The concept of adaptability, as discussed in my co-authored book, The Platinum Rule, is a two-part process, combining the skills of flexibility with versatility.
Flexibility is your willingness to adapt. It’s your attitude. Versatility is your ability to adapt. It’s your aptitude. People with adaptability skills are both flexible and versatile. Of course, our level of adaptability can be stronger in some situations than others. One reason for the gap between our ideal versus our actual level of adaptability is that it’s not an easy skill to learn, which is why it’s important to know the 10 characteristics that undermine your ability to adapt—both the negative traits and the positive characteristics. We’ll start with flexibility.
The first half of adaptability skills: Flexibility
High flexibility is characterized by these five attributes: “confident,” “tolerant,” “empathic,” “positive” and “respectful.” The first attribute, confidence, means that you believe in yourself; you trust your own judgment and resourcefulness.
The second high-flexibility attribute is tolerance—that is, being open to accepting opinions and practices different from your own. We can easily think of people who are intolerant of others because of religious or political beliefs. Those intolerant folks may attract like-minded people, but they don’t gain the attention of a diverse audience.
Third is empathy. One root of the word empathy is pathos, which means “feeling” in Greek. Empathy is a term for deep feeling. It means, “I feel what you feel. I can put myself in your shoes.” Another word with the same root, sympathy, means merely acknowledging someone else’s feelings. It results in reactions such as kindness and pity, and it comes from the head. Empathy results in feeling the pain, joy and other emotions of the other person, and it comes from the heart.
The fourth high-flexibility attribute is positiveness. The Power of Positive Thinking, authored by the late Norman Vincent Peale, D.Div., has remained popular since its publication in 1952 because it contains such a universal truth: A positive attitude leads to positive events in your life.
And the fifth high-flexibility characteristic is respect for others. This is the sincere desire to understand, consider and accept other people’s choices, commitments and needs in relation to yours.
The other side of the adaptability coin is the negative traits that undermine your adaptability skills. If you recognize any of these in yourself, try to improve your adaptability by eliminating that negative tendency from your behavior.
Characteristics of negative flexibility
- Rigidity: “It’s my way or the highway.”
- Competition with others: “I’m smarter, prettier, etc., than you.”
- Dissatisfaction: “No, I don’t like it this way. Why can’t we…”
- Unapproachability: “Don’t bother me unless it’s worth my time and you agree with me.”
- Difficulty with ambiguity: “Let’s nail this down right now.”
The second half of adaptability skills: Versatility
The five high-versatility traits are “resilience,” “vision,” “attentiveness,” “competence” and “self-correction.” Resilience means knowing how to overcome setbacks, barriers and limited resources. Mainly, it has to do with your emotional strength. Remember Raiders of the Lost Ark? Lawrence Kasdan’s hugely successful script was turned down multiple times before someone was willing to take a chance. How many cold calls that turn out to be, “No thank you,” can you bounce back from? If you keep on going until you succeed, that’s resilience.
Vision is the second high-versatility trait. I think it’s easy to see why someone who has the power to imagine, to be creative and to suggest alternatives may be more influential than someone who can’t.
Next is attentiveness. That means being aware of elements in the environment. This adaptability skill can be as simple as noticing when someone is getting bored, or sensing that now is not the right time to present your ideas. It’s knowing when to act and when not to act. It means paying attention to more than your own needs.
The fourth high-versatility trait is competence. Competence involves a problem-solving ability that goes beyond your specialty. If you don’t know how to answer a question or fix a problem, you can find someone who does. It means having a can-do attitude and following through on it.
And the fifth high-versatility trait is self-correction. That means that once you initiate a project, you ask for feedback and place high priority on problem-solving, not on being right. Having this adaptability skill means you’re able to see when you’ve developed a nonproductive pattern in your behavior. It’s being able to say, “I think this approach isn’t working. I’d better try something different.”
Characteristics of negative versatility
- “Subjectivity”: “This is the way it looks to ME.”
- “Bluntness”: “That’s a stupid idea!”
- “Resistance to change”: “This is the way we’ve always done it.”
- “Single-mindedness”: “It’s my goal and nothing else matters.”
- “Unreasonable risk-taking”: “I’m going to jump; won’t you come with me?”
Developing your adaptability skills allows you to understand how different types of people would like to be treated. It does not mean imitating the other person’s behavior. It does mean adjusting your behavior to be more in line with the other person’s preferences. The effectively adaptable person meets other people’s needs as well as their own. They know how to negotiate relationships in a way that allows everyone to win. With adaptability you are practicing the spirit of “the golden rule,” which I call “the platinum rule,” and treating the other person the way you would want to be treated.
This article was originally published in June 2008 and was updated April 2023. Photo by Look Studio/Shutterstock