the skill in mind. Value or not, adaptability’s worth transcends work.
“Adaptability is a wonderful foundation for all of us and to be successful in life, even if it isn’t a company value. We get better the more adaptable we are, and can take that punch and keep going,” Thornton said. “We can’t just pick up our toys and go home every time we hear something we don’t like. That’s just part of the basic foundation of being human.”
For most of us, embracing change doesn’t come naturally. As employees and people, it goes against our instincts to step outside of our comfort zone. So that begs the question: Can an HR team really “teach” adaptability?
“Sure, there are L&D experts out there that would say, ‘Absolutely, you can teach adaptability.’ I don’t know, but I really feel that hands-on learning, seeing it in action, is how folks learn,” Jensen said. But while adaptability might not lend itself to being taught conventionally, that doesn’t mean HR teams have to stand on the sidelines.
“HR leaders can share examples of adaptability. They can show how someone navigated their career to get to where they are, or how somebody solved the problem or big issue. Those key moments are teachable moments around adaptability.”