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Recipient of the 2004 SIOP M. Scott Myers Award for Applied Research in the Workplace 

PDRIs Adaptability Research Program1

Elaine D. Pulakos, David W. Dorsey, & Rose A. Mueller-Hanson 

Also playing key roles in PDRIs adaptability research program were Sharon Arad, Walter C. Borman, Michelle Donovan, Jerry Hedge, Kevin Plamondon, Neal Schmitt, and Susan White

1 This article is based on the following SIOP presentation: Pulakos, E. D., Dorsey, D. W., & Mueller-Hanson, R. A. (2005, April). M. Scott Myers Award for Applied Research in the Workplace: PDRIs Adaptability Research Program. Special event presented at the 20th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Los Angeles, CA.

Todays organizations are characterized by changing, dynamic environments in which the need for adaptive workers has become increasingly important (Edwards & Morrison, 1994; Hollenbeck, LePine, & Ilgen, 1996; Ilgen & Pulakos, 1999; Smith, Ford, & Kozlowski, 1997). For example, employees must frequently adjust to new ways of performing their jobs as changing technologies and automation continue to alter the nature of work tasks (Patrickson, 1987; Thach & Woodman, 1994). Furthermore, the environment of mergers, rightsizing, and corporate restructuring is requiring employees to adapt and expand their skill sets to be competitive for different jobs (Kinicki & Latack, 1990). And, of course, todays global economy calls for many individuals to regularly adjust the way they do business in order to facilitate operations in different countries and with diverse individuals who may be different than themselves (Black, 1990; Noe & Ford, 1992). Workers need to be increasingly adaptable, versatile, and tolerant of uncertainty to operate effectively in these changing and varied environments, and this need will only increase as the pace of change continues to grow. Accordingly, both researchers and practitioners in organizations have begun to take steps toward understanding and enhancing adaptability in the workplace. Yet, adaptability, flexibility, and versatility are elusive concepts that traditionally have not been well defined in the psychological literature and therefore are difficult to measure, predict, and train effectively. The primary goal of PDRIs applied adaptability research program was to address these issues.

The overriding purpose of the adaptability research program was to clarify the ways in which adaptability is manifested in the workplace and to develop tools for organizations to enhance the adaptive proficiency of their workforces. Specifically, the research program had four primary objectives: (a) to explore the concept of adaptive performance in work contexts and more precisely define a model of adaptive performance requirements of jobs, (b) to develop and validate predictors of adaptive performance, (c) to design training to facilitate the learning of adaptive skills on the job, and (d) to explore the concept of team adaptive performance in work contexts and more precisely define a model of team adaptive performance requirements.
In this essay, we will describe the steps we have taken to address these goals.

Part 1: Development of a Model of Individual Adaptive Performance

The goal of Part 1 of our applied research program was to develop a taxonomy of adaptive job performance along the lines of the job performance model developed by Campbell, McCloy, Oppler, and Sager (1993). Although models have been published in the literature covering various aspects of the performance domain (e.g., technical performance, contextual performance), researchers have recently recognized a void in these models and have called for their expansion to include adaptive performance components (Campbell, 1999; Hesketh & Neal, 1999; London & Mone, 1999; Murphy & Jackson, 1999). Accordingly, the primary purpose of our line of research inquiry was to address this void and contribute to the performance model literature by developing and testing models of adaptive job performance.

We used six preliminary dimensions of individual adaptive performance derived from the literature as a starting point for our Part 1 research. Although the idea that adaptive performance is multidimensional seemed reasonable based on the wide range of behaviors adaptability has encompassed in the literature, no published research had systematically defined or empirically examined specific dimensions of adaptive job performance. However, we felt this was critical in order to make advancements in the selection and development of adaptive workers. That is, there needed to be a solid foundation for understanding adaptive performance before trying to predict it or improve it through training.

Two studies were conducted to refine the model of individual adaptive job performance. In Study 1, more than 1,000 critical incidents from 21 different jobs were content analyzed, yielding an eight-dimension taxonomy of adaptive performance. This model was empirically investigated in Study 2 with the development and administration of the Job Adaptability Inventory (JAI), an instrument designed to describe the adaptability requirements of jobs. Exploratory factor analyses of JAI data from 1,619 respondents across 24 jobs yielded an eight-factor solution that mirrored the hypothesized eight-dimension taxonomy from Study 1. Subsequent confirmatory factor analyses on the remainder of the sample (N = 1,715) indicated a good fit for the eight-factor model. The eight dimensions of adaptive performance are as follows: (a) handling emergencies or crisis situations; (b) learning work tasks, technologies, and procedures; (c) handling work stress; (d) demonstrating interpersonal adaptability; (e) displaying cultural adaptability; (f)solving problems creatively; (g) dealing effectively with unpredictable or changing work situations; and (h) demonstrating physically oriented adaptability.

The above research is described in detail in Pulakos, Arad, Donovan, and Plamondon (2000), but there are two important points to highlight here. First, the research showed that adaptive performance is a multidimensional construct. An eight-dimension taxonomy was supported by exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses of JAI data. Second, the JAI instrument was shown useful for describing different adaptability requirements of jobs. That is, the profiles of jobs adaptability requirements varied predictably along the eight dimensions identified in the model, which we proposed had important implications for selection and training.

Part 2: Development and Validation of Predictors of Individual Adaptive Performance

The next step of our research program was to extend investigation and further test the Pulakos et al. (2000) eight-dimension taxonomy of adaptive performance by using other types of individual difference and job performance measures. We developed a criterion measure of adaptive performance (using the eight-factor model described above), as well as several measures designed to predict adaptive performance. In particular, we were interested in whether data collected using our criterion measure would allow the eight-factor model to be replicated and whether the predictor measures would show criterion-related validity. Furthermore, we investigated whether the predictor measures would demonstrate incremental validity over more traditional predictors of job performance (i.e., cognitive ability and personality).

Participants in the concurrent, criterion-related validation study included 739 military personnel. A brief description of the measures we developed and administered is provided below.

  • Criterion measure: We developed a set of behaviorally oriented rating scales for supervisors to rate their subordinates on each of the eight adaptive performance dimensions proposed by Pulakos et al. (2000).
  • Predictor measures: We developed instruments to assess the extent of respondents past experiences in situations requiring the eight different types of adaptability, their interest levels in handling situations requiring the different types of adaptability, and their levels of self-efficacy for the eight dimensions of adaptive performance.
  • Cognitive ability and personality: In addition to the innovative predictor measures we developed based on the eight-dimension adaptive performance model, the respondents also completed measures of cognitive ability and personality.

First, analyses of the predictor measures showed support for the eight-dimension model of adaptability. Second, the new adaptability predictors, along with cognitive ability and personality, were shown to predict adaptive performance. In addition, past experience was also shown to add incremental validity to the prediction of adaptive performance beyond the more traditional cognitive ability and personality measures.

This research is described in detail in Pulakos, Schmitt, Dorsey, Hedge, & Borman (2002). Through this study, we were able to replicate and demonstrate the stability of the original Pulakos et al. (2000) adaptive performance model using a new and broader set of measures. Furthermore, this research evaluated the validity of three innovative predictors of adaptive performance (experience, interest, self-efficacy), particularly as compared to more traditional predictors of general job performance. The usefulness of the experience predictor, in particular, is a critical first step toward establishing measures that could be used to select an adaptive workforce.

Part 3. Development of an Intervention to Train Individual Adaptive Performance

The third part of our research program was to develop a training intervention to improve individual adaptive performance on the job. In particular, this portion of the research program was carried out initially with U.S. Army Special Forces (SF) team leaders. This was an excellent setting for developing an adaptability training program, given that the job of the SF team leader has very high adaptability requirements. SF teams often operate in remote locations where they cannot receive guidance from their commanders; therefore, the successful completion of missions relies heavily on the team leaders abilities to think quickly on his or her feet and constantly adapt plans to the environment and changing circumstances. Furthermore, SF operations require team leaders to be very comfortable interacting in foreign environments with different types of people. For example, a Special Forces team may be in charge of training a foreign military body in tactical maneuvers, or SF teams may actually conduct joint military operations with foreign entities (e.g., SF teams and Northern Alliance units worked together in the recent war in Afghanistan).

Our task for this project was to design a classroom-based training program for new SF team leaders to better prepare them to handle the types of situations that they would encounter on their jobs. Our primary goal for the course was to provide the soldiers with a comprehensive framework for interpreting the range of situations they typically face in terms of their adaptability requirements and then provide them with knowledge and strategies for handling these situations. For example, although the soldiers typically realize that they must be adaptable in adjusting operational plans to achieve mission success, they often do not appreciate that they can view interactions with diverse others in similar terms of having to understand the (social) environment around them, having to be flexible in the way they approach these situations. Thus, the course provides the team leaders with an organizing framework for approaching a variety of situations. In addition, the course reviews a variety of strategies for effectively handling these situations (e.g., strategies for solving problems and making decisions under extreme pressure, negotiation strategies for conducting interactions with foreign units).

The course involves a minimum of lecture, with a heavy emphasis on scenario-based exercises. Not only do these exercises illustrate many points better than lectures, they allow the students to gain experience in different types of adaptive performance situations. This is of critical importance in light of the role that experience plays in predicting adaptive performance, as found in Part 2 of our research program. In addition, the course heavily emphasizes the importance of drawing lessons learned from the exercises so that the team leaders can apply what they have learned at later times.

The courses treatment of adaptability as a multidimensional construct and the training principles followed throughout the course were both derived from the model of adaptive performance discussed earlier in Part 1 and current thinking and literature surrounding the topic of adaptability. However, the design of specific lecture material and exercise content was tailored specifically to SF through reviewing written materials about SF, observing SF field exercises, and conducting surveys, interviews, and focus groups with job experts. This research and development effort is described more thoroughly in White, et al. (2005). In addition to the training designed for SF officers, the course has also been applied to SF warrant officers, Civil Affairs officers, and Psychological Operations (PSYOPS) officers. 

Part 4. Development of a Model of Team Adaptive Performance

The final part of our research program involved the expansion of our individual adaptive performance model into a team context. Based on a thorough review of relevant adaptability and team literature, the Pulakos et al. (2000) model of individual adaptive performance was expanded and revised to be applicable to team performance. The model defines dimensions of team adaptive performance and also proposes predictors of team adaptability. The model is intended to serve as a conceptual foundation for considering how to maximize team performance in ever-changing and demanding work environments.

To define team-level adaptive performance, we began with the Pulakos et al. (2000) model of individual adaptive performance and considered the relevance and appropriateness of its dimensions for teams. Our assessment of relevance was based on whether the dimensions could be meaningfully measured at a team level, as well as whether they could be supported by the research literature (e.g., adaptability research, teams research, social networks research, social capital research, social ecology research). In addition, we considered whether the research that we examined suggested any dimensions or aspects of team adaptability that had not been captured in the model of individual adaptive performance. This process resulted in six dimensions that we propose define team adaptive performance: (a) Handling Unpredictable Work Situations, (b) Handling Emergencies or Crises, (c) Handling Interactions Across Team Boundaries, (d) Handling Work Stress, (e) Solving Problems Creatively, and (f) Learning Work Tasks, Technologies, and Procedures. Although many of the dimensions have the same names as the parallel dimensions in the individual adaptive performance model, the definitions of all of the dimensions were customized to be relevant to teams.

We also identified several precursors to adaptive team performance. In particular, we hypothesized that team motivation and attitudes predicted team adaptive performance such that teams that were confident in their abilities to succeed, that remained focused under stress, in which team members felt safe expressing their opinions and ideas, and so on would be more adaptable. In addition, we hypothesized that teams with shared mental models of how to approach situations requiring adaptability would also display greater adaptive proficiency. Similar mental models allow the team members to all be on the same page when it comes to interpreting adaptive situations, determining responses to the situations, coordinating their actions, and so forth. Our model also discusses the importance of certain leadership styles (e.g., creating an environment where people can learn from mistakes) and behaviors that can enhance the teams adaptability. Furthermore, team heterogeneity is presented as a factor in allowing a diversity of ideas to be brought to bear on problems, which is critical when a team needs to solve a problem. Finally, team experience is posited as a predictor of team adaptability, following the individual-level adaptability research that illustrates its importance. This research is summarized in White, Dorsey, and Pulakos (2003).

As an initial step towards testing this model, we worked with a Department of Defense agency to conduct a preliminary study of adaptive team performance. We conducted structured interviews with approximately 20 individuals from three different types of teams and gathered critical incidents of team performance related to the model. The key findings from this study were (a) team leadership was critical to the teams adaptive proficiency and overall success; (b) teams who made better use of the diversity of their team members were more adaptive overall; (c) teams who were more adaptive overall were more successful; and (d) organizational support was also an important factor in team success. Although validating the entire team adaptability model was beyond the scope of this study, these initial results are consistent with the hypothesized model.


In sum, PDRIs adaptability research program was designed to address four key topics: the nature of adaptive performance, the predictors of adaptive performance, training for adaptive proficiency, and identifying adaptable teams. Although these lines of inquiry have led to a great deal of fruitful research, there is much more work to be done. Specifically, we would suggest that future adaptability research and practice efforts address the following topics:

  • Using predictors of adaptability in selection settings;
  • Developing nonclassroom-based interventions for training adaptive proficiency, including structured on-the-job training, simulations and/or field exercises, and self-development activities such as journaling and portfolios; and
  • Exploring and validating models of team adaptive performance and designing measures to assess team adaptability.

Our hope is that PDRIs initial efforts will spark a healthy and continued body of research in an area that is certain to be a high priority for all types of organizations in the future.


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