Train Your Brain for Change

Adaptability is critical to any leader’s success, emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman writes.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

Change is the only constant in the business world; leaders must be skilled at adapting to the disruptions so commonplace these days. Adaptability, one of the 12 competencies in my model of Emotional Intelligence, is core to any leader’s success, especially those at the top. Many forces drive the need for change, from market issues to political upheavals. Savvy leaders know the question isn’t if change will happen; it is when and how much. They know they must be able to adapt, the quicker the better. But actually doing so isn’t easy.

What are barriers to Adaptability?

The inability to change comes from both inside and out. From the inside, we each have routine habits that may be efficient ways for getting things done. When we repeat the same actions, we reinforce the brain patterns that let us execute a given routine without conscious thought. Such “running on autopilot” is useful for activities that are truly routine, like brushing your teeth or finding your way from the parking lot to your office. Psychologists call these “behavioral scripts.” But relying too heavily on them keeps us from being aware of our behavior and unable to choose alternatives.

External barriers include too little information about other options, or lack of experience in diverse settings. Many leaders live in what I think of as “feedback deserts.” Very few of their colleagues are willing to give them honest feedback or feel safe enough to provide information that contradicts the leader’s views. And the higher you go in the organization, the fewer the people who are willing to be totally candid with you.

While acting on autopilot can be efficient for some activities and interacting with people who agree with us feels comfortable, those situations reduce opportunities for leaders to develop the skills to face changes, to be adaptable. Acting from mental and emotional habits reinforces those routines in our brains, making it harder to shift to a fresh perspective or way of doing things. 

Breaking down barriers to Adaptability

The good news is that Adaptability, like each EI competency, is a skill leaders can develop. And, the EI competencies build on each other. Three keys to developing adaptability can be summed up as “Listen Inside,” “Look Outside,” and “Step Outside.”

  • Listen Inside means tapping into emotional self-awareness to recognize what you are feeling, how it impacts your behavior, and whether you are operating from habit.
  • Look Outside is shorthand for looking beyond your usual information sources, paying attention to data that contradicts your current thoughts. This means tapping into skills in organizational awareness, another EI competency.
  • Step Outside involves intentionally stepping beyond your comfort zone and seeking out new experiences, opinions, and environments.  

With the expanded information these three steps provide, you can question whether your routine mode of operating fits the current context. If it doesn’t, it’s time to explore new ways of thinking or doing things, try them on, and see what works. While this is easier said than done, it all starts with paying attention, with noticing where routines are helpful and recognizing when habits get in the way of reaching your goal. Through this process, you’ll break the barriers to adaptability, and become a more resilient leader.

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification.