Adapt or Fail: How Managers Enable Thriving at Work

For this conversation with Kathrina Robotham from Catalyst, we talked about the importance of adaptability and empathy in managers to support the performance of teams and organisations.

My guest for this conversation is Kathrina Robotham who works for Catalyst. Kathrina is actually the second person from Catalyst I’ve interviewed; I spoke with her colleague, Tara Van Bommel, a while back about a report on the problem with performative policies. Today, Kathrina and I will be talking about a report that Catalyst has produced, which is called, Adapt or Fail: How Managers Can Enable Everyone to Thrive At Work” and I’d highly recommend going on the Catalyst website to read their great reports.

We got started with Kathrina introducing herself a bit more and telling me about who she is, what she does, and her professional background.

‘I’m Dr. Kathrina Robotham and I’m a director of research at Catalyst, which is a non-profit dedicated to advancing women in the workplace. My role at Catalyst is to lead research on workplace issues across gender, race, ethnicity and culture. I also work on research focused on the intersection of women in the future of work.

Before joining Catalyst, I received my PhD in Psychology from the University of Michigan, Go Blue. During that programme, my research focused on understanding the experiences and consequences of workplace mistreatment for marginalised groups and also trying to understand what factors foster diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. During my time there, I was lucky to study topics like workplace sexual harassment, code-switching and how organisations communicate about diversity. When I found Catalyst, I was so excited and I just feel so lucky that I get to use my passion for research and diversity and inclusion to help create actionable insights and evidence-based solutions that advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.’

I asked Kathrina why she and Dr Tara Von Bommel wrote the report, “Adapt or Fail”.

‘Tara and I wrote this report in 2022 when organisations were deciding how they were going to move forward after the COVID-19 pandemic. Many organisations were considering, or even mandating, that their employees return to the office and go back to business as usual after two years of working remotely. We really wanted to push back on this idea that sticking to the status quo is what would define success during moments of turbulence and change like we experienced during the pandemic. So, with this report, we wanted to point to another way and raise awareness of adaptability as a critical future of work skill that enables people to adapt to change and facilitates their ability to continue learning new skills.’

I asked Kathrina, ‘Why is it important that managers are adaptable in this new world and way of working?’

‘It’s important because as we’ve seen, the future of work is marked by unprecedented change and disruption. In the last few years, we’ve seen changes with remote work and flexible work, generative AI shifting expectations from employees to include things like wanting employers to prioritise work-life balance and diversity and inclusion. Managers who are adaptable and can shift with changing circumstances are going to be better equipped to deal with these changes and create new solutions that address these novel challenges.

For example, in our research, we found that employees with adaptable managers were more likely to say that their organisation’s post-pandemic working plans support their own work and life needs. From the perspective of advancing diversity and inclusion in our research, we also show that adaptability is an essential leadership skill for managing culturally diverse teams. It’s necessary for doing the change manager work that’s characteristic of DEI, like adopting and implementing changes in workplace culture, policy and processes that help to make the organisation a fairer and more inclusive place.’

I can imagine that the word adaptability probably means different things to different managers, so I asked Kathrina how adaptability is defined in the report and what types of adaptability are there.

‘In the report, we define adaptability as the ability to effectively adjust to new circumstances in the workplace. In our research, we found that adaptability includes three different components. The first component is cognitive flexibility and this is about your ability to respond effectively to new information by changing the way you think or you approach the situation.

For example, if a team used to be in an office and now the team is transitioning to remote work and working across multiple time zones, a manager can demonstrate cognitive flexibility by changing their approach to meetings and recognising that maybe most of the team’s work can be conducted asynchronously.

The second type of adaptability that we looked at is ambiguity tolerance. This is about your ability to see problems from several different perspectives and being able to accept ambiguity and uncertainty. A manager might take on a new task without having very much prior experience and consider a range of creative ways to approach completing that task. That would be ambiguity tolerance.

The third and final component of adaptability that we found with our research is an openness to change or the ability to view change as an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve. For example, a manager might be new to managing a culturally diverse team and if they view this experience as an opportunity to learn how to become a more inclusive manager, they’re demonstrating an openness to change with that perspective.’

I really like how Kathrina breaks adaptability down into those three core areas of cognitive flexibility, ambiguity tolerance and openness to change. The report also covers resiliency so I asked, ‘How does resiliency fit in with adaptability?’

‘Resiliency and adaptability are related to each other, but they’re not the same thing. Adaptability is about how you respond in the moment when you’re faced with change. So, do you adjust your behaviour or thinking to meet the needs of the new situation or do you continue to stick with what you’ve always done? Resilience on the other hand is about getting back up and trying again after being knocked down or facing some sort of adversity. If we look at a manager who changes their management style as their team transitions from being in the office to remote work, they’re demonstrating adaptability. But let’s say the manager gets feedback from their team that maybe some things could change, they’re not doing that great of a job, they don’t feel supported, the manager would demonstrate resilience if they persevere and they say, “Okay. Let me try this again and take what I’ve learned and continue on here.” With this example, we can see how resilience and adaptability can occur in the same situation, but they’re not the same thing.’

My next question was to do with the people that Kathrina spoke to during the research. I asked, ‘What are employees thinking about when it comes to the adaptability of their manager? Are you noticing any differences between different diversity demographics say with LGBT+ staff or disabled staff, for instance?’

‘In the report, we saw that employees felt that their managers do a pretty poor job of being adaptable. Specifically, 69% of employees said that their managers are not adaptable, and we saw that this number was even higher among employees with disabilities, LGBTQ+ employees and employees with caregiving responsibilities. We also found that employees from marginalised racial and ethnic groups were more likely than white employees to report that their managers are not adaptable as well.’

When I read the report, another thing that stood out for me was the role of empathy. I asked Kathrina, ‘If the number one skill for an inclusive leader is really around empathy, what is the role of empathy alongside adaptability?’

‘At Catalyst, we talk about empathy as a skill and it’s the skill of demonstrating that you understand, care and have concern for others. We see empathy as complementing adaptability by helping managers adjust to new circumstances and changes in a way that demonstrates understanding and care for employee needs. So, empathy provides really useful information that managers can take into account when they’re adapting to new challenges with their team. Without empathy, managers might adapt to changes in a way that doesn’t consider the needs and perspectives of their team.’

I was pleased to see empathy being talked about. Whenever we do inclusive leadership training, we work with a team of occupational psychologists to measure six inclusive leadership behaviours. The top behaviour that we look for is empathy. It’s a brilliant connection between what Kathrina found in her research and what the occupational psychologists that we work with are saying inclusive leaders should be developing.” An interesting statistic that jumped out at me when I read Kathrina’s report was that 72% of men thought that their managers were not adaptable compared to 69% overall. I was expecting to see women saying that their managers were not being adaptable rather than men so I asked Kathrina why that might be the case.

‘We were a bit surprised by this finding ourselves at first, but when we started to think about ideal worker norms in gender roles, it started to make a bit more sense. So, like you just said, a greater percentage of men reported that their managers are not adaptable. This was not only higher than what the overall sample reported, but also higher than what women reported. So, men are experiencing less adaptability from their managers. We think this is because of something called the ideal worker norm that shapes expectations of how men should show up at work, namely they should put work first and not let family obligations interfere.

Given these expectations, men may experience less adaptability from their managers in the form of resistance to their use of remote and flexible working arrangements, especially if they’re using them to accommodate caregiving responsibilities because that contradicts masculine gender norms. We can see here that the lack of adaptability not only harms men, but it has consequences that reinforce gendered norms of caretaking and perpetuate an unequal burden expected from women in terms of caregiving as well.’

I also liked the part in the report that said adaptability is empathy and action. There were some interesting numbers to back this up. For example, the report said 2% of respondents reported withdrawal with an empathic and adaptable manager compared to 21% who didn’t have a supportive manager. I asked Kathrina to tell me a bit more about why there was such a big gap.

‘This finding was very interesting and it points to the necessity of both empathy and adaptability for managers, which we highlight a lot in the report. Work withdrawal refers to employees being disengaged from their work or avoiding their work. So, this looks like showing up late to work, taking long breaks or putting little effort into tasks. As you would expect, we found that when employees had managers who were both empathic and adaptable, employees experienced very low levels of work withdrawal and they weren’t avoiding their work as much. They were more engaged in their work.

You might expect then that employees with managers who were not empathetic and were not adaptable either would have the highest levels of work withdrawal, but this wasn’t the case. The data showed that it was employees whose managers had a mismatch. So, they were empathic, but they were not adaptable. Employees who had managers with that typology reported the most work withdrawal.’

So far, we’ve talked about three skills: empathy, resiliency and adaptability. It all sounds positive to me and there are certainly skills that I would like to have when I’m leading my team. I was curious to see if Kathrina thinks it can ever backfire for managers, even though they have these skills.

‘Yes. It can. And I think we see in the finding on work withdrawal that empathy can backfire when it’s not paired with adaptability. We think this is because employees may interpret high amounts of empathy without adaptability as performative words of support without taking action to adjust policies, processes or other work conditions. Employees are feeling like you’re hearing me out and you’re listening and I feel like you’re hearing my perspective and what I’m saying, but you’re not actually taking action to help meet my needs in the workplace and help me get my work done.’

My next question was about how readers who want to empower managers in their organisations to become more adaptable should do to help those managers.

‘In the report, we recommend four steps that managers can take to become adaptable. As with everything, it starts with self-awareness and taking time to reflect on your ability to cope with change. It’s okay if it’s not great. We know from research that humans have a hard time coping with change. So really think about how you have coped in moments of change and uncertainty and are there ways that you can show up better.

The second step we recommend is trying to develop a growth mindset. A growth mindset is the belief that your talents, abilities and skills can be improved and developed and that your intelligence, ability and skills are not fixed. One way that you can try to develop a growth mindset is by framing challenges and setbacks that come with change as learning opportunities to practice new skills and to help you grow.

‘The third step we recommend is creating a climate of psychological safety. This is the shared belief that team members won’t be punished for taking risks, expressing different viewpoints or making mistakes. These are things that are encouraged as a valuable part of the team dynamic. One way that you can create a climate of psychological safety is by, as a manager, openly discussing your failures and mistakes with your team, sharing what you’ve learned from these setbacks, how you adapted and framing these challenges as opportunities for learning, growth and innovation. Encourage employees to share that with you as well as share their different viewpoints and perspectives when you are thinking about the best way to proceed with a task.

The last thing we recommend is stepping out of the role of the expert and lean into curiosity. When you put the pressure on yourself that you’re supposed to know everything, it’s hard to think of different ways to go about doing things or different ways you might adapt to the situation. So lean into your curiosity and ask questions of the situation. Are there things that you’re not considering that you might’ve skipped over before?’

As this is the Inclusive Growth Podcast, I ask everybody this question. ‘What does inclusive growth mean for you? ‘

Kathrina replied, ‘I love this question. I think inclusive growth means fully accepting all parts of yourself and approaching life with curiosity and humility and acceptance of change.’

To read “Adapt or Fail: How Managers Can Enable Everyone to Thrive At Work”, go to the Catalyst website where you can download the full report.

For further information, resources and bespoke support for your organisation’s diversity and inclusion from Toby and his team, head over to the website at

Adapt or Fail: How Managers Enable Thriving at Work - Mildon