Finding adaptive employees important to organizations

February 24, 2023

As more employers nationwide seek to fill vacancies, potential applicants will need to show they have the skills to adapt to the company’s needs.

Employees who have those skills—cognition, motivation, action and connection—are capable of meeting project demands and responding to change, according to a new University of Michigan study.

The research suggests that the nature of employee skills matters because of the many events that create turbulence—ranging from technological advances, economic changes, and unanticipated events (pandemic, recession)—all requiring employees and companies to effectively respond to a more uncertain and competitive work environment.

“To be nimble and adaptive, organizations now more than ever need their building blocks—the employees who are at the heart of the transformation process—to be adaptive,” said study author Oscar Ybarra, professor emeritus of psychology and management and organizations.

An ability to adapt involves being engaged in, and responsive to, change in several different tasks spread across different projects that may involve various collaborators, technologies and time frames. This requires that individuals possess and use various broad skills. Many times, though, employers focus on narrow experience and expertise suited to a specific task or job, but have a harder time defining what these broad, adaptive skills are.

In the research, Ybarra asked about 230 participants in two studies to think about 24 different skills that any person can possess. He wanted to know if participants could understand what the skills meant and how different skills went together.

Through their responses, Ybarra was able to organize the skills into a four-category framework that facilitated a better understanding of how individuals engage within organizations to get their work done—i.e., how they are able to adapt.

The findings appear in PLOS ONE.