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Adapting to change: How to better handle change at work

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The importance of adaptability has increased for employers but adjusting to change is not a skill that comes naturally to everyone. We are creatures of habit and so many of us find that change can trigger a range of emotional reactions, from mild anxiety through to panic or fear. However, in today’s fast paced environment, workplaces and roles are constantly evolving, requiring you to develop soft skills such as critical thinking, communication skills, leadership abilities and problem-solving skills that can make you a better team member and set you up for future success in any work environment. 
If you struggle when facing change, the good news is that shifting your mindset and adapting in a constructive way is a skill that, like any other, can be learned. 

What is adaptability to change?

Adaptability to change is a soft skill that refers to the ability to quickly and successfully embrace change and adapt effectively in response. It's about accepting change not just in the workplace but in every facet of your life.
Importantly, the ability to adapt well to change is important for your long-term career success as it’s a skillset that employers look for as a core capability in their workforce.  

How to demonstrate adaptability in the workplace

To demonstrate your adaptability in the workplace, you need to learn how to be flexible when your preferred pathway is changed or blocked.  
To do this, draw on your emotional and social skills. In fact, when demonstrating adaptability in the workplace, you often utilise several of these key skills to respond positively to change in your environment. 
This ability to draw on your soft skills to demonstrate your adaptable approach starts with problem solving. By approaching a challenge with a positive mindset and looking to solve the problem for the best outcome at the time.
You can also draw on your critical thinking skills to observe and analyse information relevant to the problem or change, brainstorm creative solutions based on this information, and come up with the most viable actions.  
Teamwork is another essential skill to demonstrate your adaptability in the workplace. Being able to work successfully in a team, especially when it’s made up of people with different personalities, skills and experiences, means that you remain open to new and different ideas, support others and never let anyone down when priorities shift. When facing change as a team, you’ll continue to collaborate and adapt ideas and approaches when the context changes.  
Finally, your communication and interpersonal skills enable you to engage with colleagues, share your ideas, actively listen to others, ask questions and build and maintain relationships when adapting to change at work. 

How to handle change at work

1. Challenge your interpretation of the facts

During any time of change, you will likely face unfamiliar challenges which may make you apprehensive. When these feelings come up, challenge your interpretation of events by asking yourself the following questions: 
  • Is your interpretation of the change you are facing rational, objective and based purely on the facts?
  • Can you challenge your interpretation with an opposing argument?
  • If so, what’s the alternative perspective of this situation?
The way you interpret information relating to the change you are facing and the meaning you give them is what will determine your approach to change, the course you take and ultimately how successful you will be in adopting the change. By objectively examining a challenging situation and doing your best to remove your negative, and potentially unfounded assumptions, you’ll have a less negative emotional reaction and subsequently will be able to determine the practical steps you need to take to arrive at a productive outcome.

2. Ask questions 

Much of the anxiety people feel about change stems from a fear of the unknown and the only way to alleviate ambiguity is to fill in the gaps, however don’t let your imagination do this, ask questions. Your manager may not know that you want or need the information. The sooner you have all the facts, the sooner you will be able to process them and interpret what they mean for you.

3. Recognise and rationalise the voice of caution

When confronted with a situation that's unfamiliar, there's often a voice in our heads telling us to be careful and go slow. By recognising that this is what is happening and reminding ourselves that all will be okay and approach the change with curiosity rather than fear, we can remain open-minded and prepare to take on the change in measured, rational steps.

4. Reframe change as an opportunity

By exploring what specifically about the change is making you feel anxious, you can reframe the process into one of opportunity. Are you worried about a lack of support or an increased workload?
Now consider whether your interpretation of these aspects could be reframed in a positive light. For example, additional responsibilities and the opportunity to manage your workload with increased independence could help your career.
Asking yourself the following questions may help:
  • Forget the way the change was worded when it was communicated to you. Instead, think about how you would word this change if you were to explain it to others. Saying it out loud might help you to detect what about the change is troubling you.
  • What are the real implications and opportunities for you? 
  • How will the change affect your life in a practical sense? For example, will you have to work longer hours or tackle some difficult decisions without as much guidance from your manager? Will you take on additional responsibilities that will help your career progress longer term? Will it give you the opportunity to build new skills
  • In the past, when you handled change really well, what did you do and what actions in particular really worked? 
The aim here is to try to keep things in perspective and aligned with what really matters to you and your career. 

5. Break down the information

Take some time to work out exactly what you will have to do differently day-to-day as a result of this change, breaking it down into smaller manageable portions. Transitioning to a new way of working, for example, may seem daunting, but segmenting it into individual, practical steps like the following will make it seem less intimidating: 
  • Consider your key tasks and identify those that will change and that will stay the same. 
  • Highlight any new responsibilities you will have, what they entail and when key actions will be required. 
  • Find out what the new priorities will be, what the expectations will be for you individually going forward and how this will be monitored. 
  • Find out how you will need to collaborate with your team going forward. 
  • Think about how you will need to use systems differently or what new software you will need to become familiar with. 
  • Identify any areas where you feel you may need more knowledge or skills to carry out your role successfully. 
  • Make sure you’re checking in regularly with your colleagues and manager to run through any decisions or processes you’re unsure of.

6. Be patient with yourself, persevere and ask for help if needed

It takes time and perseverance to adapt to change and learn how to demonstrate adaptability at work, so don’t expect things to transform overnight. If you’re struggling to adapt to a particular change you are facing, ask to be directed to any relevant employee assistance programs or training resources that could help you. Talk to your manager about signing up to Hays Learning, which provides thousands of free online training courses that could help.

7. Expand your comfort zone

Your comfort zone is the set of behaviours and actions that together create the drumbeat of your day-to-day life, reducing risk and stress and providing us with a sense of security. It is this comfort zone that is often threatened by change, so the challenge is to identify how to quickly establish a new routine and integrate it into your comfort zone as soon as possible. 
Think about how to map out your day or week now as a result of the change. What are the key regular activities you will need to do? How long will they take? When will you do them? 

8. Celebrate daily wins

With time, changes that might have seemed significant will start to gradually integrate into your day-to-day and feel much more natural.  
During times of change, it is very easy to focus on what you couldn’t do or what went wrong, rather than what went well. Focusing on your wins every day, no matter how small, will help you to see that you are moving forward and working on embracing change. 

9. Remember it’s a lifelong skill

It’s important to remember that change can occur at any time, and you will likely experience many periods of change throughout your life. Embracing change and knowing how to demonstrate adaptability successfully is therefore an important skill that will serve you well throughout your life. 

Put your adaptability skills to work

Adaptability is a critical skill that will aid your career success in today's workplace environment. Thoroughly developing adaptability and understanding how to demonstrate it at work ensures you can pivot your strategies and remain successful – an important characteristic of valued employees – in the face of new challenges throughout your professional life. Whether the change you encounter is systematic, organisational or industry-wide, being flexible, positive and willing to determine the best solutions, regardless of the circumstances, will remain vital to career success in the years ahead. 

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