Inclusive Growth Show

Adapt or Fail: How Managers Enable Thriving at Work

October 31, 2023 Toby Mildon Episode 116
Adapt or Fail: How Managers Enable Thriving at Work
Inclusive Growth Show
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Inclusive Growth Show
Adapt or Fail: How Managers Enable Thriving at Work
Oct 31, 2023 Episode 116
Toby Mildon

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.

If you want to build a more inclusive workplace that you can be proud of please visit our website to learn more.

Show Notes Transcript

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.

If you want to build a more inclusive workplace that you can be proud of please visit our website to learn more.

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon. Future proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.


Toby Mildon: Hey there. Thank you ever so much for tuning into this episode of the Inclusive Growth Podcast. I am Toby Mildon, and today I'm joined by Kathrina Robotham. And Kathrina works for Catalyst. And Catalyst is no stranger to this podcast because I actually interviewed Kathrina's colleague Tara Van Bommel a while back about another report that they had produced. And today, we're going to be talking to Kathrina about another report that Catalyst has produced, which is called, "Adapt or Fail: How Managers Can Enable Everyone to Thrive At Work." I highly recommend going on the Catalyst website and reading all of their great materials and great reports. So this is the second time that I'm sitting down with somebody from Catalyst and they've got so much to say and really interesting insights into the world of diversity and inclusion. So, Kathrina, it's lovely to see you. Thanks for joining me today.

Kathrina Robotham: Thanks so much for having me on, Toby. I'm excited to be here with you.

Toby Mildon: Would you mind just introducing yourself a bit more about who you are, what you do, and a bit about your professional background? 

Kathrina Robotham: Sure. So 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. And so in my role at Catalyst, I lead research on workplace issues across gender, race, ethnicity and culture. And I also work on research focused on the intersection of women in the future of work. And so before joining Catalyst, I received my PhD in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Go Blue. And during that program, my research focused on understanding the experiences and consequences of workplace mistreatment for marginalized groups and also trying to understand what factors foster diversity and equity and inclusion in the workplace. So during my time there, I was lucky to study topics like workplace sexual harassment, code switching and how organizations communicate about diversity. So 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.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. So today we're gonna be talking about your report, "Adapt or Fail." Why did you write the report with Dr. Tara in the first place? 

Kathrina Robotham: Yeah. Tara and I wrote this report in 2022 when organizations were deciding how they were gonna move forward after the COVID-19 pandemic. And so many organizations were considering and even mandating that their employees were turned to office and go back to business as usual after two years of working remotely. And 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.

Toby Mildon: Why is it important that managers are adaptable in this new world and way of working? 

Kathrina Robotham: Yeah. So it's important because as we've seen, the future of work is really marked by unprecedented change in disruption. So just in the last few years, we've seen the changes with remote work and flexible work, generative AI shifting expectations from employees to include things like wanting employers to prioritize work-life balance and diversity and inclusion. And so managers who are adaptable and can shift with changing circumstances are gonna be able to be better equipped to deal with these changes and create new solutions that address these novel challenges.

Kathrina Robotham: So for example, in our research, we found that employees with adaptable managers were more likely to say that their organizations post pandemic working plans support their own work and life needs, but also from the perspective of advancing diversity and inclusion in our research, we show that adaptability is an essential leadership skill for managing culturally diverse teams and it's really necessary for doing the change manager network that's characteristic of DEI like adopting and implementing changes in workplace culture, policy and processes that help to make the organization a fairer and inclusive place.

Toby Mildon: I mean, I can imagine that adaptability probably means different things to different managers, but when you wrote the report, what exactly did you mean by adaptability? What does that... What kind of different types of adaptability are there? 

Kathrina Robotham: Yeah. In the report, we define adaptability as the ability to effectively adjust to new circumstances in the workplace. And in our research, we found that adaptability includes three different components. So 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. So for example, if a team used to be in 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 recognizing that maybe most of the team's work can be conducted asynchronously.

Kathrina Robotham: The second type of adaptability that we looked at is ambiguity tolerance. So 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. And then the third and final component of adaptability that we found with our research is an openness to change or the ability to really view change as an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve. So 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.

Toby Mildon: But I really like how you've been able to kind of break adaptability down into those three core areas of cognitive flexibility, ambiguity tolerance and openness to change. And in your report, I know that you also talk about resiliency. So how does resiliency fit in with adaptability? 

Kathrina Robotham: Yeah. Resiliency and adaptability are related to each other, but they're not the same thing. So, adaptability is about how you respond in the moment when you're faced with change. So do you adjust your behavior 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. So if we look at a manager who changes their management style as their team transitions from being in 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." So, with this example, we can see how resilience and adaptability can occur in the same situation, but they're not the same thing.

Toby Mildon: And through the people that you spoke to, to do your research, what are employees thinking about when it comes to the adaptability of their manager? And are you noticing any differences between different diversity demographics? So like with LGBT+ staff or disabled staff, for instance? 

Kathrina Robotham: Yeah. So in our report we're seeing that employees feel that their managers are doing a pretty poor job of being adaptable. So 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. And we also found that employees for marginalized racial and ethnic groups were more likely than white employees to report that their managers are not adaptable as well.

Toby Mildon: And when I read the report, I think another thing that stood out for me was the role of empathy. It's something that was in your previous report as well, that... The number one skill for an inclusive leader is really around empathy. So what is the role of empathy alongside adaptability? 

Kathrina Robotham: 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. So, we see empathy as complimenting adaptability by helping managers adjust to new circumstances and changes in a way that demonstrates understanding and care for employee needs. So, empathy is providing really useful information that managers can take into account when they're adapting to new challenges with their team. And without empathy, managers might adapt to changes in a way that don't consider the needs and perspectives of their team.

Toby Mildon: When I read your report, I was really pleased to see empathy being talked about because whenever we do inclusive leadership training, we work with a team of occupational psychologists in order to measure six inclusive leadership behaviors. And the top behavior that we look for is empathy. So I was like, "Ah, it's brilliant that that's that connection between what you found in your research and what the occupational psychologists that we work are saying that inclusive leaders should be developing as well." And a really interesting statistic that jumped out at me when I read your report was that 72% of men thought that their managers were not adaptable compared to 69% overall. And I was expecting to see women saying that their managers were not being adaptable rather than men, actually. So why is that the case? 

Kathrina Robotham: Yeah. 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, but also... And 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. And we think this is because of something called the ideal worker norm that shapes expectations of how men should show up at work. So namely this is that they should put work first and not let family obligations interfere. So that is what the ideal worker looks like or what the ideal worker expectations are.

Kathrina Robotham: And so 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. And so we can see here that the lack of adaptability not only harms men, but it has these consequences that reinforce gendered norms of caretaking in perpetuate that unequal burden expected from women in terms of caregiving as well.

Toby Mildon: That's really interesting. And I really liked it in the report when you said that adaptability is empathy and action. And there was some really interesting numbers to kind of back this up. 'Cause you said that 2% of respondents reported withdrawal with an empathic and adaptable manager compared to 21% who didn't have a supportive manager. Can you tell me a bit more about why there was such a big gap? 

Kathrina Robotham: Yeah. This finding was a very interesting and it really points to the necessity of both empathy and adaptability for managers which we highlight a lot in the report. So 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. And as you would expect, we found that when managers had... When employees, sorry, had managers who were both empathic and adaptable, employees experience very low levels of work withdrawal. So they weren't avoiding their work as much. They were more engaged in their work. And you might expect then that employees with managers who were not empathetic and also were not adaptable would have the highest levels of work withdrawal, but this actually wasn't the case. The data showed that it was actually employees whose managers had a mismatch. So they were empathic, but they were not adaptable. Employees who had managers with that typology actually reported the most work withdrawal.

Toby Mildon: That's really interesting 'cause so far we've talked about three skills here. So we've talked about empathy, resiliency and adaptability. And it all sounds really positive for me and that... I mean, there's certainly skills that I would like to have when I'm leading my team, but can it ever backfire for managers that have these skills? 

Kathrina Robotham: Yes. It can. And I think we see that with the finding on work withdrawal that empathy can backfire when it's not also paired with adaptability. So 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. So 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, help me get my work done.

Toby Mildon: So if the person listening to us right now wants to go and empower managers in their organizations to become more adaptable, what should they do to help those managers? 

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

Kathrina Robotham: The second step that we recommend is trying to develop a growth mindset. So a growth mindset is the belief that your talents, abilities and skills can be improved and develop, your intelligence and ability and skills are not fixed. And 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.

Kathrina Robotham: The third step we recommend is creating a climate of psychological safety. And this is the shared belief that team members won't be punished for taking risks, expressing different viewpoints or making mistakes in that these things are actually encouraged in a valuable part of the team dynamic. So 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 and how you adapted and framing these challenges as opportunities for learning, growth and innovation. And then also encouraging employees to share that with you as well and share their different viewpoints and perspectives when you are thinking about the best way to proceed with a task.

Kathrina Robotham: The last thing that we recommend as well is stepping out of the role of the expert and lean into curiosity. So, 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? So really leaning into that curiosity is the last step that we have.

Toby Mildon: That's really great. I mean, this is the Inclusive Growth Podcast, so I ask everybody this question. What does inclusive growth mean for you? 

Kathrina Robotham: I love this question, Toby. I think inclusive growth to me means fully accepting all parts of yourself and approaching life with curiosity and humility and acceptance of change.

Toby Mildon: Excellent. Now, if the person listening to us right now wants to read your report and learn more about what we've talked about so far today, what should they do? 

Kathrina Robotham: They can go to and download the full report for themselves.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Well, Kathrina, thank you ever so much for joining me today. I love reading your reports from you and your colleagues and I can't wait to hear what your next research and report is gonna be. And no doubt, we'll invite you back onto the podcast to talk about your next report.

Kathrina Robotham: Thanks so much, Toby. It's been a pleasure.

Toby Mildon: And thanks for joining me. And thank you for tuning into this episode of the Inclusive Growth Podcast with Kathrina and myself. Hopefully you've taken away some really great new knowledge and understanding about the importance of adaptability and empathy in your managers and maybe taking away some hints and tips on how you can support your managers on becoming more adaptable and empathic to support the performance of your teams in your organization.

Toby Mildon: As always, if you need any support in developing inclusive leaders and developing high performing inclusive teams, then please do reach out to me and my team. The best place to start is probably our website, which is, and then we can continue the conversation from there. Until next time, I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of the Inclusive Growth Podcast, which will be coming up very soon. Until then, take care of yourself. Bye-bye.

Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to The Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website