The Corporate Chameleon: Adapting Your Leadership Style to Fit Team Needs

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Ben Kill, Chartered MCIPD

  • "Social chameleons" are individuals who adeptly adjust their behavior to different social situations using qualities like empathy, observance, versatile communication, and adaptability, which are also highly beneficial for managers.

  • Overly-controlling managers can appear cold and inflexible to teams and superiors. Adaptability, however, can be crucial to dealing with the uncontrollable, variable nature of the workplace.

  • It’s actually easy to become more adaptable as a leader. This start by understanding and identifying the needs of your team, adopting a flexible leadership style, effective communication, encouraging team input, and tailoring motivation strategies.

The world is full of “one-size-fits-all,” “my-way-or-the-highway” leaders. Indeed, TV and movies only serve to exacerbate this concept through characters like Miranda Priestly from “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Wall Street’s” Gordon Gekko. I’ve talked before about how an overly-dictatorial approach to management can do more harm than good. Still, many managers see running a “tight ship” as part of their responsibility.  

But the truth is that there are better ways to lead and give your team what they need, regardless of whether things are going well or…not so well. 

What “Social Chameleons” Can Teach Us 

You may have heard the term “social chameleon” before, and most likely not in the most flattering of terms. This is hardly surprising, as Western culture tends to idolize people who stick to their guns and dominate their problems.  

But at the heart of things, a "social chameleon" is just a person who has become exceptionally skilled at adjusting their behaviour, attitudes, or feelings to fit into different social situations. This allows them to seamlessly blend into various social environments, much like how a chameleon changes its colour to blend into different surroundings.

Whether you think this is a good or bad trait to have, it’s nonetheless useful. In fact, studies show that social chameleons display high levels of several characteristics that are extremely beneficial to managers.  

Specifically, they are empathetic, extremely observant, versatile in terms of communication, and – most importantly – adaptable. 

Here at Teamioed, we cover topics just like this in our team eLearning courses. You can check out our current course selection here, or get a free trial here.

Why Adaptability Matters 

Though very few managers ever get to the Miranda Priestly or Gordon Gekko stages, we do tend to develop somewhat “controlling” characteristics. Of course, this is perfectly natural when you have people above and below you with constantly changing needs.  

Because those changing needs often result in more work or more stress for us, we react by attempting to reduce them or – at the very least – reduce their impact on us. Unfortunately, from the point of view of our teams and superiors, this can make us seem cold, inflexible, and demanding.  

But learning and development mean understanding that the workplace is just a microcosm of the greater world around us. That is, it’s made up of a constant flow of variables all intersecting, counteracting, and conflicting with one another. In short: it’s ultimately uncontrollable. While we can (and should) do whatever we can to lessen problems and their impact, putting a chokehold on the people we depend on is more likely to lead to issues than prevent them.  

The truth is that in the modern business environment, being able to adapt to changes and problems is far more valuable. This is especially true of leaders, who can earn respect from their teams by encouraging change and responding swiftly to unforeseen threats. More than education or experience, soft skills like resilience are often the key to success. Of course, resilience comes from being able to adapt. 

How to Be More Adaptable as a Leader  

This begs the question: how do we become more adaptable? Well, it might not be as hard as we think. Top learning management solutions recommend we borrow some traits from the social chameleons of the world. We then become “corporate chameleons,” a term chosen only for alliterative purposes, as it applies to managers in businesses of all sizes and types.  

There are many different ways to increase our adaptability and better mould our management style to our team’s needs. For instance:  

  • Understand Your Team - Begin by assessing the strengths, weaknesses, and working styles of your team members. You can do this via observations, feedback, and one-on-one conversations – whatever works best for you. Just make sure you ask about their professional backgrounds, personal interests, and career aspirations, as all of these can provide valuable insights.

  • Identify the Team's Needs - Different teams will have different needs depending on their stage of development, the nature of the project, and the organizational environment. For instance, a new team might require more directive leadership to provide structure, while a highly experienced team might benefit from a more delegative approach. Remember that these needs are not static and must be evaluated frequently as part of their continuing professional development. 

  • Adopt a More Flexible Leadership Style: To truly be adaptable, you must be prepared to adjust your leadership style to suit different people, projects, and situations. If you typically prefer a hands-off approach, but your team needs more guidance and support, you might need to adopt a more coaching or mentoring role. Conversely, if you're naturally more directive, you may need to step back and empower your team to make decisions.

  • Effective Communication – Most manager training programs will tell you it’s a good idea to adapt your communication style to suit your team's preferences. Some teams may prefer detailed written communication, while others might thrive on interactive meetings. Regular check-ins and open, two-way communication channels are vital to this part of the process. 

  • Encourage Team Input - Encourage your team to share their thoughts on your leadership style and the team’s dynamics often. This constant flow of feedback can provide valuable insights into how you can better adapt your approach to meet their needs. After all, your soft skill development is just as important as theirs. 

  • Tailor Motivation Strategies – Finally, you need to remember that different team members may be motivated by different factors. While some people may seek recognition, others might value challenging work or professional growth opportunities. Tailoring your approach to these individual motivators can be very effective.

In the end, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to leadership. If you do adopt a “my-way-or-the-highway” management style, you can’t be surprised if an increasing number of people choose the latter. Remember, there are infinite variables in even the simplest actions, and even the great Miranda Priestly can’t account for all of them.  

Rather than control your team, seek to respond to them. All you need to do is be aware of their needs and be willing to adapt your style accordingly.
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Want to learn more? Teamioed specializes in technology-led team experiences that empower managers to run their own team development sessions. We’ve specifically designed these discussions to complement existing meetings and create minimal disruption whilst enhancing team cooperation, efficiency, and engagement. To learn more about Teamioed’s low-cost, subscription-based platform, click here

Corporate Chameleon F.A.Q.

What is a "social chameleon" in a leadership context?

A "social chameleon" in a leadership context refers to a manager who adeptly adjusts their behavior, attitudes, and communication style to different team needs and situations, utilizing empathy, observance, versatile communication, and adaptability.

Why is adaptability important for managers?

Adaptability is crucial for managers because it enables them to effectively respond to the ever-changing needs of their team and the variable nature of the workplace, leading to better problem-solving, more respect from team members, and overall success.

How can a leader become more adaptable?

Leaders can become more adaptable by understanding and identifying their team's needs, adopting a flexible leadership style, practicing effective communication, encouraging team input, and tailoring motivation strategies to individual team members.

What are the steps to understand your team better?

To understand your team better, start by assessing their strengths, weaknesses, and working styles through observations, feedback, and one-on-one conversations, paying attention to their professional backgrounds, personal interests, and career aspirations.

How should a leader identify their team's needs?

Leaders should identify their team's needs by considering the team's stage of development, the nature of the project, and the organizational environment, understanding that these needs can change over time and must be frequently evaluated.

What does adopting a more flexible leadership style entail?

Adopting a more flexible leadership style involves adjusting your approach to suit different people, projects, and situations, which may include providing more guidance and support or empowering the team to make decisions based on the team's current needs.

Why is effective communication important in leadership adaptability?

Effective communication is vital for leadership adaptability because it ensures that the leader’s intentions are clearly understood and allows for open, two-way communication channels, which are essential for understanding team preferences and needs.

How can encouraging team input improve a leader's adaptability?

Encouraging team input helps improve a leader's adaptability by providing ongoing feedback on the leader’s style and the team’s dynamics, offering insights into how the leadership approach can be better adapted to meet team needs.

Why is it important to tailor motivation strategies to individual team members?

Tailoring motivation strategies is important because different team members may be motivated by different factors, such as recognition, challenging work, or professional growth opportunities, making personalized approaches more effective in motivating the team.

What is the risk of adopting a "my-way-or-the-highway" management style?

Adopting a "my-way-or-the-highway" management style risks alienating team members and potentially leading to increased turnover, as it fails to consider the diverse needs and preferences of the team, limiting the ability to respond effectively to changing situations.

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