From EQ to AQ – Why Adaptability Is The Next Key Skill For Leaders To Develop

It’s hard to imagine that Daniel Goleman could have foreseen what his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence – Why It Matters more than IQ, would do to bring the concept of emotional intelligence to the mainstream. Over 35 years later, emotional intelligence, or EQ, is now considered an essential element of workplace effectiveness, and rightly occupies a hallowed place as the cornerstone of many management and leadership development programs.

The extent of work around emotional intelligence has also taught us that understanding EQ is only the beginning of a development journey, not the end.  It has created a foundation for exploring other concepts that build on or expand our understanding of human behaviour. Areas like decision-making, stress management, positivity, risk tolerance and psychological safety form a scaffold on which to build an understanding of the  concepts of emotional intelligence. While these skills are seen as positive and useful assets in modern organizations, other related concepts have become absolute must haves. One of these most critical areas is Adaptability.

In 2020, Daniel Goleman identified that “Of all of the emotional intelligence competencies, strength in adaptability predicts success most often.”.  This is why organizations like Microsoft, Glaxo Smithkline, IBM, and even the United Nations are making significant investment into understanding, exploring, and developing adaptability. What makes one person, team, or organization adapt while another adapts poorly, or not at all?  It’s also why survey after survey, such as the 2021 Linkedin Workplace Learning Report, Forbes 14 In-Demand Skills Employers Want In 2021, and #1 on Hays Recruiting ‘Top Six Skills You Will Need’ Research identify adaptability as the most critical skill that people need to have in order to be effective in today’s world of rapidly increasing change.

Most recently, Steve Cadigan, LinkedIn’s first Chief Human Resource officer told attendees at the Workhuman Live conference in Atlanta, to “hire people who have the capacity to talk about hard stuff. We’ve focused on candidates’ IQ and EQ, and now we need to focus on their AQ: adaptability quotient.”

As a general concept, adaptability refers to a person’s willingness and ability to alter their behavior to accommodate changing circumstances or situations. The fascinating (read challenging) thing for both leaders and organizations is that adaptability is a complex construct, dependent on a range of elements and criteria such as the emotional investment a person has in a situation or setting, their underlying psychology, and the environment they are operating in.

Some elements of adaptability are a function of a person’s underlying traits. For example, some people are particularly hardy, whether as a result of their fundamental psychological makeup (nature), or as a result of them having experiences which have helped them understand what they are capable of doing (nurture). Hardy people are more likely to withstand challenges that come with adaptation, and may even see them as positive opportunities to grow.

Other elements of adaptability are a function of a person’s inborn preferences. The easiest example of preferences, and the one most people are familiar with, is the Introversion/Extroversion preference, which refers to how people prefer to interact with the world around them. Introverts tend to be stimulated by their internal world, whereas extroverts tend to like stimulus that comes from the outside, such as interaction with others. Consider then that some people will prefer to process changes on their own, or in small groups, while others may prefer to experience ‘new’ as part of a larger group, or with considerably more interactivity.

While a person’s adaptability is guided in a large part by these traits and preferences, the environment in which that person operates also plays a significant, and often underappreciated, role in supporting adaptability. This can be summarized quite simply as: in the right environment, even the most change averse person can be willing to adapt, and equally in the wrong environment, even the most adaptable among us will prefer to play it safe.

Now, more than ever, organizations need to understand and support the development and demonstration of adaptability. According to the World Economic Forum, 40% of jobs that exist today will not exist in 10 years’ time, and McKinsey & Co. forecast that 375 million people may need to switch occupations and learn new skills. The rise of technology has incentivized existing industries to adapt in recent years, but that push is becoming a pull as social realities like ‘The Great Resignation’, and working from home, push organizations to change the way they interact with and relate to both customers and their own workforces. The return on investment of developing adaptability in organizations comes from increased retention and attraction, increased innovation, and employee engagement. But while ROI is of course attractive, survival of the organization may be the true cardinal call for AQ to become a key area of development for organizations.

History is littered with examples of businesses that failed to adapt to the changing environment around them. Blockbuster’s fall from dominance in the video rental/viewing market is perhaps one of the clearest. It’s not that Netflix had access to technology that Blockbuster didn’t back in 1997, and Blockbuster even had a competitive advantage of name recognition and a US membership base of over 43 million at its peak.

Yet still Blockbuster failed to adapt, and Netflix went on to garner over 221 million subscribers worldwide. Of course, the need to adapt never ends. For a variety of reasons, Netflix has, in the past year, started to see a drop in subscribers attributed to increased subscription costs and growing competition. Just as Netflix took the crown from Blockbuster, now it must adapt or else be the subject of future examples of failed adaptation.

In the past, leaders have been able to draw from a range of models and approaches as a way to help them understand adaptability, such as William Bridges ‘Transitions’ model. While many of the existing approaches help us to understand ‘how’ a person adapts, and what behaviors leaders should expect from people as they move through changes in their work environments, few have explored the ‘why’. Without that knowledge, it can be challenging for many leaders to create supportive, psychologically healthy workplaces where people are supported to adapt. Because adapt they must.

In the same way that the key to unlocking the potential of emotional intelligence is by first understanding the construct, and then identifying the areas for development, the same goes for AQ. Leaders who want to support adaptable behaviors in others must first learn the elements of adaptability, and what makes one person adaptable when another is not. Leaders also need to be sure that they don’t make the flawed assumption that their own approach to adaptability, or the way in which they experience their work environment, is the same as the way others experience. It is these concepts and more that we will continue to explore in the coming months.

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