The pandemic is a big reminder that, despite the best-laid plans, there is much beyond our control. It’s a lesson in humility, and, of course, reality, since it’s always been this way, thanks to the ever-changing, moving ground upon which we live.
Nothing is static, including us. But we are in charge of at least one thing, the mind we use to contend with and adapt to new conditions – and the key to surviving and thriving in a COVID-19 world.
THE ADAPTIVE ANIMAL
Luckily, humans are very good at using brain neurons to help us adapt. It’s the hallmark trait of the species -- survival of the most adaptive -- and the engine of our resilience. Coping with existential threats is what we do.
During a long glacial period between 195,000 to 123,000 years ago, the ancestors of our species were reduced from about 10,000 to a few hundred souls living in caves on the southern coast of Africa. And that was just the start of our years of living dangerously. We would overcome still more ice ages, survive desert living, and even adapt to living in a concrete jungle.
We have the capacity to bend, not break, in the face of challenge and shift locations, comfort zones, ideas, and self-images when we want to -- or have to. Each of us is an adaptation professional, shape-shifters with a long history of modifying behavior to deal with weather, transit, city life, parents, teachers, peers, supervisors, and partners.
To live in a world with others is to adapt constantly. The social world is based on cooperation, and the root of cooperation is adapting to the cues and rules around us. Tradition, law and order, manner of speech, fashion – they’re all about adapting to the environment around us.
TAKING THE HEAT OFF
The essence of adaptability is finding ways to respond to the unpredictable, the different, uncertain, and novel by swapping old ways for workarounds or improvements. We adapt, not only to fit in socially or take a different course when things aren’t working, but also to manage the stress that comes when a new situation demands change. Adapting takes the heat off, keeps us moving forward. In a sense it's natural selection's stress management strategy to help us cope with shifting conditions.
Researchers say adaptability is less of a basic trait or skill and more of a characteristic that combines several elements—cognitive ability, personality traits, personal preferences, and stress and coping skills (Ployhart, Bliese). Amid a pandemic, it’s a good time to dig in to these components and brush up on behaviors that make it easier to shift habits and attitudes in the face of changes large and small.
Behaviors That Increase Adaptability
- Be flexible.
Flexibility is a super-savvy strategy that makes it easier to align with the volatile impermanence of our world, such as the convulsive pace of technological and organizational change and pandemics. We don’t use this tool as often as we should, since we have ego-shaped hard heads and are mostly ruled by the law of least effort. The default is to do what’s easy, the way it’s always been, not what's hard.
When you embrace flexibility, though, you rise above rigidity, indolence, and snap judgments -- that the new thing is bad or too much work or not normal. You then can see flexibility as a path of advancement, a learning tool, and change as the normal event it is. You give yourself permission to not get in the way of your progress.
Of course, you don’t want to be too flexible when it comes to any threat to your health. We have to be guided by the health experts on virus concerns. Period.
- Arm yourself with the right goal.
Since most of us don’t want to have to make changes, it helps to have the use of a fabulous tool that can make us more willing. Studies show that having the right goal, an intrinsic motivation behind our flexibility, makes it a lot more likely that we will approve of the new thing and stick with it even when it gets difficult or lasts a long time.
When we act for an internal goal, such as service, growth, or civic duty, we are more willing to do something we may not want to. We’re not concerned with an instrumental gain for doing it, an external payoff—such as a bonus or promotion or getting it done ASAP. We do it for its own intrinsic value, say, helping our fellow citizens stay healthy. Having a goal to beat the virus together reminds us of why we’re making the changes and sacrifices we are and that helps us stick with the new behavior.
- Use your creativity.
As the tool-building animal, we have been able to solve obstacles on the road to civilization with creativity and improvisation. We see it today in all the personalized masks people are making. YouTube videos show Brazilians making masks from socks. A French company has designed a plastic lamp shade that shields restaurant diners from each other.
We have to change how we do a lot of formerly rote activities at the office and at home. We can get upset about it, or we can make alterations and see them as creative improvisations. If you are a salesperson and can’t meet clients in person, you could send them targeted video pitches to help with the sale.
When we alter behaviors and learn new ones, it helps us in two areas crucial for our psychological health—mastery and agency, being able to act on our own and be effective in figuring things out. Those lead to gratification, something we could use more of these days.
- Reappraise change.
It turns out change isn’t an enemy but a longtime friend. Our brains actually want novelty and challenge more than anything else for long-term fulfillment, brain scientist Gregory Berns reports in Satisfaction. We are programmed for engagement with our world, to see what’s over the next horizon. It’s one of the reasons many of us love to travel.
How primed for change are we? We all are wired for it by what is known as habituation. We are programmed to get sick of things we do or eat over and over. It’s a prod from our biochemistry to learn and discover. Fearing novelty is fearing our own innermost aspirations.
- Stay open.
If you are willing to try new things or like to dabble, experiment, and follow your curiosity, you are going to have an easier time handling change—and a lot more opportunity to learn and grow from new experiences. Even if you’re not high in the trait of openness, you can still use it as a strategy, a survival strategy, because that’s what it is. We don’t have to be welded to personality behaviors only we are holding ourselves to.
Being open means not having anything on the line when it's time to make an adjustment. Your identity is not up for grabs on the basis of some new way of doing meetings or tracking productivity from home. You measure your worth by internal standards, again, taking the intrinsic road and keeping the ego at bay. Lifelong learners keep pulse rates calm.6. Be more agreeable.
Avoiding a killer virus doesn’t tend to put us in a good mood. There are a lot of tough things happening to people who don’t deserve it. Naturally, it leads to a lot of negative mood and anxiety. Yet we have a choice. We can complain, or we can alter behaviors that can save our lives and the lives of others. That’s something to be positive about.
People high on the personality traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness have an advantage in malleability. They accept changes more readily. But the rest of us can reach the same conclusion using logical deduction. There are many rationales to choose from—survival, community, citizenry, growth—any of which should make us more agreeable as purveyors of an intrinsic goal. We do it to do it, not for an external gain.
- Stay patient.
We have to manage emotional reactions to change, so we don’t burn up energetic resources on stress overreactions that we need to accommodate to the modification process. This means staying patient and not losing it when we have to do some new thing that takes longer or makes us go out of our way.
Self-regulation is the engine of patience, the discipline to forego instant gratification or constant email checking. It's a resource that is eroded by interruptions and stress, along with impulse control, without which we can't rein in the stress that goes off with new events or conditions. Is it apocalypse now, or something that's just different?8. See adapting as problem-solving, not personal.
We can’t take the changes brought on by COVID-19 personally. This is something we are all going through. Taking setbacks or changes personally triggers the survival equipment that then throws us into reflex emotional reactions. The whole point of adaptation is stress reduction, not activation.
Having skills that allow us to shift from the anxiety and false beliefs of fight-or-flight to rational solutions is key. Choosing problem-solving over emotion-based stress reactions increases ability to adapt and find a solution in a tough situation. Research shows that active stress coping measures that help us confront and resolve obstacles are effective at helping us adapt while passive coping strategies—alcohol, drugs, shopping—are not. Emotion-based reactions make us more fearful and then much less flexible.
We would all like the COVID crisis to be over yesterday. Fortunately, we are the products of tens of thousands of years of honing our singular survival talent of adaptation. We have the wiring, and we have the examples in our individual lives of travails we have overcome that show us we can bend and not break, just move forward differently, as is the way of the world.
Learn how to help your employees manage change, uncertainty, and stress in the time of COVID-19 with our CALM IN THE STORM stress management and resilience program. Click the button below for details.