Why 1 in 3 People Adapt to Change More Successfully

Everyone gets blown off course from time to time.  When shift happens, some people find inspiration where others find only imprisonment.  The question is why?

Fortunately for us, a clever psychologist named Salvatore Maddi and a curious executive named Carl Horn had the foresight to ask that question back in the mid 1970s.  The result is one of the most fascinating natural experiments ever conducted on human adaptability.

The Experiment 

It all began in 1974 when Maddi made a startling discovery.  Not from one of his own studies, but from an article in Family Circle Magazine.  The article explained how important it was to avoid stressful circumstances, because they will quite literally kill us. The best way to avoid that stress, the article urged, was to avoid change.

“I was shocked,” Maddi recalled.

At the time, Maddi’s studies on creative people were revealing how flashes of insight and originality were more likely to come from people who enjoyed stimulating experiences and fluctuating environments.  The Family Circle article “implied that, from what my research was showing, creative people are trying to commit suicide,” Maddi said.

That just didn’t make sense.  Maddi thought that there must be something different about the way the people in his studies handled change versus the way the folks in the Family Circle article were handling change.  That gave him an idea.

Maddi had already become friends with Carl Horn while doing consulting work for Horn’s employer, the behemoth phone company affectionately known as  “Ma Bell.”  Maddi, Horn, and pretty much everyone else knew that Ma Bell’s monopoly on America’s phone lines would soon be cut off.  It was just a question of when?  So Maddi reached out to Horn and asked him what he thought about the idea of he and his team studying Ma Bell’s people before, during, and after the intensely disruptive breakup occurred.  Horn loved the idea, and even offered to help fund it.

So for the next 12 years Salvatore Maddi and his team of researchers at the University of Chicago used the Illinois Bell division of the phone company as their laboratory.  They followed hundreds of people and monitored everything you could imagine.  They were right there taking notes, asking questions, and reading blood pressure numbers as their co-workers moved from one cubicle to the next; as one boss left and a new one started; as the American economy inched up and slid back down again; as new kids were born and older kids switched schools; as their marriages changed and their mortgages were paid; as Jimmy Carter took over from Gerald Ford, and as Carter handed the reigns to Ronald Reagan.

When the breakup finally happened six years into his study, half of the people in the study were laid off by Ma Bell while the other half stayed on.  Maddi and his team continued to keep tabs on both groups for the next six years.

What they found was fascinating.

The Adaptive Third

The majority of people—whether they kept their jobs or lost their jobs—were brought to their knees by the change.  Divorces.  Strokes. Cancers.  Suicides.  Kidney failures.  Heart attacks.  Rampant alcoholism.  Drug addictions.  Gambling addictions.  The offices of Ma Bell were full-blown disaster areas littered with the wreckage of its workforce.

But a third of the people in both groups didn’t just survive. They thrived.  They didn’t have heart attacks or marital troubles or gambling addictions.  Those who stayed on at Illinois Bell became high-ranking leaders in the changed organization.  Those who were laid off became shooting stars at their new companies.

Most surprising of all was how ordinary the people in the Adaptive Third were.  On paper, they looked just like everyone else.  They were not more adaptive because they experienced fewer stressful experiences. They weren’t more adaptive because they had better bosses.  They weren’t more adaptive because they had happier home lives.  They weren’t more educated.  They weren’t smarter.  They didn’t have fancier titles or easier jobs.  They didn’t have privileged childhoods, and they weren’t born with special genetic gifts.

What separated the Adaptive Third from everyone else is surprisingly simple. While everyone else tried to bounce back, the Adaptive Third took a step forward.  They exhibited what Maddi calls “existential courage.”

When the fog of change descends on us, every human brain is wired to ask the same question: What does this mean?  To resolve the confusion, our minds launch a full-scale search for answers.  But we don’t all look in the same place.

Adaptive people look for meaning in the future, while everyone else looks for meaning in the past.

When most of the employees at Illinois Bell looked around and saw nothing but thick fog in every direction, they did what most of us instinctively do when we get lost.  They retraced their steps.  They obsessively searched for reasons why this tragedy was happening to them.   In Maddi and his co-author Deborah Khoshaba’s training guide Resilience at Work, they explain how the struggling employees at Illinois Bell were consumed with how things used to be in the “good ‘ol days of more precise company objectives and plans.”  When the researchers asked them about their plans for the future, they replied with anxious mumbles and shifty stares. When they finally sputtered out a reply, their image of the future looked eerily similar to the past. They wanted to “bounce back” to a place that no longer existed.

The people in the Adaptive Third were different.  They also asked themselves what does this mean?  But rather than trying to make sense of what they had done to deserve this plunge into the fog; they tried to make sense of what they could do now that they had been plunged into the fog.

That might be the single greatest lesson of adaptation. Instead of asking why bad things happen to good people, adaptive people turn that timeless riddle on its head, and ask what can good people do when bad things happen?

Nick Tasler