Adaptive Leadership

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About Adaptive Leadership

The need to be flexible and adaptable is a common requirement for people as well as the organisations they create, if they wish to continue to survive effectively in a changing environment.

Adapting to changing situations is a constant activity for everyone. Those who can adapt quickly, without causing distress to themselves and others, are more resilient and more active than those who can’t. Being active has features of being alert, inquisitive, energised, motivated and engaged.

An aim for formal organisations, as represented by its leaders, is to be active and alert to risks in the environment that may place pressure on the organisation to adapt. Typically, the risks that formal organisations need to be alert towards are –

a) environmental - economic, political, market;

b) organisational – products, services, reputation, performance, workforce; and

c) technological - information technology, and technological development.

Leaders with the capacity to interpret and understand the external environment and the implications for the organisation, have a major challenge in changing the organisation to face up to and capitalise from the external challenges.

Most organisations are a blend of two types –

  • a primary organisation where the workforce has similar goals as the organisation, and the two are aligned; and
  • a secondary organisation where the workforce has different goals to organisational goals and the two are not aligned, and may be in conflict.

The approaches to managing each type may be different.

In a primary organisation management may rely on the alignment of goals to ensure that the workforce is sufficiently motivated to achieve the goals of the organisation, whilst in a secondary organisation the workforce may need to be controlled in a more overt and directional manner for the organisational goals to be achieved.

The main difference is that those working in a secondary organisation may respond best to being told what to do, in a manner that doesn’t cause distress, whilst those working in a primary organisation may respond best to being convinced about what to do.

In simple terms, the strategies for change that might be used to bring change about would be a strategy of imposition for those working in a secondary organisation, and a strategy of conviction for those in a primary organisation. In a typically blended organisation both strategies may be used simultaneously.

It is rare for an organisation to be solely one type or another. Most organisations have secondary characteristics, such as policies, rules, procedures and protocols, each of which is intended to be the script that the workforce should follow.

More unusual are organisations that are solely primary where policies, procedure and protocols are at a minimum. These are often start up companies, where innovation and inquisitiveness are considered of high value, and where rules and regulations are seen as impediments to progress.

Solely secondary organisations are, also, unusual. Most organisations require their workforce to use discretion under some circumstances. It is the imbalance between individual discretion and the requirement to follow protocols that can, sometimes, plunge an organisation into a state of vulnerability because it cannot respond quickly and effectively to pressures for change, or demand for action, because the policies, procedures and protocols are not designed for such circumstances.

Whilst solely secondary organisations might be rare, nevertheless, the features of a secondary organisation are often being applied in organisations that rely on individual discretion. Any regulatory driven organisation, such as the pharmaceutical industry, medicine, police, social services, requires certain protocols and procedures to be followed, but in following them, personal discretion is expected and required.

The mixture of discretion and the application of protocols and procedures often create a form of bureaucracy where there is a risk that the requirements of protocols and procedures override the discretion of the individual using them. This has implications for measuring performance. Often the application of protocols and procedures becomes the measurement, missing completely the significance of personal discretion.

The danger is that these types of organisation become inflexible and unable to adapt effectively to internal and external pressures, and the protocols and procedures, built up over time, are perceived to be the core of the organisation and, seemingly, cannot be adapted to changing situations.

Such organisations are often seen to be out of touch with the environment around them. Almost all of the public sector, including the education sector, has characteristics described above. The charitable sector has strong regulation that may inhibit responsiveness to changes in their environment. The private sector has to respond to external pressures for change to survive, as it has no safety net. The banking sector, which is private sector and a safety net, has boomeranged from being overly flexible to now being dominated by protocols and procedures. This limits individual worker discretion to respond to customer needs. The banking sector is seen to be wholly out of touch with what the market requires and appears to have little inclination to respond flexibly. For the sector to survive, it will become more flexible and adaptable, once the safety net is removed.

The challenge is how to encourage a workforce to adapt flexibly to internal and external pressures for change, given the constraints described above?

One approach is to adopt the Adaptive Leadership process. This plays to the idea that most organisations are primary organisations where the goals of the individual are similar to the goals of the organisation, even in organisations that are driven by regulation, protocols and procedures.

Adaptive Leadership is a process.

It is based on shared responsibility for the organisation, shared by the workforce as a whole.

The expectation is that the workforce will address every issue relating to the success of the organisation; that individuals will offer unsolicited ideas; that everyone learns from each other and takes a lead in situations.

Certain individuals retain strategic authority, but base their authority on reflecting the responsibility of the workforce. They become agents for the workforce, at the same time as providing overall direction.

Adaptive leadership has other benefits:

  • Sharing responsibility enhances staff engagement;
  • it enhances trust and commitment;
  • it can lower psychological distress and
  • lower the costs of psychological presenteeism.

Principles of Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive Leadership can apply 4 principles that encourage the engagement of followers in helping an organisation adapt to its environment:

  • The understanding of the underlying purpose of the organisation
  • The utility of people skills/mix/experience in assisting with adaptation
  • A tolerance of ambiguity
  • A freedom to act

These principles accord strongly with those that support an approach that promotes commitment, trust and engagement within organisations. Commitment and trust between the leader and followers is the bedrock for Adaptive Leadership.

The focus for Adaptive Leaders

Adaptive Leaders have the characteristics associated with clear direction with committed ambition, a strongly seductive characteristic in individuals.

Adaptive Leaders exert strategic influence on their environment; they are active in pursuing opportunities for the organisation within a complex environment; they foresee opportunities; they are personally flexible and entertain diverse views and opinions.

Adaptive Leaders are willing to experiment, and take calculated risks; they encourage innovation, and have a style that is personally open.

Adaptive Leaders learn how to follow, and followers learn how to lead. This is the essence of the approach.

Overall Adaptive Leadership offers an opportunity to achieve peak organisational and individual performance by offering the individual the sensation of being responsible and ‘owning’ part of the organisation. This has significant influence on the motivation and commitment which the individual has for his or her work and for the organisation as a whole, and is a trigger for peak performance.

In-house Adaptive Leadership Programme

To discuss running an Adaptive Leadership Programme in your organisation, please request more details here or call Barbara Leigh on 01242 241882.



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