Careers are not perfectly mapped out paths that lead from graduation to retirement. Most people find that their career path takes turns that they never could have predicted. One thing you can count on throughout your career is change. That’s why the one skill that is always in demand is adaptability. People are hired not only for their current knowledge and skills, but also for their potential to learn and willingness to contribute where needed and when demanded within their organization. Adaptability may be an innate trait to some extent, but it is also a skill that can be developed. Look around within your workplace to see how others are adapting or retreating, and you will see why this skill is so important – it is highly visible to those around you.
I recently had a great opportunity to observe the two extremes of adaptability. Two coworkers, I’ll call them coworker A and coworker B, displayed opposite behavior in response to the same new project. Coworker A was a chronic complainer who was never happy with his boss or his tasks. Eventually, his complaining paid off, and he was reassigned to a new manager with a new project. However, soon after taking on his new role, he was again unhappy with his new boss and project, and he was willing to tell anyone who would listen. Not surprisingly, he recently left the company. After his departure, coworker B was taken off a project he had been on for years and was reassigned to the project that coworker A abandoned. Coworker B embraced this new opportunity with a positive attitude, never complained, worked long hours to meet demanding deadlines, and is surprisingly available for help when asked. Everyone is noticing the impressive approach that coworker B is taking. It has been a good lesson to remind me that our chronic behavior creates an image that is noticed in the workplace.
So how do we develop the ability to adapt? As with most learning processes, look to those around you and surround yourself with others who exhibit the behaviors you admire. Don’t entertain the complaints of others. Anytime someone complains about something they don’t like at work, ask them what they could do to change their situation. Get others thinking about actions and solutions to move beyond focusing on what makes them unhappy. And do this for yourself as well. Catch yourself when you have a negative thought about your job, and redirect your attention to ways that could initiate change or come up with ideas for improvement. Others will notice your can-do attitude and willingness to tackle the tasks that some may retreat from.
I’ve known people who have been reassigned to new managers, new departments, or new projects (or even laid off) every year or two. And my own career path has taken me places that I never would have thought I’d be open to. Those who are successful in the long term have the ability to adapt along the way. Learn to embrace change, and you will be happier throughout your career, which will undoubtedly be filled with many opportunities to adapt to changes.
This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions.