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Cognitive Flexibility

Updated: Feb 24, 2022

Cognitive Flexibility is not a new concept.  If it was, man and machine would not have made the journey from Homo Erectus to Homo Sapiens.

Understanding Cognitive Flexibility As defined by Cañas, Quesada, Antolí and Fajardo, 2003, Cognitive Flexibility is the human ability to adapt the cognitive processing strategies to face new and unexpected conditions in the environment. In layman language it means, a human being’s ability to understand changes, accept them with confidence and adapt to these changes as and when required, successfully.

The theory of Cognitive Flexibility is defined by three concept characteristics.

  • It is an ability which could imply a process of learning, which could be acquired with experience

  • It involves the adaptation of cognitive processing strategies, which means the reference to changes in complex behaviours, and not in isolated responses

  • The final result would be that adaptation to new and unexpected conditions will occur after a person has been consistently performing a particular task

Why has this concept developed importance in today’s scenario? In the battle of survival only the fittest wins.  In this case, it has more to do with mental fitness than just physical. This has always been the case – right from the age of Dinosaurs.  Animals and Humans who adjusted and acclimatized to various changes in the environment survived through the ages.

We live and work in a dynamic era where acquiring various life skills have become mandatory for survival. This VUCA climate is here to challenge the best of the best. How to equip ourselves for survival is what we all must work at and excel.  Understanding and implementing the concept of Cognitive Flexibility in every area of our lives – personal or professional – will enable us to meet challenges coming our way.

Cognitive Flexibility and the Business Scenario Cognitive Flexibility relates with our working memory and our ability to make mental associations in how we react to stimuli, plan, focus, take decisions, make judgements, how we shift our decisions or take others decisions. People who are more flexible to these changes tend to exhibit higher degrees of fluid intelligence, comprehension, and reasoning fluidity. This particular characteristic is really important for people in a Leadership or Management position.

Transforming Organizations through Cognitive Flexibility – A must! Change is the only constant.  Organisations are all about people working together, in the form of internal employees, management, vendors, partners, shareholders and so on. Engaging with internal and external clients, creates a volatile scenario where change is but inevitable. Hence it is important to understand, negotiate, plan and manage within an organisation culture framework, yet conceive a new type of flexibility which would be essential to plan transformations within the organisation.

Building Cognitive Flexibility We all have a certain degree of inbuilt Cognitive Flexibility by default.  To develop that would be a start, but what is essential to success is real transformation. Developing our mental framework with techniques and methods of analysis, some learnt through personal experiences, some through various trainings and self-development tools is how successful managers evolved and created a niche for themselves and their organization

How can one inculcate it? Cognitive Flexibility is fluid intelligence.  This fluid intelligence or fluid reasoning is found to a greater degree in children.  As people grow up, they become fixed in their thoughts, decisions, culture, and environment to quite an extent and are not so open to change.  The trick is to understand the potency of this critically important executive skill in every area of our lives, at any age. One must be open-minded when someone asks you to shift your perspective. Understand the others viewpoint and change decisions to what is found more suitable for that situation and time. In other words, try to be cool and understanding and accept viewpoints other than your own.

Since Cognitive Flexibility is an ability that could be acquired with experience and learning, find some Training Workshops that could bring help you understand the concept and its advantages and adaptability in your life. In the end, the ability to perform and be a leader will bank hugely on how willing you are to accept things that weren’t on the agenda, and how willing you are to take on the unpredictable!

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