Miriam was only 21 when she met Nick. She was a photographer, fresh out of college, waiting tables. He was 16 years her senior and a local business owner who had worked in finance. He was charming and charismatic; he took her out on fancy dates and paid for everything. She quickly fell into his orbit.
It began with one credit card. At the time, it was the only one she had. Nick would max it out with $5,000 worth of business purchases and promptly pay it off the next day. Miriam, who asked me not to use their real names for fear of interfering with their ongoing divorce proceedings, discovered that this was boosting her credit score. Having grown up with a single dad in a low-income household, she trusted Nick’s know-how over her own. He readily encouraged the dynamic, telling her she didn’t understand finance. She opened up more credit cards for him under her name.
The trouble started three years in. Nick asked her to quit her job to help out with his business. She did. He told her to go to grad school and not worry about compounding her existing student debt. She did. He promised to take care of everything, and she believed him. Soon after, he stopped settling her credit card balances. Her score began to crater.
Still, Miriam stayed with him. They got married. They had three kids. Then one day, the FBI came to their house and arrested him. In federal court, the judge convicted him on nearly $250,000 of wire fraud. Miriam discovered the full extent of the tens of thousands of dollars in debt he’d racked up in her name. “The day that he went to prison, I had $250 cash, a house in foreclosure, a car up for repossession, three kids,” she says. “I went within a month from having a nanny and living in a nice house and everything to just really abject poverty.”
Miriam is a survivor of what’s known as “coerced debt,” a form of abuse usually perpetrated by an intimate partner or family member. While economic abuse is a long-standing problem, digital banking has made it easier to open accounts and take out loans in a victim’s name, says Carla Sanchez-Adams, an attorney at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. In the era of automated credit-scoring algorithms, the repercussions can also be far more devastating.
Credit scores have been used for decades to assess consumer creditworthiness, but their scope is far greater now that they are powered by algorithms: not only do they consider vastly more data, in both volume and type, but they increasingly affect whether you can buy a car, rent an apartment, or get a full-time job. Their comprehensive influence means that if your score is ruined, it can be nearly impossible to recover. Worse, the algorithms are owned by private companies that don’t divulge how they come to their decisions. Victims can be sent in a downward spiral that sometimes ends in homelessness or a return to their abuser.
Credit-scoring algorithms are not the only ones that affect people’s economic well-being and access to basic services. Algorithms now decide which children enter foster care, which patients receive medical care, which families get access to stable housing. Those of us with means can pass our lives unaware of any of this. But for low-income individuals, the rapid growth and adoption of automated decision-making systems has created a hidden web of interlocking traps.
Fortunately, a growing group of civil lawyers are beginning to organize around this issue. Borrowing a playbook from the criminal defense world’s pushback against risk-assessment algorithms, they’re seeking to educate themselves on these systems, build a community, and develop litigation strategies. “Basically every civil lawyer is starting to deal with this stuff, because all of our clients are in some way or another being touched by these systems,” says Michele Gilman, a clinical law professor at the University of Baltimore. “We need to wake up, get training. If we want to be really good holistic lawyers, we need to be aware of that.”
“Am I going to cross-examine an algorithm?”
Gilman has been practicing law in Baltimore for 20 years. In her work as a civil lawyer and a poverty lawyer, her cases have always come down to the same things: representing people who’ve lost access to basic needs, like housing, food, education, work, or health care. Sometimes that means facing off with a government agency. Other times it’s with a credit reporting agency, or a landlord. Increasingly, the fight over a client’s eligibility now involves some kind of algorithm.
“This is happening across the board to our clients,” she says. “They’re enmeshed in so many different algorithms that are barring them from basic services. And the clients may not be aware of that, because a lot of these systems are invisible.”
She doesn’t remember exactly when she realized that some eligibility decisions were being made by algorithms. But when that transition first started happening, it was rarely obvious. Once, she was representing an elderly, disabled client who had inexplicably been cut off from her Medicaid-funded home health-care assistance. “We couldn’t find out why,” Gilman remembers. “She was getting sicker, and normally if you get sicker, you get more hours, not less.”
Not until they were standing in the courtroom in the middle of a hearing did the witness representing the state reveal that the government had just adopted a new algorithm. The witness, a nurse, couldn’t explain anything about it. “Of course not—they bought it off the shelf,” Gilman says. “She’s a nurse, not a computer scientist. She couldn’t answer what factors go into it. How is it weighted? What are the outcomes that you’re looking for? So there I am with my student attorney, who’s in my clinic with me, and it’s like, ‘Oh, am I going to cross-examine an algorithm?’”
For Kevin De Liban, an attorney at Legal Aid of Arkansas, the change was equally insidious. In 2014, his state also instituted a new system for distributing Medicaid-funded in-home assistance, cutting off a whole host of people who had previously been eligible. At the time, he and his colleagues couldn’t identify the root problem. They only knew that something was different. “We could recognize that there was a change in assessment systems from a 20-question paper questionnaire to a 283-question electronic questionnaire,” he says.
It was two years later, when an error in the algorithm once again brought it under legal scrutiny, that De Liban finally got to the bottom of the issue. He realized that nurses were telling patients, “Well, the computer did it—it’s not me.” “That’s what tipped us off,” he says. “If I had known what I knew in 2016, I would have probably done a better job advocating in 2014,” he adds.
“One person walks through so many systems on a day-to-day basis”
Gilman has since grown a lot more savvy. From her vantage point representing clients with a range of issues, she’s observed the rise and collision of two algorithmic webs. The first consists of credit-reporting algorithms, like the ones that snared Miriam, which affect access to private goods and services like cars, homes, and employment. The second encompasses algorithms adopted by government agencies, which affect access to public benefits like health care, unemployment, and child support services.
On the credit-reporting side, the growth of algorithms has been driven by the proliferation of data, which is easier than ever to collect and share. Credit reports aren’t new, but these days their footprint is far more expansive. Consumer reporting agencies, including credit bureaus, tenant screening companies, or check verification services, amass this information from a wide range of sources: public records, social media, web browsing, banking activity, app usage, and more. The algorithms then assign people “worthiness” scores, which figure heavily into background checks performed by lenders, employers, landlords, even schools.
Government agencies, on the other hand, are driven to adopt algorithms when they want to modernize their systems. The push to adopt web-based apps and digital tools began in the early 2000s and has continued with a move toward more data-driven automated systems and AI. There are good reasons to seek these changes. During the pandemic, many unemployment benefit systems struggled to handle the massive volume of new requests, leading to significant delays. Modernizing these legacy systems promises faster and more reliable results.
But the software procurement process is rarely transparent, and thus lacks accountability. Public agencies often buy automated decision-making tools directly from private vendors. The result is that when systems go awry, the individuals affected——and their lawyers—are left in the dark. “They don’t advertise it anywhere,” says Julia Simon-Mishel, an attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance. “It’s often not written in any sort of policy guides or policy manuals. We’re at a disadvantage.”
The lack of public vetting also makes the systems more prone to error. One of the most egregious malfunctions happened in Michigan in 2013. After a big effort to automate the state’s unemployment benefits system, the algorithm incorrectly flagged over 34,000 people for fraud. “It caused a massive loss of benefits,” Simon-Mishel says. “There were bankruptcies; there were unfortunately suicides. It was a whole mess.”
Low-income individuals bear the brunt of the shift toward algorithms. They are the people most vulnerable to temporary economic hardships that get codified into consumer reports, and the ones who need and seek public benefits. Over the years, Gilman has seen more and more cases where clients risk entering a vicious cycle. “One person walks through so many systems on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “I mean, we all do. But the consequences of it are much more harsh for poor people and minorities.”
She brings up a current case in her clinic as an example. A family member lost work because of the pandemic and was denied unemployment benefits because of an automated system failure. The family then fell behind on rent payments, which led their landlord to sue them for eviction. While the eviction won’t be legal because of the CDC’s moratorium, the lawsuit will still be logged in public records. Those records could then feed into tenant-screening algorithms, which could make it harder for the family to find stable housing in the future. Their failure to pay rent and utilities could also be a ding on their credit score, which once again has repercussions. “If they are trying to set up cell-phone service or take out a loan or buy a car or apply for a job, it just has these cascading ripple effects,” Gilman says.
“Every case is going to turn into an algorithm case”
In September, Gilman, who is currently a faculty fellow at the Data and Society research institute, released a report documenting all the various algorithms that poverty lawyers might encounter. Called Poverty Lawgorithms, it’s meant to be a guide for her colleagues in the field. Divided into specific practice areas like consumer law, family law, housing, and public benefits, it explains how to deal with issues raised by algorithms and other data-driven technologies within the scope of existing laws.
If a client is denied an apartment because of a poor credit score, for example, the report recommends that a lawyer first check whether the data being fed into the scoring system is accurate. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, reporting agencies are required to ensure the validity of their information, but this doesn’t always happen. Disputing any faulty claims could help restore the client’s credit and, thus, access to housing. The report acknowledges, however, that existing laws can only go so far. There are still regulatory gaps to fill, Gilman says.
Gilman hopes the report will be a wake-up call. Many of her colleagues still don’t realize any of this is going on, and they aren’t able to ask the right questions to uncover the algorithms. Those who are aware of the problem are scattered around the US, learning about, navigating, and fighting these systems in isolation. She sees an opportunity to connect them and create a broader community of people who can help one another. “We all need more training, more knowledge—not just in the law, but in these systems,” she says. “Ultimately it’s like every case is going to turn into an algorithm case.”
In the long run, she looks to the criminal legal world for inspiration. Criminal lawyers have been “ahead of the curve,” she says, in organizing as a community and pushing back against risk-assessment algorithms that determine sentencing. She wants to see civil lawyers do the same thing: create a movement to bring more public scrutiny and regulation to the hidden web of algorithms their clients face. “In some cases, it probably should just be shut down because there’s no way to make it equitable,” she says.
As for Miriam, after Nick’s conviction, she walked away for good. She moved with her three kids to a new state and connected with a nonprofit that supports survivors of coerced debt and domestic violence. Through them, she took a series of classes that taught her how to manage her finances. The organization helped her dismiss many of her coerced debts and learn more about credit algorithms. When she went to buy a car, her credit score just barely cleared the minimum with her dad as co-signer. Since then, her consistent payments on her car and her student debt have slowly replenished her credit score.
Miriam still has to stay vigilant. Nick has her Social Security number, and they’re not yet divorced. She worries constantly that he could open more accounts, take out more loans in her name. For a while, she checked her credit report daily for fraudulent activity. But these days, she also has something to look forward to. Her dad, in his mid-60s, wants to retire and move in. The two of them are now laser-focused on preparing to buy a home. “I’m pretty psyched about it. My goal is by the end of the year to get it to a 700,” she says of her score, “and then I am definitely home-buyer ready.”
“I’ve never lived in a house that I’ve owned, ever,” she adds. “He and I are working together to save for a forever home.”
Barely a week goes by without reports of some new mega-hack that’s exposed huge amounts of sensitive information, from people’s credit card details and health records to companies’ valuable intellectual property. The threat posed by cyberattacks is forcing governments, militaries, and businesses to explore more secure ways of transmitting information.
Today, sensitive data is typically encrypted and then sent across fiber-optic cables and other channels together with the digital “keys” needed to decode the information. The data and the keys are sent as classical bits—a stream of electrical or optical pulses representing 1s and 0s. And that makes them vulnerable. Smart hackers can read and copy bits in transit without leaving a trace.
Quantum communication takes advantage of the laws of quantum physics to protect data. These laws allow particles—typically photons of light for transmitting data along optical cables—to take on a state of superposition, which means they can represent multiple combinations of 1 and 0 simultaneously. The particles are known as quantum bits, or qubits.
The beauty of qubits from a cybersecurity perspective is that if a hacker tries to observe them in transit, their super-fragile quantum state “collapses” to either 1 or 0. This means a hacker can’t tamper with the qubits without leaving behind a telltale sign of the activity.
Some companies have taken advantage of this property to create networks for transmitting highly sensitive data based on a process called quantum key distribution, or QKD. In theory, at least, these networks are ultra-secure.
What is quantum key distribution?
QKD involves sending encrypted data as classical bits over networks, while the keys to decrypt the information are encoded and transmitted in a quantum state using qubits.
Various approaches, or protocols, have been developed for implementing QKD. A widely used one known as BB84 works like this. Imagine two people, Alice and Bob. Alice wants to send data securely to Bob. To do so, she creates an encryption key in the form of qubits whose polarization states represent the individual bit values of the key.
The qubits can be sent to Bob through a fiber-optic cable. By comparing measurements of the state of a fraction of these qubits—a process known as “key sifting”—Alice and Bob can establish that they hold the same key.
As the qubits travel to their destination, the fragile quantum state of some of them will collapse because of decoherence. To account for this, Alice and Bob next run through a process known as “key distillation,” which involves calculating whether the error rate is high enough to suggest that a hacker has tried to intercept the key.
If it is, they ditch the suspect key and keep generating new ones until they are confident that they share a secure key. Alice can then use hers to encrypt data and send it in classical bits to Bob, who uses his key to decode the information.
We’re already starting to see more QKD networks emerge. The longest is in China, which boasts a 2,032-kilometer (1,263-mile) ground link between Beijing and Shanghai. Banks and other financial companies are already using it to transmit data. In the US, a startup called Quantum Xchange has struck a deal giving it access to 500 miles (805 kilometers) of fiber-optic cable running along the East Coast to create a QKD network. The initial leg will link Manhattan with New Jersey, where many banks have large data centers.
Although QKD is relatively secure, it would be even safer if it could count on quantum repeaters.
What is a quantum repeater?
Materials in cables can absorb photons, which means they can typically travel for no more than a few tens of kilometers. In a classical network, repeaters at various points along a cable are used to amplify the signal to compensate for this.
QKD networks have come up with a similar solution, creating “trusted nodes” at various points. The Beijing-to-Shanghai network has 32 of them, for instance. At these waystations, quantum keys are decrypted into bits and then reencrypted in a fresh quantum state for their journey to the next node. But this means trusted nodes can’t really be trusted: a hacker who breached the nodes’ security could copy the bits undetected and thus acquire a key, as could a company or government running the nodes.
Ideally, we need quantum repeaters, or waystations with quantum processors in them that would allow encryption keys to remain in quantum form as they are amplified and sent over long distances. Researchers have demonstrated it’s possible in principle to build such repeaters, but they haven’t yet been able to produce a working prototype.
There’s another issue with QKD. The underlying data is still transmitted as encrypted bits across conventional networks. This means a hacker who breached a network’s defenses could copy the bits undetected, and then use powerful computers to try to crack the key used to encrypt them.
The most powerful encryption algorithms are pretty robust, but the risk is big enough to spur some researchers to work on an alternative approach known as quantum teleportation.
What is quantum teleportation?
This may sound like science fiction, but it’s a real method that involves transmitting data wholly in quantum form. The approach relies on a quantum phenomenon known as entanglement.
Quantum teleportation works by creating pairs of entangled photons and then sending one of each pair to the sender of data and the other to a recipient. When Alice receives her entangled photon, she lets it interact with a “memory qubit” that holds the data she wants to transmit to Bob. This interaction changes the state of her photon, and because it is entangled with Bob’s, the interaction instantaneously changes the state of his photon too.
In effect, this “teleports” the data in Alice’s memory qubit from her photon to Bob’s. The graphic below lays out the process in a little more detail:
Researchers in the US, China, and Europe are racing to create teleportation networks capable of distributing entangled photons. But getting them to scale will be a massive scientific and engineering challenge. The many hurdles include finding reliable ways of churning out lots of linked photons on demand, and maintaining their entanglement over very long distances—something that quantum repeaters would make easier.
Still, these challenges haven’t stopped researchers from dreaming of a future quantum internet.
What is a quantum internet?
Just like the traditional internet, this would be a globe-spanning network of networks. The big difference is that the underlying communications networks would be quantum ones.
It isn’t going to replace the internet as we know it today. Cat photos, music videos, and a great deal of non-sensitive business information will still move around in the form of classical bits. But a quantum internet will appeal to organizations that need to keep particularly valuable data secure. It could also be an ideal way to connect information flowing between quantum computers, which are increasingly being made available through the computing cloud.
China is in the vanguard of the push toward a quantum internet. It launched a dedicated quantum communications satellite called Micius a few years ago, and in 2017 the satellite helped stage the world’s first intercontinental, QKD-secured video conference, between Beijing and Vienna. A ground station already links the satellite to the Beijing-to-Shanghai terrestrial network. China plans to launch more quantum satellites, and several cities in the country are laying plans for municipal QKD networks.
Some researchers have warned that even a fully quantum internet may ultimately become vulnerable to new attacks that are themselves quantum based. But faced with the hacking onslaught that plagues today’s internet, businesses, governments, and the military are going to keep exploring the tantalizing prospect of a more secure quantum alternative.
Just when leaders need fresh thinking and decisiveness, they tend to fall back on tried-and-true ways. Five actions can transform your relationship with uncertainty and help you thrive.
Shutdowns and supply-chain hacks. Hybrid work, remote shopping, settling up via blockchain. The past year has made it abundantly clear, if it wasn’t already, that a volatile and complex world is serving up change at an accelerating pace.
Individuals and organizations need to be ready. That doesn’t mean reacting to the next challenge that comes our way but rather being prepared to meet it when it arrives. There’s one tool above all others that can help leaders do that: adaptability.
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Adaptability is the ability to learn flexibly and efficiently and to apply that knowledge across situations. It’s not so much a skill as a meta-skill—learning how to learn and being conscious of when to put that learner’s mind into action. By becoming aware of and open to change now, we can maintain control over uncertainty before pressures build to the point where altering course is much more difficult, or even futile.
Our research shows that adaptability is the critical success factor during periods of transformation and systemic change. It allows us to be faster and better at learning, and it orients us toward the opportunities ahead, not just the challenges.
Yet the same conditions that make adapting so important can also trigger fear, making us default to familiar patterns or whatever solutions worked the last time. We call this the “adaptability paradox”: when we most need to learn and change, we stick with what we know, often in a way that stifles learning and innovation. Even positive events, such as receiving a promotion or beginning a new workstream, can turn negative unless we can maintain a learning mindset while under pressure.
But people often don’t put in the hard work of learning and mastering something new unless there is compelling motivation to do so. When that motivation arrives, it’s often accompanied by pressure—to avert failure, for instance, or to attain a high-stakes reward or incentive.1
To avoid this trap, leaders must work on transforming their relationship with change and uncertainty by building adaptability as an evergreen skill that benefits themselves and their organizations at a deeper level.
This is not a natural skill—even for the most successful among us—but it can be nurtured. And the rewards are worth the effort: companies with strong cultures that emphasize adaptability turn in better financial performance than entities that lack those attributes, research shows.2
In this article, we delve into five steps that leaders can take to become more adaptable, including emphasizing both well-being and purpose, practicing an adaptive mindset, building deeper human connections, and making it safe to learn.
Why building an adaptability muscle is so important
The power of resilience has been amply demonstrated during the COVID-19 crisis. Although resilience and adaptability are linked, they are different in important ways. Resilience often entails responding well to an external event, while adaptability moves us from enduring a challenge to thriving beyond it. We don’t just “bounce back” from difficult situations—we “bounce forward” into new realms, learning to be more adaptable as our circumstances evolve and change.
Learning agility,3 emotional flexibility, and openness to experience are all part of a multidimensional understanding of adaptability.4 They help us maintain deliberate calm under pressure and display curiosity amid change. They allow us to respond in ways that are the opposite of a knee-jerk reaction by making thoughtful choices.
Studies have shown that adaptability is also linked to important psychological skills, ranging from coping to personal growth. In the workplace,5 higher levels of adaptability are associated with greater levels of learning ability and better performance, confidence, and creative output.6 Adaptability is also crucial for psychological and physical well-being and is linked to higher levels of social support and overall life satisfaction.7
Now that we’ve enumerated the benefits of adaptability, let’s go through the five ways leaders can invest in it to prepare for a fast-paced and uncertain future.
Step 1: Practice well-being as a foundational skill
From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, executives have made sure to check on employees’ health. But that may have been putting the cart before the horse: research shows that leaders experienced anxiety and burnout symptoms at unprecedented rates8 as they focused on others without restoring their own energy levels.
A Harvard Business Review–sponsored survey conducted in the fall of 2020 gathered feedback from more than 1,500 respondents from 46 countries9 —the majority of whom were at or above supervisor level. Eighty-five percent of these respondents said their well-being had declined, while 56 percent said their job demands had increased. Moreover, 62 percent who were struggling to manage their workloads said they had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often” in the previous three months.
The number of people reporting more symptoms of burnout has increased since then, not only in C-suites but also across organizations. When people are exhausted, they fall into a scarcity mindset (thinking about what they don’t have) and aren’t as adaptable or open to learning. We expect to see these mental-health and well-being challenges continue for at least the next year or two.
The best way to handle demanding situations is by investing in one’s own well-being first. Just like athletes who continually invest in their own physical and mental health—not only before a game or a race—leaders have to be fit to face whatever comes their way and to support others for however long it takes. Leaders should focus on allowing themselves to thrive, and then helping others to be at their physical, mental, and emotional best.10
The CEO of a global mobility tech company told us that when the pandemic began, he took advantage of not having to travel by restarting a daily running routine. He started at five kilometers a day, using the time and physical activity to reflect and refresh, eventually building his runs to marathon length. After injuring himself, however, he realized that he had begun to approach running as a goal to be achieved rather than as a nurturing practice to enjoy. So he shifted back to his original goal of giving himself time to reflect, which in turn helped him perform and nurture his team.
Research shows that taking deliberate breaks accelerates learning and skill acquisition. For example, a study of violin prodigies11 revealed that students who were quickest to master the instrument took regular and significant breaks, including naps between practice sessions, rather than playing for hours on end. In another study of people trying to perform a task involving new skills, those who took breaks to mentally reset improved much more quickly under performance pressure.12
Counter to what leaders may think, attending to one’s own physical well-being is not selfish. Rather, physical and mental health are necessary to build sound decision-making skills amid uncertainty (Exhibit 1).
Many leaders think they have to show their organizations that they are always “on,” never being out of pocket long or taking needed vacations. But research shows that leaders who are role models for well-being can have a positive impact across their organizations. They understand from their own experience that people learn better and faster when they are healthy and well-rested.
A McKinsey survey on employee experience found that taking care of one’s physical and mental health was associated with a 21 percent improvement in work effectiveness, a 46 percent improvement in employee engagement, and a 45 percent improvement in well-being. Organizations that invest in scaling well-being and improving employee experience have seen lower rates of employee turnover, higher ratings on innovation, and even increased Iong-term stock performance.13 They are also more frequently cited as great places to work.
Step 2: Make purpose your North Star and define your ‘nonnegotiables’
While learning is normally invigorating, it can feel daunting during challenging times. We often fall into the trap of attending to the most urgent tasks rather than what is the most important. That’s where a sense of purpose comes in: it offers a framework that makes hard work worthwhile and expands tolerance for change. When employees feel that their purpose is aligned with that of their organization, the benefits expand to include stronger engagement and self-efficacy, as well as heightened loyalty.
Purpose starts with exploring what truly matters to you and what you want to spend time on. As your North Star, your purpose can guide you through tough decisions and inspire you to move forward.
While purpose helps define what you hope to gain, it also frames what you don’t want to lose—your “nonnegotiables.” These are the vows you make to yourself that you will not break no matter what: I will coach junior colleagues; I will be home for my child’s birthday; I will take time off to see my parents. Even if they’re sometimes tough to execute, keeping these vows is worth it.
The link between well-being and purpose is strong. People who say that they are “living their purpose” at work report levels of well-being that are five times higher than those who say that they are not. Research shows they are also healthier, more productive, and more resilient. For their part, leaders who link their own purpose to that of their organization in a genuine fashion help their employees do the same, creating stronger relationships over time.
Step 3: Experience the world through an adaptability lens
Unless the brain learns something new, it will forecast what will happen based on what it has seen and learned before.14 That is why people default to certain behavioral patterns, especially under stress. Some want to control the situation. Others tend to see themselves as victims, claiming everything is out of their control and shutting down.
Our default patterns may serve to protect us in the moment. But ultimately, they may hinder our ability to adapt and respond in ways that a new situation requires. Often, we realize this is the case only after an interaction in which our default patterns have caused friction in a relationship. These can be missed opportunities to take a proactive approach to the situation.
Underlying these patterns are mindsets and beliefs we hold, often unconsciously, that influence how we perceive reality and make us less flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances. However, if we can recognize that we’re moving to our default mindset for stressful situations—signals such as sweaty palms or other physical reactions to perceived threats—and instead push ourselves to see multiple perspectives, we move into a world that offers more possibilities.
While status quo mindsets may be perfectly reasonable in some routine (or low-stress) situations, they are progressively less useful as circumstances become more complex and we’re under more pressure. What becomes optimal then is for leaders and organizations to shift into adaptable learning mindsets (Exhibit 2).
For leaders, one enemy of the adaptive mindset is a belief that it’s their job to have the “right answers” rather than knowing when to ask the right questions. It’s essentially the same trap that Zen Buddhism warns against falling into, thus urging practitioners to adopt what it calls the beginner’s mind, or shoshin. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” according to this concept. “In the expert’s mind, there are few.”
What we now know is that this beginner’s mind is not a fixed personality trait or a skill available only to Zen masters; it is a learnable skill for everyone. We can build ours through deliberate practice. If leaders shed their “expert” status, they can navigate uncertain situations by collecting information in new and productive ways. By shifting their mindset to encourage learning, curiosity, and openness to change, leaders can display the flexibility to find solutions.
For instance, C-suite leaders at a multinational corporation were struggling with how best to support employees during the pandemic as burnout rates rose. As a practitioner of the “expert mindset,” the CEO felt he should already know the answers and was unable to accept such uncertainty. He was coached to approach the problem by seeking different perspectives—for instance, by turning to team members with nursing, military, and paramedic backgrounds, who had experience dealing with trauma. Making such a journey requires awareness of your default mindsets, understanding when they are not serving you, opening up to what else may be true, and intentionally shifting into a new, adaptable mindset.
Self-awareness and reflection are critical components of adaptability. Ways to build awareness include making a “to be” list—that is, a list of the values we want to embody—and setting your intentions in the morning, ahead of a busy day, or at work when things get challenging. Reflecting at the end of the day about difficult moments also helps build an adaptable “unlocking mindset” for the future. The central issue is not that we experience anxiety or uncertainty—that will happen frequently—but rather whether we respond to those pressures in ways that lead us to do more of the same rather than learning and changing.
Step 4: Build deeper and more diverse connections
Strong interpersonal relationships also bolster adaptability, since human beings need meaningful connections to survive and thrive. These community networks can even affect longevity, research shows.15
We typically go through our daily work routine actively engaging with tasks and indirectly engaging with colleagues to help us achieve those tasks. But that emphasis is misplaced: inattention to colleagues is actually counterproductive to both our well-being and our productivity at work.
Research has found that deep and diverse connections that provide social support are fundamental elements of the rich tapestry feeding our well-being and learning,16 especially during periods of uncertainty and heightened stress.
As a leader, there are certain actions you can take to foster deeper connections:
- Pay full attention to the person in front of you. When in conversation, we often let our minds stray, or we multitask by checking our phone or email. Full attention requires tuning our awareness toward the other person and listening deeply, without judgment. When people feel heard, they can also hear you.
- Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Show up as your authentic self and be willing to share your fears, concerns, and imperfections. While it can feel risky to be exposed, this process is always one of deliberate choice.
- Show empathy, but don’t stop there. Empathy alone is not enough. Leaders can learn to channel the right kind of empathy, which involves taking into account the other person’s perspective without being distracted from the situation at hand or, potentially, using up your own energy on unpleasant feelings. Once you understand the other person’s perspective, you become aware of the best course of action.
- Meet others with compassion. If you’ve noticed someone else’s pain—physical, mental, or social—demonstrate your intent to take supportive action. At the same time, be aware that you can never fully understand what they’re going through, so keep an open mind. While general acts of kindness are appreciated, compassion is more nuanced and specific to the needs of the individual.
We have worked with leaders who have changed how they connect with people by considering the ways described above. For instance, the head of plastic surgery at a major hospital in North America was enlisted to sponsor one of the hospital’s new cohorts. During a live coaching exercise, he was unhappy that a team member waited until the end of a three-week consultation process before opposing new safety protocols the group wanted to implement.
Initially frustrated, he asked why she had waited until the last minute. As he reflected more, though, he realized that he had failed to create a safe enough environment for this team member to raise her concerns. He realized he had tried to convince everyone to take a specific action but had failed to create an atmosphere in which people could discuss their views openly.
His mindset then shifted to “What can I do differently to make sure that these voices speak up earlier?” He debriefed the team, held himself accountable, and worked with others to set new norms. By creating these deeper connections, he allowed team members to bring their whole selves to work and feel valued enough to contribute honestly.
Step 5: Make it safe to learn
Healthy team dynamics also foster adaptability. Working in teams influences the extent to which we prioritize learning, especially from setbacks and failures. The absence of conflict and the appearance of compliance may not reflect that dynamic, however. Teams can have cultures in which setbacks and failures go unacknowledged or, worse, are punished, or they can have cultures that seize setbacks as opportunities from which to learn and grow.
Leaders can have a unique influence on which team culture is adopted depending on the degree to which they foster psychological safety. This is a shared belief held by team members that interpersonal risk taking is safe—that ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes will be welcomed and valued.17
Experiencing safety is an essential ingredient for higher performance, creativity, and improved well-being. It invites full, authentic participation from every member, fosters constructive debate and creative problem solving, and allows teams to learn quickly. For such a climate to be successful, leaders should be aware of and model the requisite behaviors and deliberately support team members. Put simply, by creating psychological safety, leaders simultaneously demonstrate their own adaptability and create an environment where adaptability can flourish for their teams. This is very different from a leader who believes, “I know best and the team should follow me.”
Here are four practices that can help leaders foster psychological safety:
- Reframe “failures.” Failure is emotionally difficult, since we are primed to succeed. Leaders can help frame failure as a way to learn from missteps and build future successes. This emphasis helps reinforce an adaptable environment in which people feel comfortable being honest and vulnerable; it also invites curious, open, and growth mindsets.
- Encourage team voice. A diversity of perspectives pushes us to be innovative and elevates our performance. Leaders can strive to invite team input into decision making and use more dialogue to encourage discussion. Reinforce “messenger” behavior by appreciating all ideas and thanking those who share them, even if that message is not ultimately acted on. If the idea is dismissed, be sure to explain why, and seek to “unmute” the voices of those who are silent.
- Appreciate others. To drive full participation, team members need to feel valued for their contributions. Leaders can avoid generic congratulations or only recognizing results. Instead, they can reward members’ efforts, making recognition for their contributions part of the team’s vernacular.
- Coach team members to support one another. As a contributor to psychological safety, team climate is more than twice as important as leadership style, we’ve found. Coaching, role modeling, mentoring, and setting up structures are critical to creating an environment that feels safe.
Recently, we had a conversation with a leadership team at an international relief organization that wanted to build healthier dynamics. The team was preparing to welcome a new CEO though during the previous transition, there was a lot of unhelpful history that got in the way of performance.
The new CEO decided to go on a journey with this team to transform that challenging history into a story of hope and opportunity. He engaged external coaches to help encourage team learning, feedback, curiosity, and mindsets open to transformation. Over time, the group went from a collection of individuals lacking mutual trust to a close-knit team that is much stronger today, despite bumps along the road. The CEO’s focus on building trust, along with his growth mindset and willingness to appear vulnerable, made it possible for a fresh culture of psychological safety to arise.
Four ways to build adaptability at scale
The power of adaptability grows when the entire organization reinforces these cultural norms and behaviors. From our experience with both virtual and in-person capability building, we have identified a few ingredients as particularly important. As they enter a new chapter of hybrid work, organizations must seize the opportunity to integrate these elements with the more traditional in-person immersive experience. Here are four ways leaders can scale adaptability building.
Use bite-size training as practice. The prevailing belief has been that deeper awareness and habit-shifting work was possible only through immersive in-person experiences. But as with so many other paradigms, the COVID-19 pandemic changed that view. Many organizations have rolled out short digital training modules coupled with the use of behavioral-reinforcement tools, such as nudges. This content focuses on teaching simple adaptability concepts that participants can practice in their day-to-day lives, which can accelerate learning and behavior changes.
We’ve seen this approach help companies undergoing upheaval—for instance, at a global company that went through a complex merger before the pandemic hit. To improve adaptability, it designed a fully digital program to train 5,000 of its top people managers. The program offered a dozen 20- to 30-minute modules delivered over three months, accompanied by weekly emails to reinforce adaptability behaviors.
At the end of the program, it found that participants who engaged with most of the content (four to six hours over three months) saw 2.7 times the improvement in adaptability behaviors (learning skills, empathy and compassion, and fostering psychological safety and greater self-awareness) and 3.0 times the improvement in outcomes (performance, well-being, adapting to change, and developing new skills) as the control group. Even participants who engaged for just 20 to 30 minutes per month saw meaningful increases in adaptability and outcomes, at 1.4 times and 1.9 times the control group, respectively.
Create learning communities. Virtual learning can reach more people faster, engaging larger cohorts in shared experiences. This helps create networks across the organization and a deeper sense of belonging, both of which support adaptability.
During the pandemic, the hospital system we mentioned earlier created formal learning communities for leaders who had graduated from a virtual learning program. These groups continue to meet regularly, applying the lessons they learned to challenges including scheduling patients or clinical personnel, solving conflicts, and supporting a grieving colleague. Such cohorts provide a unique resource to combat feelings of isolation and augment a shared sense of belonging.
Role model at all levels, including visible sponsors at the top. Virtual learning can help senior leaders connect meaningfully with more people faster. At the hospital system, one of the sponsors of the learning program was a well-respected plastic surgeon. He was coached live, in front of the group, encouraging his cohort to share learning stories and generate engagement. He told us that being a sponsor was the best leadership-development training he had ever done, helping him to adopt a leadership mindset in which his role was to serve and support his staff, rather than the other way around. The impact was also positive for participants, who started to build more trust with senior management.
Create enabling mechanisms to build enduring capabilities. To build adaptability into a skill that becomes part of the organization’s core, it’s important to track progress frequently and meticulously. For instance, organizations can use a multirater feedback tool—a digital platform that assesses the effectiveness of the adaptability learning journey for employees. It also shares aggregate data with leaders and tracks when course corrections are necessary.
By investing in measures that emphasize well-being, purpose, mindset shifts, deeper connections, and team learning, leaders become better equipped to meet the challenges ahead. Applying these lessons throughout their organizations makes for healthier and more responsive teams.
Leaders should understand that adaptability is a skill that is mastered with continual practice—the ability to “learn how to learn” does not materialize overnight. Those who have the courage and humility to do this work can summon their adaptability skills right when they are needed most. In a world of constant flux, that is a crucial skill set indeed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Jacqueline Brassey is a global director of learning in McKinsey’s Amsterdam office and affiliate leader of McKinsey’s Center for Societal Benefit through Healthcare; Aaron De Smet is a senior partner in the New Jersey office; Ashish Kothari is a partner in the Denver office; Johanne Lavoie is a partner in the Calgary office; and Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi is a research science specialist in the New York office, where Sasha Zolley is a solution associate partner.
The authors wish to thank Kate Lazaroff-Puck and Laura Tegelberg for their contributions to this article.
This article was edited by Barbara Tierney, a senior editor in the New York office.