Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Vivamus convallis sem tellus, vitae egestas felis vestibule ut.

Error message details.

Reuse Permissions

Request permission to republish or redistribute SHRM content and materials.

Viewpoint: How to Develop an Agile Workforce

A man is jumping over a concrete ramp.

​Workforce agility is needed now more than ever. Facing increasing competition, shrinking product life cycles and rapidly evolving customer interests, organizations are left with the option of either becoming agile or facing a slow death as today's operations and procedures become tomorrow's obstacles.

Consider the retail industry. In what has been termed "the apocalyptic retail meltdown," companies such as Toys R Us, Sears, RadioShack, Gap Inc., Kmart, Ann Taylor and Claire's have either filed for bankruptcy or shut many, if not all, of their stores. 

It's easy to suggest that external market demands are the root cause of these companies' struggles. But just like with companies that have come and gone before them, the real culprit is that they lacked the agility needed to adapt to their changing market conditions.

How Do You Create an Agile Workforce?

What is agility? It's an organization's ability to alter its direction or adjust to operate successfully. An agile organization requires its workforce to swiftly adapt to the changing needs of customers, employees and the marketplace. Being agile is a challenge HR should embrace.

"Given the velocity of change in organizations, we look to our people to quickly embrace and make the changes a reality. For us to be agile, we need to focus on unlearning the old and learning the new," said Emily Lundi-Mallett, executive director of talent and organization development at Ingram Micro, a 30,000-employee tech company headquartered in Irvine, Calif. "This means that we need to focus on our employees' mindsets, which will determine the pace at which the change takes place." 

Mindsets are the employees' mental lenses that orient them toward a unique way of understanding an experience and guide them toward corresponding actions and responses. Mindsets drive employee thinking, learning and behavior.

As a result, if an organization wants to enhance the agility of its workforce, it needs to ensure that its employees possess mindsets that allow them to view change positively and behave in ways that facilitate effective change.

"Understanding employees' mindsets allows us and our employees to quickly assess where they are and where they need to go," Lundi-Mallett said. "Focusing on mindsets allows us to enhance learning, innovation, development and growth."

Unfortunately, company leaders often overlook employee mindsets during periods of change. This is largely because C-level executives often don't know what mindsets they need to promote and develop to enhance their employees' agility.

There are three mindsets that are necessary for employee agility. HR can take a lead role in correcting mistakes made in the C-suite by understanding these mindsets. Each one has been studied for decades by psychology, management, marketing and educational scholars, but each has been studied in isolation. By combining these mindsets, a relatively simple framework emerges for driving agility in an organization.

Employee mindsets exist on a continuum ranging from negative to positive, and the three mindsets necessary for agility lie on the positive end of each continuum. They are:

1. Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is the belief that employees can change their talents, abilities and intelligence. This differs from a fixed mindset, which is the belief that employees can't change these key attributes.

The growth mindset dictates employees' priorities, which influences their ability to navigate effectively during a period of change. Specifically, those with a fixed mindset prioritize looking good and validation, because if they don't believe they can improve their talents, abilities and intelligence, it is important for them at least to be seen as having the ability to do so. As a consequence, they:

  • Want to avoid failure, because that would indicate that are failing in their jobs.
  • Want to avoid challenges, because challenges have a high likelihood of leading to failure.
  • Believe that the need to exert effort is an indication that they don't possess the talents, abilities and intelligence necessary to succeed.

Since employees with a growth mindset believe they can change their talents, abilities and intelligence, they are less concerned with how others see them. So rather than seek validation and avoid failure, their priority is to learn and grow. Their growth mindset allows them to see failure, challenges and effort as opportunities to develop their skills, so they embrace them.

Someone with a growth mindset is far more agile. Yet roughly half of all employees have more of a fixed mindset, say HR leaders.

"Today's health care system is confronting significant challenges that have resulted in an expensive and fragmented system that's ripe for change, disruption and innovation," said Sue Vandersall, senior director of talent management at CVS Health in Woonsocket, R.I. "At CVS Health, we are leading that change with a purpose-driven agenda focused on innovation and creating new ways to improve health care delivery."

Vandersall said that in order to bring about positive change in such a dynamic environment, CVS Health is looking to "attract, retain and develop employees with a growth mindset." She continued, "We have found that employees who embrace a growth mindset enjoy challenges, strive to learn and consistently see potential to develop new skills. They're also more collaborative and innovative and aren't afraid to take risks, which is precisely the kind of culture required to lead such a bold transformation in health care."

2. Open Mindset

When employees possess an open mindset, they listen to others' ideas and are willing to take those ideas seriously. This differs from a closed mindset, which shuts out others' ideas.

"Of course, closed-minded people would never consider that they could actually be closed-minded. In fact, their perceived open-mindedness is what's so dangerous," said Shane Parrish, founder of Farnam Street Media and a partner at investment firm Syrus Partners in Ottawa, Canada.

Employees with a closed mindset are focused on being right, as well as being seen as being right. As such, they are uncomfortable with ambiguity. If they seek out ideas from others, they seek only those that confirm their perspective, and they see disagreements as threats.

Employees with an open mindset focus on finding truth, even if that means they're wrong. As such, they are more comfortable with ambiguity, seek out new and different perspectives, and see disagreements as opportunities to improve their thinking.

Agility requires seeing new and different ideas as opportunities to think and navigate ambiguity more effectively, not as threats to one's self or position.

3. Promotion Mindset

When employees possess a promotion mindset, they're focused on winning and gains. When individuals possess a prevention mindset, they are focused on not losing and avoiding problems.

Such mindsets lead employees to navigate change very differently. Employees with a prevention mindset are primarily concerned about their ship not sinking. As such, they avoid problems, don't take risks and strive to maintain the status quo. Employees with a promotion mindset are focused on what is truly important: reaching a specific goal, objective or destination. They anticipate problems, are open to taking risks (they think, "No risk, no rewards"), and seek to advance rather than maintain the status quo.

The ultimate difference between these two mindsets is that those with a prevention mindset are blown about by the changing winds and end up at a destination not of their choosing. But employees with a promotion mindset are willing to brave the gusts to end up in a destination of their proactive design.

Agility and change require the anticipation of problems, risk taking and moving beyond the status quo.

Improving Your Workforce's Mindsets

"Mindsets are the catalyst that propels the organization forward with a focus on future possibilities," Lundi-Mallet said. "It changes the dialogue and allows for a flexible, agile solution to growth and opportunity."

An organization cannot promote and develop agility when employees' mindsets resist change. And this resistance is only amplified when the stress and challenges associated with external market demands intensify. In such instances, employees' survival instincts will kick in, and they will fall back to their old ways of thinking, which are almost always out of sync with changing environmental demands.

HR professionals at Ingram Micro and CVS Health recognize this and ensure that their managers are educated about mindsets and integrate the lessons into the programs they design. They've adopted a constant focus on driving agility and positioning themselves to meet their increasing, changing market demands. This will help ensure that their employees do not fall back into conservative, rigid, old habits when adaptation and pivoting is needed within an uncertain and dynamic environment.

To focus on and improve employees' mindsets, HR professionals must do three things:

  1. Make employees aware of which mindsets are most conducive to agility. Without knowing the mindsets to strive toward, employees are going to have a hard time seeing the value of changing them.
  2. Help employees become aware of their own current mindsets. Most people aren't conscious of their mindsets. Most people "lose track" of them, like when they wear sunglasses for a long time and don't realize they're seeing the world differently from how others are seeing it. 
  3. Help employees identify what mindsets they want to develop. By identifying their current mindsets and the mindsets they want to develop, they will be empowered to chart a course for improvement. This process is not unlike changing glasses. Once people become conscious of the fact that they are wearing glasses that negatively affect their vision, all they have to do is take them off and replace them with better ones.

If organizations want to develop a truly agile workforce to better face external market demands, they should focus on and develop the foundational drivers of agility: growth, open and promotion mindsets.

Ryan Gottfredson, Ph.D., is a leadership consultant, trainer, coach and researcher in Anaheim Hills, Calif., as well as a leadership and management professor at the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics at California State University-Fullerton. To help HR professionals better understand their mindsets, Gottfredson has created a free personal mindset assessment that can be used to identify the degree to which you possess the growth, open and promotion mindsets discussed in this article.


​An organization run by AI is not a futuristic concept. Such technology is already a part of many workplaces and will continue to shape the labor market and HR. Here's how employers and employees can successfully manage generative AI and other AI-powered systems.