Journal of Leadership &
Volume 14 Number 3
February 2008 248-259
© 2008 Baker College
Unpacking Personal Adaptability at Work
David J. O’Connell
St. Ambrose University
Harvard University School of Public Health
Douglas T. Hall
Boston University School of Management
Adaptability is a key competency for career success. In this article, the authors examine how individual adaptability
is associated with the accrual of human capital, the organization of the work environment, and the characteristics of
individuals. They find that a number of factors are particularly strongly related to personal adaptability: gender,
employability, education, and management support. By understanding the variety of factors that are intrinsic to indi-
viduals, those that can be developed within individuals, and work environment design, it seems possible to foster the
development of personal adaptability in the workplace.
Keywords: adaptability; flexibility; work demands; stress; careers
f we doubt that individuals struggle to adapt and
accept change, we need only look at the amazing
success of the “Who Moved My Cheese?” training and
development materials (Johnson, 1998). The materials
are popular for good reason. For many workers, the
cheese has moved multiple times as organizations have
been turned upside down. In place of neat hierarchical
organizational charts, we find a mix of overlapping cir-
cles, process flows, and roles performed by associates,
team members, coaches, and some who are not even
company employees (Pearlman & Barney, 2000). New
workplace technologies require change (Pulakos,
Arad, Donovan, & Plamondon, 2000), and globaliza-
tion demands understanding of new sets of cultural
rules (Sanchez & Levine, 2001). Downsizing, rightsiz-
ing, and outsourcing all contribute to work transience
and affirmation that organizations are not always built
from jobs but from elements of work that need to be
done (Bridges, 1994).
How, in a practical sense, should workers deal with
all of this change and dislocation? How should they
direct their careers, in the near and long term? Take
charge. That is the advice given by career experts. It
is “You & Co”; we are all self-employed (Bridges,
1994; Hakim, 1994). Our careers are “boundaryless”
(Arthur & Rousseau, 1996), so opportunities tran-
scend individual employment arrangements (Arthur,
Khapova, & Wilderom, 2005).
In this turbulent environment, individuals navigate
more career transitions and must be adaptable and
competent learners (Hall & Chandler, 2005). However,
personal career management and internal changes are
more easily proclaimed than accomplished. Enacting a
protean career in a shifting landscape of work may not
be equally easy for all workers. The merit of such a
new career form has been questioned by Scott (2003)
who contends that “such a vision seems overly utopian
and, at best, would characterize a minority of high-end
careers....Even Proteus needs some tangible social
supports!” (p. 334). When faced with turmoil and
change, why is it that some workers seem to thrive,
whereas others suffer psychological or physical dis-
tress? In this article, we explore personal adaptability,
one attribute that is important in dealing with change
and taking charge of career direction (Heslin, 2005).
By better understanding the correlates of adaptability
in a turbulent workplace, the hope is to provide better
This article is a substantial revision of a paper presented at the
2004 Midwest Academy of Management meeting. This research
was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Office
of Worker and Community Transition. This article benefited from
the helpful comments of two anonymous reviewers. Dr. Monica
Forret also provided valuable insights for the initial composition
and subsequent revision of the article.
O’Connell et al. / Unpacking Personal Adaptability 249
insights for how individuals can develop this meta-
competency and how it might be fostered through the
structure of work.
Adaptability has been proposed by Hall (2002) as
a career metacompetency, which along with personal
identity forms the core of a protean career. It is, at its
core, the capacity to change, including both the com-
petence and the motivation to do so (Hall & Chandler,
Although recent work has addressed adaptive behav-
iors as they relate to particular types of jobs (Pulakos
et al., 2000), beyond Hall’s (2002) work, this concept
has not been extensively developed in the careers liter-
ature (Goodman, 1994). Little empirical work has
been done to measure and carefully explore its corre-
lates, and there are still gaps in our understanding of the
psychological resources that are needed as individuals
make adult career transitions (Ebberwein, Krieshok,
Ulven, & Prosser, 2004). Recently, Hall (2002) raised
the question this way:
To what extent is adaptability a function of personal-
ity or age and state versus a skill and outlook that can
be developed?....From the literature, it appears
that the answer is that it is both. There is a need for
careful research that would measure a combination
of key person variables and key situational variables,
however, so that we might quantify the relative con-
tributions of each set of variables to the variance in
adaptability motivation and behavior. Although this
question always seems to be lurking in the literature,
it has not been addressed directly. (p. 231)
The purpose of this article is to address those ques-
tions. By building on the work of R. W. Morrison and
Hall (2001) and Hall (2002), we propose that three
groups of factors such as the characteristics of the indi-
vidual, the characteristics of the work environment,
and the measure of human capital are correlates (and
perhaps antecedents) of personal adaptability (see
Figure 1). The goal is to understand more clearly
the genesis and support of personal adaptability in the
workplace. As we unpack personal adaptability and the
role of dispositional and situational correlates, we may
provide a bit more guidance for those involved in the
changing career landscape of the early 21st century.
Adaptability is a personal quality that is important
in handling ambiguity, dealing with uncertainty and
stress, and in working outside traditional temporal and
geographic boundaries (Pearlman & Barney, 2000).
One might argue that adaptability is an innate part
of individuals’ personalities. Some careers research
has followed this approach, seeing adaptability as a
relatively inflexible disposition (Metz, 2004). At the
same time, specific advice has been offered on how
individuals might increase their personal adaptability
(Heslin, 2005), assuming that adaptability is mal-
leable. To explore these contrasting views, we pro-
pose that adaptability is shaped by a number of
factors that are both internal and external to individu-
als. We argue that some individual factors such as
age, race, and gender might influence adaptability
insomuch as these attributes may set expectations
according to social norms and produce differences in
preferences and treatment in the workplace.
Furthermore, we propose that the accrual of human
capital in terms of occupational status, education,
tenure in a work organization, experience working for
a contract-based employer, and perceived employa-
bility affect one’s sense of adaptability. We also argue
that aspects of the work environment may increase or
diminish one’s self-reported adaptability. In this
regard, we follow the lead of stress researchers,
focusing on work demand, managerial support, and
personal control (Karasek & Theorell, 1990; Van
Yperen & Hagedoorn, 2003). Finally, we propose
that the receipt of adequate workplace communica-
tion may enhance personal adaptability, as suggested
by the literature on organizational change and
restructuring (Brockner, 1992).
By investigating adaptability from this perspective,
we believe that this inquiry will be important to human
resources and career practitioners. For instance, if
A conceptual model of antecedents
of personal adaptability.
SOURCE: Some elements of this model are drawn from
R. W. Morrison and Hall (2001) and Hall, Zhu, and Yan (2002).
employability, education, and particular kinds of work
experience make people more adaptable, then career
coaches or perhaps those involved in leadership devel-
opment might pay attention to the positive value of
those experiences. Likewise, if work design and imple-
mentation factors such as personal control, managerial
support, work demand, and communication are impor-
tant in fostering adaptability, then there might be clear
implications for action.
Is it the buster, boomer, or old guard employee who
will be the most adaptable? Those of the Gen X gen-
eration, born between 1965 and 1981, differ in notable
ways from their predecessors of the Silent Generation,
born between 1925 and 1942, and the Baby Boomers,
born between 1943 and 1964. Gen Xers tend to dis-
trust hierarchy, like more informal arrangements, and
prefer to make judgments based on merit rather than
on status. They entered the workforce under a new
employment “deal,” in which career planning and
development are largely individual responsibilities
and where the average worker can expect to make sev-
eral significant changes in employment and/or career
direction during their working lives. So it seems likely
that those of the X generation will be more adaptable
than those in some other age categories.
R. W. Morrison and Hall (2001) report the work of
Ayres and Potter (1989), indicating that the motiva-
tion to change decreases with age and propose that
middle-age individuals should be more adaptable
than elderly ones. Also, R. W. Morrison and Hall note
that middle-aged and older adults (Reise & Gold,
1993) may have negative attitudes toward develop-
mental experiences that are required to become
adaptable because such experiences may be taking
place at an unexpected time in their lives, perhaps at
a time when such need for adaptation is unexpected.
We offer the following hypothesis regarding age
Hypothesis 1: Age will be negatively related to personal
Gender and Race
Race and gender may be related to individuals’
personal adaptability. Many studies have shown that,
on average, women are more empathic than men,
with superior ability to read others’ unstated feelings
(Goleman, 1995). Perhaps this superior ability to read
cues, combined with the disproportionate amount of
relational work performed by women in organiza-
tions (Fletcher, 2001), might enhance women’s esti-
mation of their own motivation and competence to
successfully engage with changing circumstances.
In contrast to this assumption of advantage, gender
and race have each been associated with negative out-
comes in the workplace, such as harassment and dis-
crimination (Deitch et al., 2003; Segrave, 1994). It is
reasonable to expect that these experiences may affect
personal resiliency and control in groups that have
been harassed or that have suffered from discrimina-
tion. Furthermore, certain classes of individuals may
lack sufficient resources necessary to acquire human
capital. For example, wage and income levels are
known to be disproportionately lower for women
compared to men and for Blacks compared to Whites
(Gottschalk & Danzinger, 2005). Exactly what these
circumstances mean for adaptability is unclear: Does
adversity or scarcity teach adaptability or squelch it?
Lacking specific research support related to adaptabil-
ity, these two demographic variables are examined on
an exploratory basis.
Human capital is the intrinsic value of an employee’s
knowledge and skill. In a broad sense, human capital
consists in two dimensions: (a) value, as represented by
contributions that can enhance organizational compe-
tency, effectiveness, and or efficiency; and (b) unique-
ness, shown as tacit knowledge or expertise. Forret
(2006) describes human capital as work experience,
education, knowledge, skills, abilities, and training.
Human capital represents much of an organization’s
knowledge and is an important resource in achieving
competitive advantage (Hitt & Ireland, 2002).
Although employees possess their own human cap-
ital, firms try to protect themselves from the move-
ment of their human capital investments to other
organizations (Lepak & Snell, 1999). In other words,
employees who possess greater amounts of human
capital are likely to be more valued compared to peers
with lesser human capital. It is thought that in the cur-
rent career environment, workers must make decisions
about the cost of developing their skills and how to
trade off between using current skills and developing
new capacities (King, Burke, & Pemberton, 2005). In
this study, we explore five career-related dimensions
of human capital: perceived employability, occupa-
tional status, education, work tenure, and contract-
based work experience.
250 Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies
O’Connell et al. / Unpacking Personal Adaptability 251
Employability is bolstered by networking and by
continuously updating job skills (Forret & Sullivan,
2003). Confidence and optimism about one’s ability
to apply current skills to a variety of settings may
help fuel career success. R. W. Morrison and Hall
(2001), drawing from Hansson, DeKoekkoek, Neece,
and Patterson (1997), note that adaptation is difficult
for older workers who feel that their skills are becom-
ing obsolete. When it comes to obsolete skills, the
same may be true for workers of all ages. Just as self-
confidence can influence goals and effort, confidence
in the currency and transferability of one’s skills may
fuel one’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
Specifically, as an individual’s confidence in the mar-
ketability of her skills increases, both the competence
and confidence to adjust to changing circumstances
should likewise be bolstered.
Hypothesis 2: Perceived employability will be posi-
tively related to personal adaptability.
R. W. Morrison and Hall (2001), drawing on the
work of Gradman (1994), propose that higher occupa-
tional status can lead to greater role flexibility and
communication ability. It is this same line of thought
that fuels Scott’s (2003) critique of protean career
theory. He suggests that the protean shape-changing
career (which encompasses personal identity and
adaptability) might be a reality only for those in
“high-end careers” (p. 334). Scott’s position is tenable
because managerial status is associated with hierar-
chical power and brings with it increased authority
and personal discretion. Successful executives tend to
develop personal qualities that make it possible for
them to cope with the many ambiguities that fill their
days. This includes learning those situations one can
control and those one cannot (McCall, Lombardo, &
Professional occupations are identified by six char-
acteristics: expertise, autonomy, commitment to a spe-
cialty, identification with a profession, ethical conduct,
and standards of practice (Kerr & Von Glinow, 1977).
The cosmopolitan framing of professional careers may
be related to a sense of agency and personal adapt-
ability. Although holding either managerial or profes-
sional status does not guarantee adaptability, the
formal power of managers and expert power of pro-
fessionals may increase their perceived options both
within and across organizational borders. Based on this
logic, we offer the following:
Hypothesis 3: Those in professional and managerial
occupations will be more adaptable than will those
in other occupational categories.
Skills must be constantly updated to succeed in the
“new deal” for work (King et al., 2005). Formal edu-
cation is one way to do that. Prior research has shown
that formal and experience-based learning affects the
adaptability of ministers (Blanchard, 1981) and mili-
tary recruits (Nelson, 1975). We expect that a similar
effect would occur in other occupational categories as
well. Increases in education should contribute to the
cognitive complexity of individuals, increasing their
ability to navigate changing circumstances. This abil-
ity in turn may contribute to personal adaptability.
For these reasons, we offer the following hypothesis:
Hypothesis 4: Education level will be positively related
to personal adaptability.
King et al. (2005) note that “most human capital
theorists assert that career mobility has a negative
impact on career outcomes because workers’ wages
rise with firm tenure. This is because a longer tenure
implies the accumulation of more firm-specific skills,
and/or a better match between worker capabilities and
job needs” (p. 985). Conversely, the authors claim that
“mobility between jobs and projects facilitates regular
updating because it increases the range of skills and
knowledge acquired” (p. 986).
Adaptive motivation may be specifically related to
participation in, commitment to, and success in chang-
ing activities (R. W. Morrison & Hall, 2001). Drawing
on the work of Ortiz (1978), R. W. Morrison and Hall
suggest that individuals may become less flexible as
they stay in the same roles over time. Goodman (1994)
points to research on midcareer transitions and the pos-
sibility that transitions across roles enhance adapt-
ability (Hall, 1986). In contrast to long-term status in
continued roles, transition experiences can have posi-
tive consequences as “with each new level of routine
established comes a heightened level of adaptability, as
the person experiences confidence in his or her ability
to learn how to learn new career roles” (Hall, 1986,
p. 145). Conversely, the lack of such work experience
diversity may negatively affect personal adaptability.
Specifically, long-term employment at one work site
may limit developmental experiences available through
exposure to more varying work situations. Based on
this logic, we propose the following:
252 Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies
Hypothesis 5: The length of tenure at one work site will
be negatively related to personal adaptability.
Contract-Based Work Experience
Experience as an independent contractor or as a
subcontractor may create some advantages for learn-
ing adaptability. When staffing temporary employment
positions, both staffing agencies and client organiza-
tions “strive to attract temporaries who display a high
degree of social versatility, a willingness to ‘blend in’
with other organizational communities, and a readiness
for continuous learning and change” (Garsten, 1999,
p. 615). Arthur, DeFillippi, and Jones (2001) claim that
moving across projects facilitates the development and
deployment of transferable skills, although some inde-
pendent contractors are frustrated by the continual
travel across employment settings that results in being
“perpetual newcomers” (Kunda, Barley, & Evans,
2002, p. 250). In their study of contract workers,
Kunda et al. (2002) reported the comments from one
interviewee: “You’re having to figure out a new culture
every time you change jobs” (p. 250).
At the time this research was conducted, a major
restructuring was underway. Many employees arriving
on the work site as a result of the restructuring had been
working for a large firm specialized in contract-based
construction projects. The company gained business
by bidding on major engineering, construction, and/or
demolition projects on a global basis. Employees of this
type of organization have a strong incentive to complete
work and move on to other contracts and locations.
Many in such contract organizations have experienced
continual shifts in project focus and geography. On-site
interviews showed a strong sense among some workers
that those who had recently worked for the global con-
tract company were dealing with change more effec-
tively. Although the employees of this firm were not
individual contractors and might stay with that same
construction organization for many years, it seems that
their practice at adaptability may place them at an
advantage, as they continually learn while moving from
one project to the next. Recognizing that “practice
makes perfect,” we propose the following:
Hypothesis 6: Adaptability will be stronger for those
with recent contract-based employment than for
those who lack such work experience.
In addition to individual differences and human cap-
ital characteristics, a number of workplace factors may
also shape personal adaptability. This line of thought
stems from a significant stream of research investigat-
ing the impact of work demands, personal control, and
social support on physical and psychological reactions
to work (Karasek & Theorell, 1990; Van Yperen &
Although it is theoretically possible for a job to be
underloaded, the greater risk to workers comes from
jobs that are overloaded, leaving few slack resources to
deal with change. As work demands rise, workers’ cop-
ing skills may be stretched, leading to a reduced sense
of personal adaptability. For this reason, we offer the
Hypothesis 7: Work demands will be negatively related
to personal adaptability.
Effective leaders support their followers, provid-
ing the tools and resources needed to follow a vision
(Kouzes & Posner, 2002). Social support, “overall levels
of helpful social interaction available on the job from
both co-workers and supervisors,” (Karasek & Theorell,
1990, p. 69), may enhance the way in which followers
personally adjust and adapt to changing circumstances,
facilitating active coping. Just as coping is facilitated,
such support may also enhance individuals’ personal
sense of adaptability, as suggested in the following
Hypothesis 8: Managerial support will be positively
related to personal adaptability.
Adaptability may be briefly described as the
capacity to respond to challenges with resilience. The
notion of responding with resilience implies agency,
the ability to make an impact and to act as an agent in
effecting control over one’s work environment and
work outcomes. Wall, Jackson, Mullarky, and Parker
(1996) summarize the role of such control in job
strain research this way: “Increased control reduces
the effects of stressors by allowing individuals to face
demands when they are best able to do so and in ways
they find most acceptable” (p. 155). As individuals
shape the timing and methods used to face demands,
they may also grow in their personal sense of adapt-
ability. Therefore, we offer the following hypothesis:
Hypothesis 9: Perception of personal control will be
positively related to adaptability.
R. W. Morrison and Hall (2001) propose that orga-
nization policies and practices may act as either
inhibitors or enhancers of the adaptation process. For
instance, as noted by Erlich and Lee (1969), skilled
leaders can assist with the adaptation process by their
use of different communication techniques.
For those who are seeking to foster change within
organizations, there are clear indications that commu-
nication plays a crucial role. Kotter (1996) put it this
way: “All successful cases of major change seem
to include tens of thousands of communications that
help employees to grapple with difficult intellectual
and emotional issues” (p. 94). When employees feel
that they are well-informed on key workplace issues,
they may also have a great sense of competence and
skill in navigating current and future changes. With
this in mind, we offer the following:
Hypothesis 10: The level of organizational communica-
tion received by an individual will be positively
related to personal adaptability.
This research was conducted in a setting in which a
small number of major employers had shaped the work
expectations of multiple generations. The locations for
this study were some of the nuclear production and
maintenance facilities of the U.S. government. They
present a microcosm, if not a crucible, of change in the
modern workplace. As the nuclear needs of the country
have changed since the cold war era, there has also
been a move to privatize local economies, some of
which were virtually built around government-
sponsored installations. These settings can foster the
collision of new and old work models, varying career
expectations and great uncertainty about ongoing skill
relevance and employability. In that context, some
workers have strong and long-term ties to particular
regions and employers, where continued work at that
location is a key issue in their lives. Family ties, friend-
ship networks, and personal histories provided strong
ties to stable long-term employment.
A combination of on-site administrations and mail
surveys yielded a total of 604 usable surveys, for a
52% response rate. Seventy percent of the respondents
were male. Eighty-seven percent were Caucasian, and
9% were African American. Eighteen percent of the
respondents were under age 40, 40% were age 40 to
49, and 39% were 50 years of age or older. Thirty-
eight percent of the respondents had a high school
diploma or equivalent, 34% held college degrees, and
28% held postgraduate degrees. Overall, the sample
mirrored the population quite well in terms of age,
gender, and ethnicity. Respondents were slightly above
the population averages for education and salary level.
Age was initially measured as an ordinal variable
with response categories including less than 30,
30-39, 40-49, 50-55, and 55
. To better approximate
a continuous measure of age, the values were entered
as follows: less than 30 became 20; 30-39 became
34.5; 40-49 became 44.5; 50-55 became 52.5; 55
Education level was measured as an ordinal vari-
able with the following response categories: less than
a high school diploma, high school graduate or equiv-
alency diploma, college degree, graduate school
training, and postgraduate degree. To better approxi-
mate a continuous measure of education, the values
were entered as approximate years of education as
follows: less than a high school diploma became 10;
high school graduate or equivalency diploma became
12; college degree became 16; graduate school train-
ing became 17, and postgraduate degree became 19.
Tenure on Work Site
Respondents indicated the number of years of ser-
vice at their current work site. The five response cat-
egories were less than a year, between 1 and 5 years,
between 5 and 10 years, between 10 and 20 years,
and greater than 20 years.
Work demand was based on five items from the
Job Content Questionnaire (Karasek et al., 1985),
which is a widely used and validated instrument for
the measure of job strain. The questionnaire has been
translated into multiple languages and used in numer-
ous national and international studies. The specific
items of the work demand subscale were as follows:
“I am not asked to do an excessive amount of work”;
O’Connell et al. / Unpacking Personal Adaptability 253
254 Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies
“I have enough time to get the job done”; “My tasks
are often interrupted before they can be completed,
requiring attention at a later time”; and “My job is
very hectic.” Respondents selected one of four cate-
gories, ranging from strongly agree to strongly dis-
agree. The scale showed a Cronbach’s alpha of .81.
The measurement of manager support included
five items: “My immediate/direct manager cares
about people who work for him/her”; “My immedi-
ate/direct manager pays attention to what I have to
say”; “I am exposed to hostility from my direct man-
ager”; “My direct manager is helpful in getting the
job done”; and “My direct manager is helpful in get-
ting people to work together.” The supervisory sup-
port items were based on the five items from the Job
Content Questionnaire (Karasek et al., 1985), mea-
suring supervisory concern, supervisory attention,
supervisory hostility, supervisory helpfulness, and
Respondents selected one of four categories, rang-
ing from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The
alpha reliability was .91.
Personal control was measured with three items
based on Karasek (1979), including “My job allows
me to make a lot of decisions on my own,” “I have
very little freedom to decide how I do my work,” and
“I have a lot of say about what happens on my job.”
The scale reliability was .81.
This short scale was informed by Brockner’s
(1992) work that described the importance of commu-
nication for employees in circumstances of organiza-
tional change and transition. He identified particular
types of communication as important for coping. We
created a short scale to evaluate the adequacy of orga-
nizational information as a lever for adaptability. In
addition, two of those items are conceptually related
to the “corporate information” dimension of the
Communication Satisfaction Questionnaire (Downs &
Hazen, 1977), which asks about notification regarding
changes and information about the overall policies
and goals of the organization. It also asks in the
Supervisory Communication Scale about the extent to
which respondents feel they get guidance in solving
work-related problems. The organizational integration
dimension explores satisfaction with information
about job requirements and about departmental plans.
Although the communication scale we used in our
study did not have a direct ancestor in the literature,
dimensions tapped have been seen as important by
other researchers. In a principal components factor
analysis with varimax rotation of all the items for five
scales in the study (managerial support, communica-
tion, employability, adaptability, and job demands),
the communication items loaded on a separate factor,
with loadings ranging from .65 to .80. The communi-
cation scale showed a standardized alpha score of .84.
Recent Contractor-Based Employer Experience
This was measured by asking respondents if they
were employed by the major global construction and
engineering firm that had recently created a new orga-
nization to take a leadership role at the key work site.
Although it is possible that some of the other respon-
dents also worked for employers who did contract
work, it had been specifically suggested in field inter-
views that employees of this particular global con-
struction firm, based in project work, might be better
able to adapt to and navigate change.
Respondents indicated which of the following
descriptions best fit their current jobs: office/clerical/
administrative; craft worker; technician; laborer; ser-
vice worker; professional; officials and managers; or
other. The professional and officials and managers
categories were combined, creating two categories:
professional/managerial and others.
Given our inquiry within a set of organizations
undergoing significant change, we also wanted to
tap into respondents’ notions about advancement and
work responsibilities; the prospects for employment
continuation seemed to be of particular importance. A
measure for employability was based on the idea of
job insecurity and adopted from the National Institute
of Occupational Safety and Health Generic Job Stress
Questionnaire (Hurrell & McLaney, 1988). The scale
tapped into respondents’ certainty about their future
career picture, using the following items: “How cer-
tain are you about what your career picture looks
like?” “How certain are you of opportunities which
exist for promotion and advancement in the next
few years?” “How certain are you about whether
your job skills will be of use and value 5 years from
now?” “How certain are you about what your work
responsibilities will be 6 months from now?” and
“If you lost your job how certain are you that you
O’Connell et al. / Unpacking Personal Adaptability 255
could support yourself?” There were five response
categories, ranging from somewhat uncertain to very
certain. In factor analysis, these items loaded on a
single factor when entered with all the items com-
prising the managerial support, communication,
adaptability, and job demands scales. The employa-
bility scale showed a standardized alpha of .76.
The Adaptability Scale was based on items devel-
oped by R. F. Morrison (1996). Some of the items in the
scale include the following: “I find it hard to adjust to
doing new tasks in my job” “It is hard for me to adapt
to new people joining my team” and “I find it very dis-
couraging when the work that I do in my job changes.”
Factor analysis (principal components analysis with
varimax rotation) showed that these seven items loaded
independently of other key constructs in the study. The
seven-item scale had a Cronbach’s alpha of .83.
When tested by simple correlation analysis, neither
age, gender, nor race is significantly related to per-
sonal adaptability. When the three variables are
entered as a single block in hierarchical regression,
gender is significantly related to adaptability (p = .01),
with women being significantly more adaptable than
men (p = .05). This shows no support for Hypothesis
1 and indicates that there is a significant relationship
between gender and adaptability.
Human Capital Factors
When tested through simple correlation analysis,
all of the human capital factors are related to adapt-
ability: employability, occupational status, education,
and experience with a global contractor firm are all
positively related, whereas length of tenure in the sin-
gle work site is related negatively (see Table 1). When
entered as a block in regression analysis, the human
capital factors account for a significant amount
of variance in adaptability (R
= .164; change in F =
18.6; p < .01). When individual differences are
accounted for, as well as environmental factors, two
variables continue to be significantly related to adapt-
ability: employability (p < .01) and education (p <
.05). In sum, there is strong support for Hypotheses
2 and 4. Hypotheses 3, 5, and 6 are not supported.
Work Environment Factors
When analyzed with simple correlation, manager-
ial support, personal control, and communication are
all positively related to adaptability, whereas work
demand is not significantly related. When the individ-
ual and human capital factors are all accounted for, as
shown in regression Model 3 in Table 2, one environ-
mental factor remains significant: management sup-
port (beta = .27; p < .01). In sum, there is no support
Correlations and Descriptive Statistics
1. Age in years
1.13 0.34 .15**
1.30 0.46 −.23** –0.05
4. Skill security 2.11 0.76 −.06 −.00 .03
5. Occupation status
1.57 0.50 −.11** −.06 −.16** .20**
6. Education 15.00 2.57 −.11** −.02 −.09* .19** .56**
7. Tenure 12.04 8.47 .31** .16** −.14** −.18** −.18** −.19**
8. Contractor experience 0.08 0.27 .02 .02 −.02 .19** .19** .15** −.25**
9. Work demand 2.67 0.61 −.14** −.03 .13** −.09* .16** .11** −.01 −.04
10. Managerial support 3.00 0.52 −.07 −.02 .03 .33** .21** .11** −.11** .14** .03
11. Personal control 2.94 0.64 −.02 −.02 .02 .39** .28** .16** −.17** .17** −.09* .64**
12. Communication 3.02 0.66 .04 .11* .06 .43** .06 .03 −.08 .12** −.28** .43** .50**
13. Adaptability 3.18 0.47 −.04 .07 .08 .34** .19** .19** −.13** .15** −.06 .39** .34** .30**
a. Categorical responses, with range from “less than 20” to “55+.” The approximate midpoint of category used in computation.
b. Caucasian = 1; all other ethnic groups = 2.
c. Male = 1; female = 2.
d. Professionals/managers = 1; others = 2
*p < .05. **p < .01.
256 Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies
for Hypothesis 7, strong support for Hypothesis 8, and
no support for Hypotheses 9 and 10.
As examined in this study, human capital factors
(employability, occupational status, education,
tenure, and global contractor experience) accounted
for the greatest amount of variance in personal adapt-
ability. When the full model is examined, education
and employability are the human capital factors with
the strongest relationship to adaptability. Although
work environment factors, as a group, account for the
next largest amount of variance in adaptability, man-
agement support is the only significant individual
factor. When the human capital and environmental
factors are accounted for, gender is strongly related to
adaptability: Females are more adaptable.
Implications on the Individual Level
Contrary to our prediction, age was not related to
personal adaptability. This should give us pause if we
tend to broadly stereotype entire generations as more
or less willing to adapt to workplace changes.
Perhaps it should be no surprise to discover that,
when other factors are accounted for, women are
significantly more adaptable than men. Although
circumstances have changed to some degree during
the past 20 years, it is women who have borne the
brunt of juggling work and nonwork priorities. As
noted earlier in the article, it may well be that adapt-
ability may be related in some way to the findings
that women generally are more empathetic than men
(Goleman, 1995) and have often done a great deal of
the relational work that is important to organizations’
function (Fletcher, 2001).
Human Capital Factors
When examining a set of five human capital factors,
only two—perceived employability (Hypothesis 2)
and education (Hypothesis 4)—were positively
related to personal adaptability.
The strong relationship of education and adapt-
ability may imply at least two different things. First,
we may consider that certain aspects of the protean
career, in which adaptability and identity are key
(Hall, 2002), may not be as easily accessible to work-
ers with lower levels of education. Perhaps the notion
of adaptability is, to some degree, an elitist concept.
Alternatively, we may see the possibility of adaptabil-
ity itself being teachable. What specifically is there
about advanced education that brings about a higher
sense of personal adaptability? If it is accumulated
cognitive complexity accrued through many years of
learning, that certainly cannot be imparted quickly.
However, if there are certain ways of framing one’s
experience or interpreting the world that are key to
adaptability, these may provide avenues for training
and coaching workers with lower education levels.
Those with a stronger sense of personal employa-
bility appear to be more adaptable than others.
Although all individuals in a shifting workplace may
experience stress, those who feel that their skills give
them options for other employment see themselves as
better prepared and ready to make changes. Those
who are unsure about their skill currency, and hence
employability, may feel less adaptable due to their
limited marketability. In the environment where this
study was conducted, some types of work had
become very site specific, leaving employees with the
feeling that their ability to adapt and change was lim-
ited by the employment market. This only reinforces
the notion that skill currency and marketability are
important in developing flexible careers.
Implications on the Environmental Level
Once other factors had been accounted for, only
managerial support was related to personal adaptability.
Results of Hierarchical Linear
Regression Analysis, With Variable
Groupings Entered as Blocks
Individual Differences Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
Age −.02 .02 .03
Ethnic group .07 .08* .07
Gender .08 .11** .11**
Human capital factors
Employability .29** .16**
Occupational status .09 .06
Education .11* .12*
Years of service −.04 −.03
Contractor experience .05 .03
Job demands −.06
Management support .27**
.012 .164 .248
.006 .151 .230
Change in R
*p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001.
This has implications both for job design and manage-
rial practice. It could be that managerial support may
fuel individuals’ ability to adapt to changing circum-
stances, perhaps even beyond the immediate jobs in
which they find themselves. It is interesting to find that
the level of work demands was not directly related to
personal adaptability. So it would seem that the level of
job demands in itself does not drive one’s ability to
adapt. The resources for doing so in terms of the imme-
diate work environment may flow from a supportive
manager, even if the job is one with a great deal of
Hall and Chandler (2005) state, “The person with
high adaptability would have the capacity to engage
proactively in the process of goal-setting, initiating effort,
and achieving psychological success” (pp. 163-164).
They also note, “In a world characterized by frequent
career transitions for the individual and by careers as
mini-stages (shorter learning cycles) (Hall, 1993;
2002), individuals are thrown into more unfamiliar sit-
uations and are expected to be resilient and successful.
Only those who are capable of responding to these
types of circumstances can thrive in today’s protean
career context” (p. 164).
If indeed personal adaptability is so central to career
success, perhaps both individual workers and work-
place managers have a role to play. Based on this study,
the value of personal learning is clear. This should
offer further encouragement to pursue both formal
and informal educational opportunities on an ongoing
basis. The finding that managerial support is related to
personal adaptability raises the stakes for managers.
By offering appropriate support to workers, it seems
that managers may bolster individuals’ motivation and
sense of competence in dealing with change.
Limitations and Future Research
Although this study did use a large and diverse set
of respondents, it is cross-sectional. This means that
we cannot be certain about the direction of the rela-
tionships. For instance, we sense that education is a
precursor of enhanced adaptability. However, could it
be that the relationship flows in the opposite direction?
Perhaps those with higher levels of personal adaptabil-
ity pursue more educational opportunities. This line of
reasoning might also apply to perceived employability.
Perhaps it is a sense of adaptability that drives individ-
uals’ sense of marketability. The findings regarding
managerial support seem less equivocal: It is difficult
to imagine how individual adaptability would drive
managerial support. The questions about directionality
of relationships could be addressed through longitudi-
nal designs in future studies. By repeatedly measuring
personal adaptability and its perceived antecedents
over time, the direction of statistical relationships could
One might argue that the findings are not applicable
in all work settings due to the specific work environ-
ments where the study occurred. The significant
restructuring and uncertainty about future employment
were central issues as we interviewed and surveyed
workers. However, one may also argue that significant
findings discovered in the midst of very high levels of
uncertainty and stress might be especially interesting.
Any factors that seemed to enhance adaptability in the
midst of such stress may show positive impacts in a
wide range of less intense work situations.
There might also be opportunities for measuring
some of the human capital factors in even more fine-
grained ways. In particular, our simple measure of
recent work for a global construction contractor might
be refined to explore the amount of transience or pro-
ject-focused tasks embedded in the work of many indi-
viduals. Many employers and many jobs deal with
continually changing projects for a variety of clients,
internal and external to firms. Capturing that dimension
more richly might help us better understand how adapt-
ability could be fostered as a part of work experience.
Our model is simple and direct. Future research
may specifically examine the interaction of multiple
variables that might affect personal adaptability. For
instance, if gender were examined as a primary inde-
pendent variable, one might explore interactions with
a variety of other human capital and work environ-
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David J. O’Connell is an associate professor of management at
St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.
Eileen McNeely is an instructor in the Environmental and
Occupational Medicine Program, Harvard School of Public Health.
Douglas T. Hall is the Morton H. and Charlotte Friedman Professor
in Management in the Organizational Behavior Department of the
School of Management, Boston University.