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Wanted: Workers Who Can Adapt to Change

Your business will suffer if your employees aren't flexible.

Business people climbing a ladder to reach the top of the sky.

​Maybe it has been so incremental that you haven’t really noticed, but it’s likely that your business isn’t the same as it was just a few short years ago. Technology, which has played a huge role in shaping the world of work, is just one factor contributing to this change. The dynamic nature of 21st century organizations is another: They acquire other companies, expand to other parts of the world, shrink product offerings, outsource projects and so on. Through it all, though, the demand on the employees remains the same: They must adapt.

Adaptability involves an individual’s ability and willingness to respond to change. The U.S. Army and other organizations have been studying adaptive performance for at least a decade because of the high value—and increasing importance—of the practice.

How can HR professionals select employees who will perform well in an environment that requires continuous learning?

For one thing, they can focus more on a job candidate’s interpersonal skills and character traits, like integrity and reliability, and less on his or her technical abilities, since the demand for those is likely to change over time. For example, consider an entry-level incumbent who may not have all the skills required for a project but who demonstrates a strong desire to learn and is deeply motivated by the organization’s mission. You can likely fill that skills gaps with technical training. 

But even when you accept as a given that you’ll need to provide training, how can you make sure it is effective?

Start with the hiring process. While you probably won’t eliminate the need for technical experience altogether, identify candidates who are adaptive—and likely to respond well to training—and factor that information into your decision-making process.

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Research has identified the following three characteristics that can help predict whether an individual will effectively respond to change:

High cognitive ability. People with elevated cognitive capacity tend to be better equipped to deal with mentally demanding situations, in part due to their ability to learn new tasks or technologies more quickly. (The 2016 Future of Jobs report from the World Economic Forum concluded that aspects of cognitive ability, such as complex problem-solving and critical thinking, will make up half of the top 10 skills workers will need in 2020.)

Conscientiousness. When things get tough, the tough keep going. Highly conscientious employees are more likely to struggle through uncertainty to complete a task.

Openness to experience. People who score favorably on personality tests for this trait are more willing to revise their initial approaches based on new experiences and information.

You can measure each of these three characteristics in multiple ways, including through off-the-shelf assessments. If your organization or the position you’re hiring for is dynamic, keep these attributes in mind during the selection process. In addition to predicting adaptability, this information will help you to better predict a person’s work performance across jobs and industries. As exponential changes continue to shape the new world of work, you’ll need employees who will adapt along with it.   

Shonna Waters is vice president of research at SHRM.

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