When VUCA is the New Normal

This is an unprecedented and chaotic time, the nature of business is changing rapidly, and everyone in the organization, from the top down, feels the stress.

May 11, 2020
Manage Employee Virus

In the early 1990s, the U.S. Army coined a new acronym named VUCA. The intent was to capture the nature of combat in the post-Cold War era. The VUCA world is:

  • Volatile—Everything around us is changing rapidly and, usually, the pace is accelerating.
  • Uncertain—Events have become unpredictable.
  • Complex—Cause-and-effect forces have become interconnected and nearly impossible to unbundle for analytical purposes.
  • Ambiguous—This introduces a strong potential for misreads and misinterpretation of events.

The VUCA concept has served the military well. Increasingly, leaders from all sectors of society have embraced it in an attempt to navigate through these turbulent times.

The most difficult aspect of managing in a VUCA world is the stress it creates, and each component of VUCA induces a different kind of stress. As a leader and, especially, if you are the CEO/owner, you should recognize that your followers are feeling this stress also.

Volatility, caused by the rapid changes going on around us creates feelings of being vulnerable to those changes. We don’t know which change is important to us. We could miss a crucial development that could insure our success, but we don’t see it because we’re overwhelmed. To deal with this vulnerability, wise leaders create a vision, a picture of the desired future they want to achieve, and keep their people focused on the target. This helps to mitigate the stress, because it becomes easier to discern the changes that could help or hinder progress and filter out all the rest.

Uncertainty has been created—the future doesn’t follow the past like it used to. Disruptions and discontinuities that change the directions of trends happen all the time. Remembering that leadership is a team sport, it is imperative that we harness the talent we have to develop an understanding of what’s going on. Team members, under the stress of disorienting uncertainty, work at odds with each other, undermining the efforts of others. Stress climbs from lack of trust on the team.

The wise leader will:

  • Work to foster healthy self-concepts in team members while encouraging them to strengthen their skills and talents
  • Encourage respectful communication
  • Help people to see the power of building win-win relationships

Complexity can be one of the most debilitating causes of stress. In particular, it can be emotionally derailing for leaders. As the forces of cause and effect become more interconnected, we struggle to determine what’s within our control and what’s not. Gradually, we begin to feel out of control. It’s normal that, in reaction to this feeling, we seek to over control which makes things worse. The wise leader will help the team collaborate with each other to clarify which forces can be controlled and which can’t. This clarity will wash most of the stress away.

Ambiguity and the strong potential for misreads can cause progress to come to a halt. The stress comes in the form of anxiety. As the anxiety in the team rises, paralysis by analysis becomes the norm. The wise leader fosters innovation, flexible organization, and being personally accountable by team members to change to a more agile and adaptive organization. This will probably not reduce the potential for misreads but it will make the team much more capable of adjusting to new directions when a misread has created a mistake.

World leaders have grappled with the forces of VUCA and the stresses they cause in their efforts to understand and contain the coronavirus. There have been vivid examples of poor focus and vision. There has been poor teamwork and undermining of the efforts of various agencies. There have been vivid examples of attempts to over-control. There have been misreads, lots of them, and paralysis by analysis. It’s been a laboratory for learning to navigate a VUCA world, and the world will be better for it.

We are transitioning into a social distance and isolation phase. Your people need goals, structure and clarity. Your teams need to be strengthened and become more collaborative. Address the fears and concerns of your employees. Remember, how people feel is more important than what they hear you say. Show the warmth and empathy they need. People who are asked to work remotely probably aren’t prepared for it. People need consistent updates. Be understanding of the stress and its impact on productivity.

It’s not too late to get out in front of this. If you are interested in exploring this further, I encourage you to contact me personally at [email protected].