I watched my teenage son get prepared for the leap.
100 feet straight down.
Did he have a harness on for safety? Yes.
But, at the same time, how could he know it was safe? How could he possibly have prepared for this outrageous experience, one unlike anything he’d ever done before?
He jumped. He got the adrenaline rush. He lived to tell the tale.
You may be thinking now, “What does this have to do with business?” When we take on leadership roles in business, we have to be ready to deal with situations we’ve never faced before. It can feel like the jump my son completed – where you have no idea what you’re doing and no previous experience to rely on.
How can we prepare when we don’t truly know/understand the challenges we might be facing? We have to draw on other experiences to create the fortitude needed to handle these unexpected situations. In the workplace, we call this cross-adaptability.
What is Cross-Adaptability and Why Does it Matter?
Researchers define cross-adaptability as the process that occurs when “exposure to one stressor induces physiological and behavioral protection to a novel stressor, without a prior exposure to the novel stressor.” Put simply, enduring challenges in one arena serve your ability to perform in other arenas.
When you cultivate cross-adaptability, you develop qualities that allow you to adjust to changes in your environment. Cross-adaptable tasks don’t have to be in the same skillset. It’s the process of engaging in the task that creates mental connectivity, not necessarily the task itself.
Engaging in activity sets that push us can help us grow in more than one space. For example, if you’re an avid reader, you may read for enjoyment as well as for edification. Your reading can grow your capability in other areas – like attentiveness, expanded vocabulary, and even patience and listening skills.
There’s a physiological component to cross-adaptability as well. When you do challenging activities (including moderate to intense cardio), you increase the production of Brain-Derived Neurptrophic Factor, which increases your neuroplasticity and flexibility. Higher levels of BDNF enable you to learn more quickly, remain resilient, and be adaptable in challenging situations.
How Cross-Adaptability Makes an Impact in Business
When we think of stress, we usually think about chronic stress – the toxic, persistent kind that wears you down and takes a toll on your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing.
There’s another kind of stress, though, and it’s one that can contribute to your cross-adaptability and improve your performance. Challenge stress pushes you to achieve, and it’s healthy when it occurs in manageable doses.
When you’re seeking to improve performance, you can cultivate challenge stress by doing things that stretch you. One famous example is the sports world is the way Steph Curry trains. In addition to working on his legendary three-pointers, Curry employs training methods that partially block his vision and focus him on multi-tasking, so he can be a better point guard and ball handler.
In the business world, we can do the same thing. When we lean into a hobby or an activity that challenges us, we equip ourselves to handle the additional mental stress. When you see stories about CEOs who moonlight as DJs, for example, it’s not because they take their role lightly. It’s because they’ve realized that having an outlet and an opportunity to practice other skills makes them better. By purposefully seeking challenge stress and developing cross-adaptability, we acquire:
- The ability to develop new skills and a greater awareness of our opportunities for growth
- A way to shake off the boredom that can creep in when we feel less than passionate about our current situation
- Pride in the focused and deliberate practice of our new skills, which inspires confidence and discipline
In my personal life, I’ve also seen the effects of cross-adaptability in my work. After a long hiatus, I decided to pick up something I enjoyed during my college days – breakdancing. While it’s a fun physical activity, I also enjoy seeing how it impacts my other efforts. As I learn choreographed moves, I’m staying fit and increasing BDNF production. I’m also acquiring additional poise and body control that serve me well when presenting keynote speeches.
Healthy Cultivation of Cross-Adaptability
For high achievers, cross-adaptability sounds like a dream. You can use your free time to keep working and acquiring new skills, combining fun with productivity.
It doesn’t always work that way. Cross-adaptability is not a replacement for the recovery that’s necessary to sustain high performance.
Instead, think of cross-adaptability as a way to develop new levels of capability and acquire new skills. The pursuits that enhance your cross-adaptability will take you to new heights and help you perform well in related pursuits.
Recovery, on the other hand, empowers you to make the most of the skills you already have, directly impacting your readiness to perform at a high level for a sustained period of time. When you invest in recovery, you have the capacity to perform better and more fully use the energy and skills at your disposal.
As a leader seeking the benefits of cross-adaptability, you can cultivate your own hobbies in support of faculties related to your work. Teaching or practicing yoga could help you increase mindfulness, while creative writing could increase the ability to brainstorm or think strategically.
You can also cultivate cross-adaptability within your team by:
- Educating team members on the value of cross-adaptation and recovery, and providing tools to support both
- Offering opportunities to acquire new skills and work on projects that stretch and excite them
- Checking in frequently to mentor them and point out how their management of challenge stress practice translates into cross-adaptability and new opportunities
More time dedicated to the same work tasks doesn’t make you a better worker. Instead, by looking for new ways to develop cross-adaptable personal and professional skills, you’ll have the ability to take that leap when you’re ready, and to better cultivate health, wellbeing, sustained engagement, and focus.