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“A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it,” according to the ancient Chinese proverb. Are you as adaptable to your surroundings as water? As things evolve, are you more likely to resist change or demonstrate adaptability?
In 2017, the World Economic Forum’s annual Davos convention ranked adaptability in its top five list of essential soft skills. But what exactly is adaptability, and how can you show yours in an interview? We look to answer these questions with the help of Vanessa Lauraire, an occupational psychologist and psychotherapist, and Marie-Agnès Deharveng, talent manager at Early Metrics.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, adaptability is “the quality of being able to adjust to new conditions.” Maybe so, but surely there’s more to it than that. So, what does it mean to be adaptable? The verb itself is defined as “[making] something suitable for a new use or purpose” or “following a particular direction to suit a situation, to behave in a particular way, to be in tune with one’s environment”, which infers agreeing to something, or agreeing to a situation. “Being adaptable is being able to be fully attuned to your environment, and adjust your approach, your feelings, your emotions and your thoughts to that environment. It is a vital part of emotional intelligence,” said Lauraire. Therefore, to be adaptable is to be attentive to the environment around us and to adjust accordingly.
A form of flexibility
It’s interesting to note that in 2020, the Davos Forum was no longer talking about adaptability; instead, they referred to “mental flexibility”. “The ability to adapt to an environment is not unique to humans, many animals are also capable of it,” said psychologist Lauraire. “Mental flexibility goes beyond that. It is the power to be constantly aware of what is happening in our environment and our ability not to be surprised by events. Therefore, it’s not so much about seeking control or even resisting change, but rather it refers to self-control in the face of whatever life throws at you.”
“It’s our ability not to be surprised by events” - Vanessa Lauraire, occupational psychologist and psychotherapist
A soft skill that has become essential
“More than ever, you have to know how to deal with the unexpected, be prepared for change and face the challenges of everyday life head-on,” said Marie-Agnès Deharveng. The news events of the past few months certainly serve to re-emphasise this advice. “The current crisis demands adaptability and resilience,” said the talent manager. “It’s teaching us to accept uncertainty and adapt to changes in our environment.”
Of course, we tend to make plans based on anticipations and predictions, but the situation today is such that most questions can receive only vague answers, advises Deharveng. “Therefore, adaptability has become an essential soft skill, even in our personal lives,” she said. “You have to be flexible, you have to be able to embrace change. It is about being open-minded, having the ability to accept whatever happens and allowing yourself to be changed accordingly.”
Being adaptable is, therefore, the opposite of rigidity. It’s flexible, malleable—fluid, like water. But, Chinese proverbs aside, how can you show this skill in an interview setting?
Explore more in our section: Candidates
How to show adaptability in an interview
Now that you have a better idea of what it really means to be adaptable, how can you show you are truly capable of it? Here are 7 tips from Lauraire and Deharveng:
1. Adapt your approach before the interview
Before you go barrelling into an interview, thinking that you know exactly what you’re going to say, take a step back. “Do some prep work on yourself,” said Lauraire. “This will allow you to gain confidence and help you in not trying to control everything.” You could try meditation or a relaxation exercise, or perhaps focus on your breathing. Basically, try to connect to your place in the here and now. “Allow the meeting to just happen,” she said. “Always go into an interview with an open mind. Stay stable and fully aware of your own presence and role in the moment.” Instead of repeating a practised pitch in your head, take a welcoming, open-minded approach.
2. During the interview: adapt to specific conditions
“The candidate is in a situation that requires adaptability from the outset,” said Deharveng. “A person who enters into a recruitment process must adapt to the date and the conditions of the interview. But, basically, if he or she doesn’t play the game, it is more likely due to lack of motivation than lack of adaptability.”
During interviews, candidates aren’t normally in the position of power. They need to adapt to any unforeseen situations they may face, such as the number of people in the room, a bout of nerves and tough questions. Whatever the situation may be, the reality is that you must be able to adapt to it.
3. When in Rome…
Something that most of us do when we go abroad, either as tourists or for business, is adapt to local customs and culture. Similarly, every company has its own codes. During an interview, “the person who shows adaptability will have read up on the company, or perhaps even asked directly, about the dress code as well as other codes to follow,” said Deharveng. “This can indicate whether you will be able to adapt to your customers’ specific needs and that you understand when you go to each customer appointment you might need to adapt your outfit appropriately.”
So before you go to your interview, try to learn about the company culture. For example, you can review the company’s website, where you will likely find a wealth of information about the office environment, the atmosphere and the look adopted by the workforce. If possible, watch videos of the people you’re going to meet. The more prepared you are, the more at ease you will be, explains Deharveng. “Being adaptable means doing a lot of prior research and asking questions,” she said.
4. Storytelling: past adaptations
“In interviews, you will talk about your career path to date,” said Deharveng. “You’ll have to show that you have consistently been able to adapt. Talk about specific situations where you have been adaptable, particularly if you have an international profile or have experience abroad. Moving to another country and perhaps speaking another language certainly demonstrates adaptability.”
Illustrate your abilities with specific examples, such as how you fit in with the locals or how you learnt a particular language. You could also refer to a time that you were entrusted with a new, unfamiliar project and how you not only survived but thrived. “It’s not just about telling someone you’re adaptable,” said Lauraire. “It’s also about presenting situations where it’s easy to see that you were able to do it completely. You have to know how to make it happen.”
5. Adapting on the fly
“What if a question really throws you off?” said Lauraire. “Be adaptable. Be aware of what is going on inside you. What are your emotions? What are your thoughts? Breathe! You have the right to let them know what’s going on, to perhaps say that you are a little stressed and that you need clarification. Don’t hesitate to ask questions too. Be yourself and take things as they come.”
Don’t approach a question as if it’s a trap, but rather see it as an opportunity to better reveal your strong points. Have an open, understanding attitude and don’t make it appear as if you’re afraid of being judged. The way you express yourself is also important, observes Deharveng. “You immediately notice candidates who have the ability to challenge themselves,” she said. “There’s a difference between candidates who say they want to do something specific and those who say they prefer something a certain way but are happy to adapt.”
6. Uncertain times: bouncing back
“As a candidate,” said Deharveng, “you have to show that you know how to adapt to the company to which you’re applying.” In the current climate, for example, you will need to show that it doesn’t matter if you work remotely or in an office because you can adapt and you’re flexible. “More than ever, we have to accept the idea that things can change, that your future position can evolve, but that you can deal with that. When you say, ‘No problem, I’ll adapt,’ you’re making a concession for and with others, and showing that you’re flexible and open to change. You’ll move on together with them,” said Deharveng. Being inflexible is not an option. “You can’t be rigid in a fast-changing world.”
Think about the past six months. How have you experienced this period of change? Did you adapt to working from home easily? If you’ve had more free time, did you put it to good use? And how has your overall state of mind been? “You can take full advantage of the current situation to show that you have adapted,” said Lauraire. “How did you manage things? How did you get organised? If you think about it, we’ve all been compelled to adapt and compromise, with respect to self, family, work environment and so on, during this period.”
7. Looking ahead: learning and evolving
“Since the world is changing at such a rapid pace,” said Deharveng, “train yourself now in the skills of tomorrow.” After all, 85% of businesses that will be around in 2030 don’t even exist yet! “Adapting is about asking questions and anticipating the future,” she said. “It’s necessary to prepare yourself and to have as many resources as possible, so you will be able to cope with the unexpected.” There are plenty of online training courses that can help you learn about tomorrow’s skills. You don’t have to teach yourself a whole new career: it’s good to just expand your knowledge and become familiar with these skills. You’re preparing yourself to be flexible and increasing your adaptability.
In times of great upheaval, we sometimes tend to stand firm and resist change. However, it’s better to try to be more fluid and flexible, like the water in the Chinese proverb. To adapt, you adjust your approach according to the situation—it’s that simple.
Translated by Andrea Schwam
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