(6-minute read)

We all have rules. One of mine is to limit consultant-speak. Stuff like “let’s unpack that!” gives me a headache.

On the surface, the term “Adaptive Leadership” sounds like headache-inducing consultant speak. Yet, in this case, it refers to a subject that’s important and timely. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, two very smart researchers, developed the Adaptive Leadership model at Harvard.

As described in their book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, their’s is an approach to better manage people and teams. When it’s working, curiosity flourishes, differing points of view more easily surface, and teams self-organize based on ability and interest, all leading to increased productivity and a higher level of job satisfaction.


Why is this especially important now?

Because Nearly 70% of US employees-people working 47-50 hours a week (US Department of Labor) say they’re NOT satisfied at work (Gallup). That’s a lot of time feeling frustrated or unhappy. At a time of low unemployment, job satisfaction is a leading indicator of employee turnover.

The flip side: 87% of people surveyed are LESS likely to leave a job (Gallup) if they feel “connected and engaged.” Adaptive Leadership was built to connect and engage employees.

The Heifetz/Linsky Adaptive Leadership model helps individuals and organizations improve their responses to changing business environments. By forgoing the traditional top-down leadership framework, the approach seeks to create a more inclusive environment where all employees are encouraged to identify and solve problems. This tactic boosts employee curiosity, engagement and connection.

Adaptive Leadership has four organizing principles;

  1. Navigating Environments
  2. Leading with Empathy
  3. Learning through Self-correction & Reflection
  4. Creating Win-Win Situations

Here is a brief overview of what each principle includes.


Navigating Environments

  • Allowing teams to self organize
  • Encouraging creative solutions to existing or emerging challenges
  • Creating an environment that encourages open conversation
  • Staying connected with the needs of customers/clients


Leading with Empathy

  • Listening and encouraging alternative perspectives
  • Communicating constantly: goals, needs, and challenges
  • Using open-ended questions to encourage both conversation & dissenting opinions


Learning via Self-Correction & Reflection

  • Asking for feedback & owning mistakes
  • Building self-reflection time into schedules
  • Sharing lessons learned with the team
  • Applying what was learned in new situations


Creating Win-Win Situations

  • Recognizing team member success
  • Encouraging the involvement of many stakeholders
  • Creating opportunities to deepen relationships


To more fully understand the details of the Adaptive Leadership model, you will want to read the book. There are many ‘aha!’ moments and good ideas worthy of trying.

Some of My Ideas

Now I will offer some of my ideas for applying the principles of Adaptive Leadership. Becoming an adaptive leader can be scary, especially for new managers. In order to transfer responsibility to staff, or allow a team self-organize around a problem, a leader must first understand their comfort level with the unknown and tolerance for risk.

LISTEN, PLAN & DO are three steps that will help you understand your staff’s work routines, and offer ideas for keeping staff engaged and productive.



Ever notice that when a new CEO or senior manager arrives, they usually spend a few months on a ‘listening tour.’ It’s a practice every manager at any level, can employ. Dedicating time to regularly observe individual staff and team dynamics is the best way to figure out the leaders, followers and understand how people work with each other. Your critical observations, formalized on paper, will serve as the foundation for a plan to change process or routines.



With your observations in hand, a survey can provide confirmation, deeper insights or stuff you may be overlooking.

Ask the team;

  • What’s important to them?
  • Where their interests lie?
  • What other skills or proficiencies would they like to build?
  • What they think is working within the team?
  • What they think could work better?

Be transparent about why you are asking. Tell them you value each of them and are actively working to make the team as happy and productive as it can be.

While you’re gathering this data, begin planning how you and the other team members can recognize employee accomplishments. Recognizing both small and large acts – in the moment – goes far to build camaraderie and trust.

Saying Thank You is easy to do and always appreciated.

Finally, connect with your customer or client base. Find out what’s important to them and how they think your team can improve its service. Without satisfied customers, there’s no need for a team.



Here are seven easy-to-incorporate ways for helping your staff feel more heard, included and valued.

1) Make One-On-One Meetings a Priority

When a crisis hits or deadlines are tight, one-on-one meetings are among the first thing to get cancelled. Make these meetings a priority. Especially when staff-stress is at its highest, these meetings are a huge opportunity to stay connected and observe how people react to stress and to each other.

In times of lower stress, use the meeting to understand individual aspirations and goals and work together to connect those goals with the organization’s business objectives. One-on-one meetings build trust, increase productivity, and make for happier employees.

2) Encourage All Questions

This starts with you asking lots of open-ended questions. Then, STOP talking while you listen to the answers.  The powerful combination of asking open-ended questions and active listening will be discussed in depth next month.

3) Plan Single Topic Meetings

Once a month, plan a single topic meeting. Send the topic in advance. Request that everyone come ready to talk about the challenge and offer at least one solution. Encourage dissenting opinions and devil’s advocate discussion. The goal is to leave the meeting with at least one group-generated next step.

4) Questions-Only Town Hall

Town Hall meetings are all staff gatherings and a great opportunity for everyone to be heard. Whether submitted anonymously or in person, an open Q&A can surface new and divergent points of view. Celebrate and socialize the discussion by branding questions, #greattownhallquestion.

5) Skip-a-Level Meetings

Schedule a regular group meeting with the level below your direct reports. Be clear that no question or idea is off limits. Be ready to answer questions honestly and give feedback on ideas. The purpose is to encourage conversation and develop trust through all levels of the team.

6) Use Technology

For larger teams or organizations with multiple offices or locations, the ability to communicate effortlessly is key. Platforms like Google Hangouts, Slack, Spark, Hive and others promote conversation and transparency. This is also an opportunity to publicly recognize great work and new ideas from the team.

7) Ask for Feedback About You

As a manager you need to know how the staff thinks you’re doing. The only way to know is to ask. In the beginning this may work better as an anonymous survey, but as trust grows these conversations can take place in person. When you receive feedback, positive or negative, talk about it in a team meeting, offer solutions and ask for other ideas. Your humility may be tested. If you can successfully navigate this conversation, you will have effectively closed the feedback loop, shown the team that you respect their opinions, grown as a manager, and done a lot to build trust.

Flexibility, empathy and willingness to hear and act upon a diversity of opinions are things that you and staff can perfect together. You’ll end up with a curious, communicative group that is not afraid to run toward oncoming challenges together.


Thank you Sharon!

A big Thank You to reader Sharon Palmer, Northeast Regional Librarian, Neighborhood Services at the Brooklyn Public Library for suggesting this excellent topic.

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