When Apple went shopping for chip makers years ago for their iPhones, Apple didn’t select Intel chips. Why? One of the primary reasons given by Jobs was that the Intel Corporation was “just really slow. They’re like a steamship, not very flexible.” What he meant is that the company was slow to change and adapt according to its customers’ needs. The comment reflects the importance, in today’s rapid-paced world, of being flexible and nimble. In business, inflexibility is viewed as the ultimate Achilles heel.
What about in people? Is inflexibility in people as much of a flaw as it is in companies? Generally, when a person is labeled as inflexible, it is meant as a criticism. Whether the reference is to a person’s physical flexibility or their intractable personality, inflexibility or rigidity is generally deemed as a negative. But it turns out that inflexibility can actually be beneficial, both physically and as a personality trait…. at times.
In 2010, the University of Cape Town in South Africa reported on research related to a gene called COL5A1. Their findings showed that a certain variant of the gene seemed to predispose people to be 1) inflexible and 2) more efficient distance runners. The initial study looked at participants in the South African Ironman triathlon. The same research group then reported in 2011 on a new study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance looking at 72 runners in the 56km Two Oceans ultra-marathon.
In both studies, the results confirmed that runners with the “TT” variant of the COL5A1 genotype ran faster (5:41 versus 6:05 on average) and was also overrepresented in the “fast and inflexible” quadrant of subjects. The genotype accounted for about 7% of performance variance. While there are still many questions that remain to be explored related to the gene, it appears that inflexibility is tied – in a positive way – to success in distance running. Since most people are not running triathlons, physical inflexibility may not be seen as much of an asset to the average person. Still, for some, this particular physical trait seems to contribute to their success.
What about when it comes to inflexibility as a personality trait? Is it ever a good thing to be inflexible? Most children, when complaining about a teacher least liked in school, will often describe someone who is strict and unyielding with rules. Everyone knows at least one person who is reputed to be uncompromising, unbending or just plain stubborn. People who are seen as inflexible may even be referred to as pigheaded. Can this personality ‘flaw’ ever be an asset?
The simple answer is yes… at times. There are times when it pays to be stubborn, obstinate or just plain inflexible. Most people who are tired of seeing their elected officials flip-flopping on key issues and reneging on promises made during campaigns might actually want to see a little less flexibility in their leaders. A stick-to-my-guns attitude in which politicians actually follow through on the issues on which they campaigned would certainly make a lot of the disgruntled electorate happy. But what about the average person? Is it ever useful to be inflexible? Here are some instances where inflexibility can be an asset.
- Standing up for a principle – Inflexibility is a useful trait when standing up for a cause or something you believe in that goes against the grain. The unwillingness to bend to the will of others or even the will of the masses is invaluable when standing up for one’s values.
- Learning a new skill – Inflexibility, or stubbornness, can be an advantage in the learning process. An inflexible person is much better at accomplishing difficult tasks or learning new things because they have perseverance. If at first they don’t succeed they will keep trying until they get the results they desire. Inflexible individuals generally don’t give up and will doggedly keep trying until they get it done. This is their great advantage over others who tend to give up easily.
- Seeking employment –It takes a certain inflexibility or dogmatism to find work in a bad economy. The determination to not accept ‘no’ for an answer can pay off in the hunt for a job, and then later in keeping a job. Successful doctors, lawyers and most people who are admired generally have a stubborn or inflexible streak in them. Bullheaded people seem to be better equipped to succeed at whatever careers they choose.
- Sticking to a schedule - Under the right circumstances, inflexibility can be an asset in following a plan and staying the course. While it isn’t necessary to be inflexible to the point of refusing to do anything not on the plan, having an actual schedule for the day helps employees and managers alike be ruthless with others’ requests on their time.
- Situations that require mental fortitude – People who are inflexible have a mental toughness that helps them to succeed in many aspects of life and makes it easier for them to cope with stress or traumatic events. The demands of college, the military or a prestigious career are more easily met by people who are obstinate.
Generally speaking, inflexibility is a problem when working with others. While it is important to be able to see another person’s point of view and there needs to be a certain flexibility to realign priorities, there are also times when being totally inflexible is exactly what is needed. Pick those moments carefully and then allow rigidity to serve as a buffer or brace for getting things done.
Quote of the Week
“Important principles may and must be inflexible.” Abraham Lincoln
© 2012, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.