Trainability and Adaptability

Modern organizations are faced with dynamic pressures such as changing technologies, global competition, and organizational restructuring. Such demands require workers to be adaptable and demonstrate the capacity to quickly learn. To address these issues, researchers and practitioners in industrial-organizational psychology and related fields have sought to define, measure, and build interventions around the psychological concepts of trainability and adaptability. Trainability can be generally defined as the capacity to learn and be trained, and adaptability can be thought of as an effective response or change to meet demands of the environment, an event, or a new situation. Both trainability and adaptability can be considered from two different perspectives. First, we can consider how trainability and adaptability can be behaviorally manifested and measured in terms of demonstrated task or job performance. Second, we can investigate the underlying characteristics of people, such as their abilities, personality, and motivation, that make them more or less trainable or adaptable.

Trainability, Adaptability, and Performance Measurement

In terms of behavioral or observed evidence of train-ability, trainability has been measured via the use of work samples. A work sample is a simulation of actual training or job content in which individuals are assessed in terms of their ability to effectively perform a given set of tasks. As an example, consider a work sample in which candidates for a construction job have to learn via a short course how to interpret a specific type of blueprint or construction plan and then demonstrate use of this knowledge during an actual construction task. There is convincing research evidence that individuals who can perform well on a representative sample of training will improve more during an actual, full-scale training program. Thus, an individual’s ability to acquire knowledge and learn job tasks can be observed and measured to some extent directly.

When looking at adaptability, initial research evidence suggests that various types (or dimensions) of adaptive performance can be identified, including (a) solving problems creatively, (b) dealing with uncertain or unpredictable work situations, (c) learning new tasks, technologies, and procedures, (d) demonstrating interpersonal adaptability, (e) demonstrating cultural adaptability, (f) demonstrating physical adaptability, (g) handling work stress, and (h) handling emergencies or crisis situations. Furthermore, researchers have demonstrated that such dimensions of adaptive performance can be measured directly by using behavioral scales that tell observers what to look for on the job to ascertain whether someone is performing adaptively. In addition, it may be possible to measure adaptive performance using the same type of work samples and simulations mentioned for measuring trainability.

Trainability, Adaptability, and Individual Differences

Although the concepts of trainability and adaptability can be measured in terms of observed task or job performance, as discussed previously, a more fundamental question is, What are the underlying characteristics of people—the individual differences—that enable some individuals to train or adapt more quickly or more effectively? Although these are still active areas of research, with much that remains to be discovered, a number of underlying individual differences have been linked to both trainability and adaptability.

First, it has been demonstrated that individuals with higher levels of general cognitive ability (i.e., intelligence) demonstrate greater training performance or trainability. This relationship is also characteristic of adaptability, in that cognitive ability has been linked to greater adaptive performance.

Second, noncognitive characteristics such as personality, motivation, and experience may also play a role in both trainability and adaptability. For example, research suggests that variables such as self-efficacy (belief that one can do the job or tasks at hand), conscientiousness (a sense of responsibility for one’s own learning), and motivation to learn may be predictive of trainability and success in training. Similarly, adaptability may be related to personality factors such as achievement motivation (one’s desire to overcome obstacles, achieve results, and master tasks), cooperativeness (ability to work effectively with others toward a common purpose), and willingness to learn.

In addition, an individual’s capacity to learn and adapt may relate to past experience and prior knowledge. Specifically, past experience and prior knowledge may provide a foundation that allows an individual to draw on past lessons learned in facing new training or adaptability challenges.

An important area for future research is determining the extent to which different types of individual differences predict different types of trainability and adaptive performance. A wealth of research in industrial/organizational psychology has demonstrated that job performance can often be defined in terms of multiple dimensions (e.g., technical versus interpersonal performance). Similarly, specific dimensions of train-ability and adaptive performance may be better predicted by individual differences that are more conceptually aligned. For example, in looking at more cognitive training tasks or an element of adaptive performance such as solving problems creatively, cognitive ability may be the most important individual characteristic. In contrast, personality characteristics may play a more prominent role in demonstrating trainability for tasks involving interpersonal skills or for demonstrating interpersonal adaptability.

Another important challenge for trainability and adaptability research is understanding the extent to which trainability and adaptability can be trained. That is, can someone learn how to learn, or train to become more adaptive? For years, educational psychologists have focused on improving strategies for learning and providing individuals with tools for presumably improving trainability. Similarly, organizational practitioners have developed experience-based approaches for training individuals to be more adaptive. This type of adaptability training often involves the use of training tools such as critical incidents, case studies, or simulations. Additional research is needed to clarify the effectiveness of and expected gains from such training efforts, especially in light of the fact that some determinants of trainability and adaptability, such as cognitive ability, may be stable traits of individuals that are not amenable to substantial change.


As organizations are faced with an increasing array of environmental demands and aspects of change, the psychological concepts of trainability and adaptability have and will continue to receive attention. Researchers and practitioners have attempted to define, measure, and develop interventions around both trainability and adaptability. These efforts have highlighted ways in which trainability and adaptability can be assessed more directly, in terms of measures of task or job performance. In addition, individual differences have been identified that may be underlying determinants of trainability and adaptability, including abilities, personality characteristics, and motivational components. New areas for research and development include evaluating the extent to which trainability and adaptability can be learned or trained.


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