Behavioural Flexibility – The Key to Working with Hidden Diversity


Recent research by a team including a colleague of mine, Ray Richards, showed that people who get stressed at work often have less behavioural flexibility than those who don’t get stressed.

Behavioural flexibility is the ability to respond in different ways to different situations. You might choose to be more assertive, or to step back a bit. You might choose to listen more actively or to interrupt. You might say a strong no, or you might call for help quickly and confidently. You can stay calm. You can ask the right questions. You can delay something until you have more information. You can withhold judgement or you might adapt to the mood of the person in front of you. You might calm a situation down with humour or with setting out some clear boundaries. You can be warmer in your communication style or break an explanation down into understandable bits.

The more behavioural flexibility you have, the more able you will be to adapt to different people in different situations.

Behavioural flexibility is something you can develop

Behavioural flexibility is something you can develop over time through practice, experience and through being able to learn from that experience. Behavioural flexibility increases when, over time, you do something different.

In social housing, especially on the front line, you will need as much behavioural flexibility as there are different people using the services of the organisation. Often there are tenants from different ethnic backgrounds,age generations, people with special needs, and also people with different values and expectations of you as a service provider.

Behavioural flexibility allows you to deliver better “customer” care, and it also helps you to cope with the stresses and pressures of the job. When you answer the phone to, or meet customers, you are presented with a dilemma. And this dilemma can be stressful. We tend to categorise people and respond based on our past habits. We make an intuitive guess about how to respond. Often this works. If we develop skills such as “empathy”, we can connect with the other person and respond “through and with” them, not just to them. Empathy connects us with other people. But people change from day to day, from moment to moment. So we also have to be able to totally improvise, to throw away habits and preconceptions. We may even have to throw away empathy because the person before us has feeling and needs that are volatile, unclear and changing. So, we have to be able to draw on what we know but also to start with a blank slate and be totally fresh. The needs of the person before us my not be apparent, may conflict with what appears to be true and may even be more or less hidden from the person themselves! Flexibility in the moment is critical.

How to develop it

To develop behaviour flexibility you’ll need to be prepared to try new behaviours, to be open to feedback from colleagues and friends, to break old habits – it might take you out of your comfort zone and that discomfort of trying something new might seem to increase your stress in the short run. Over the longer run, you’ll find a deeper confidence and calm as you have more of a “behavioural repertoire” available to you.

Behavioural flexibility allows you to work more effectively with diversity. People are all unique – there will be commonalities, but each new situation is unique, and if we only have a small number of ways of responding and reacting, these will often “miss the mark” and that is where stress can arise on both sides of a customer relationship – misunderstanding, frustration, irritation and annoyance. Behavioural flexibility lets you adapt and be creative with the ways you can respond to different situations. You become better a dealing with change.

Key Questions

How much behavioural flexibility do you think you have?

What causes you to feel stressed at work and how do you tend to react?

What flexible responses are most needed on the front line of customer care in your organisation?

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