Tolerance Tango: Finding a Balance Between Adapting Minds and Innovative Spirits

Sometimes the road ahead is paved, well-lit, cleared of debris, and visible for miles. You are the driver on a smooth-as-silk highway. You hit the accelerator and ride like the wind.

Sometimes you are a hiker in the wilderness. There is a rough path lined with trees, obstructed by rocks and roots, and there are ominous howls in the distance. You have faith that there is something marvelous ahead, but the path must be navigated one step at a time.

When I was in grad school, I was a “quant(itative) jock” and studied psychometrics. Although I have mostly shed that geeky-as-heck skin, I still believe that well-constructed psychological tests can give us insight into our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

One psychometric tool I examined in my early research is called the Kirton Adaption-Innovation (KAI) Inventory. This model of creative style places people along a scale with two endpoints: adaptors and innovators.

Adaptors excel at taking existing products and morphing them to new uses, improving established processes, and doing things better.

Innovators excel at demolishing old systems and creating brand new products and processes. Innovators focus on doing things differently.

Confession: I am an innovator on the KAI. I like change. I like variety. I value invention. That’s my starting point when problem-solving.

Projects, teams, companies, and even families need both types of creative styles.

Adaptors have value – they keep us from ignoring what already works well.

Innovators have value – they challenge us against doing things “the way we’ve always done them.”

Adaptors are road warriors. They fill in the potholes, repaint any faded lines on the road, and make sure the car tires are properly inflated.

Innovators are intrepid hikers. They don a headlamp, hiking shoes, and bug spray then head off into the wilderness.

Put the intrepid hikers in the same conference room as the road warriors and what do you have???

A Battle of Adaption and Innovation

Recently, I have been both participant and witness to the conflict between these two creative styles.

Situation one: An executive with a game-changing business idea.

Imagine an innovator with a truly revolutionary idea for his company. The idea is centered around doing things (that have been done for years and years) completely differently. His idea meets clients’ evolving needs and impending regulatory changes.

The adaptors want details. They want to know exactly how X affects Y today and 10 years from now. The adaptors are trying to drive a Formula 1 racer down a moss-covered hiking trail – it won’t work.

The adaptors’ tolerance for ambiguity is zero in a situation that is loaded with ambiguity. Hence…conflict!

Situation two: An aging parent and a rug delivery

I am about to tell a story about my #1 fan and the man I call Papa. I love you, Dad.

My husband and I are remodeling our forever home at the beach. About half of the house is done, and my father is resting comfortably in his new digs. The rest of the house is in shambles as it gets completely gutted and updated.

I ordered a rug. Was it premature to order a rug when you don’t have drywall? Yes. But I liked that rug and didn’t want it to go out of stock. So, I ordered it from an online store that is notorious for its “dump and run” delivery technique.

I texted Dad to let him know what I knew, which wasn’t much other than a rug was coming. Papa is a planner and has a very, very, very low tolerance for ambiguity.

Over the course of the next week or so, we had the following exchange:

A father/daughter text exchange about a rug delivery

A father/daughter text exchange about a rug delivery

A father/daughter text exchange about a rug delivery

Through these recent experiences (vicarious and personal), I have started to wonder if the root cause of conflict between adaptors and innovators is…

Differing Comfort Levels in the World of Ambiguity.

When you are doing something that has never been done before, or at least you’ve never done it before, there is a jungle of ambiguity to hack through.

Some people are more okay with ambiguity than others.

The intrepid hiker does not have all the answers about what lies ahead. Even if there is a trail map, Mother Nature may intervene and remove a landmark or insert an obstacle.

Innovators must possess a high tolerance for ambiguity.

The road warrior wants the details. They are revving the car engine at the trail head and don’t want to crash into a boulder. They are accustomed to road signs and surveyors and directions from Siri.

Adaptors succeed by reducing, if not eliminating, ambiguity.

Navigating the Tension Between Adaptors and Innovators

The Jungian perspective on personality is that, while psychometric tests can measure preferences for action, human capacity for action is different.

In other words, while you may prefer to operate in a well-defined world with no ambiguity, you can develop the capacity to succeed in conditions of rampant uncertainty.

As I have confessed many times in my training classes, by almost every test known to psychology, I am a flighty, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants extravert who loves spontaneity and surprises.

BUT! I have learned the skill set of productivity that enables me to get stuff done in a predictable manner and allows me the bandwidth to flit from one flower to another when I want to.

It’s challenging, but we can develop skills in areas that are seemingly incompatible with our personality preferences.

Additionally, although a person may be most comfortable being an adaptor or innovator, I believe that:

  • It is incumbent on all of us to be self-aware and know our own personality preferences and/or cognitive styles.
  • It is also our responsibility to know enough about personality and cognitive styles to be able to recognize them in others.
  • We should pay less attention to the golden rule: “treat others as I wish to be treated.”
  • We should pay more attention to the platinum rule: “treat others as they wish to be treated.”
  • We must recognize the value of diversity and intentionally welcome AND include differing perspectives in our decision-making.

There are many opportunities “out there” to gain the needed knowledge to implement the recommendations above.

HR departments kill themselves offering development opportunities pertaining to things like strengths, personality types, etc. and the people who need them the most often are the ones who are “too busy” to attend.

And we end up with conference rooms of decision-makers who squash innovation and creativity while practicing the golden rule.

Papa, this rant has nothing to do with you. You did great with the rug delivery.

Back to the conference room…

The Transformative Duo of Self-Awareness and Courage

Metacognition is your ability to monitor and adapt how you are processing a situation. It is your propensity to be keenly self-aware, and it takes practice.

Pay attention to the impact you are having on other people. Set your Apple Watch to remind you to stand up or breathe or something. Then, take a moment to metacognate. Look at the people around you. See if your cognitive preferences are “golden ruling” others into unproductive silence.

Then rememberthe wisdomand guidance…of the amazing Dr. Brene Brown who said, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”

…letting ourselves be seen NOT as:

  • The person who interrupts when others offer contrary opinions.
  • The person arguing to change others to their own way of thinking.
  • The person who offers all the answers.

…and instead, letting ourselves BE seen as:

  • The person who asks the thought-provoking questions.
  • The person who freely admits when they are out of their comfort zone.
  • The person who notices.

Yes, being an imperfect adaptor who cannot tolerate ambiguity can feel awkward.

Yes, being an imperfect innovator who breaks things that “ain’t broke” can feel distressing.

But, as Queen Brene also says, “Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”


Dr. Melissa GratiasMelissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.


  1. Julie Bestry

    “Yes, being an imperfect adaptor who cannot tolerate ambiguity can feel awkward.”

    I’m not an imperfect adaptor. I am a 100% perfect adaptor in that I cannot tolerate ambiguity. There is no spontaneous joy in the world that feels as good to me as things happening exactly as I expect them to happen, and asking all the questions and not moving forward on anything if there’s any potential for ambiguity.

    If I am thrown into a situation requiring seat-of-the-pants thinking, my brain completely shuts down. I am smart, but I am not clever, and I would make a terrible McGuyver. But at least I am self-aware enough to not only know this about myself, but also to communicate this to others (who are happy to go seat-of-the-pants) what will happen if I am surprised. Conversely, I have zero courage, and zero interest in developing it. This does not mean that one isn’t forced by circumstance to be courageous, whether by weather or health or other humans, but I will hate the weather or the creator of the human body or the other humans for forcing me to do so. Just sayin’._

    And your dad did great. I’d have stressed over the issue for days and seriously told you to come accept your own darned rug! 😉

    • Melissa Gratias, Ph.D.

      Well argued, my friend. I promise that I won’t send any rugs your way. My beloved came to my office to discuss this blog and offered the following insight: “The biggest problem is when true Adaptors think that they’re Innovators.” Know thyself…


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like what you read?

Get new posts directly in your inbox!

You might also like these posts…

Enjoying these posts? Make sure you dont miss any!

If you enjoy my blog posts and want to make sure you never miss one - sign up for my newsletter! When you do, you'll also get instant access to my FREE webinar on interruptions in the workplace.

Interruptions can kill productivity. With one “Got a minute?” from a coworker or one stray thought swirling in your brain, the flow of your work can be completely disrupted.

The trouble is that few people have concrete strategies to get back on task quickly after an interruption. Some people completely lose focus…for hours! If you have tried reducing interruptions, but they still impact your ability to be effective at work, this free webinar is for you.