Leading Through Uncertainty
It might have been trendy to use the acronym VUCA around 10 years ago, but arguably it’s only recently that we’re truly living VUCA times. VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous and was first used in military organizations following 9/11 but was later adapted to the business world in 2009 by Bob Johansen in his book “Leaders make the future”. The book discusses how unpredictable change affects organizations where Johansen argued that leaders need new skills and approaches to meet VUCA times.
So what does VUCA mean in 2021 and what strategies do leaders need to meet current challenges and forge ahead through uncertain times? This article will consider the definition of VUCA and 7 practical strategies for leading teams through adversity and change.
VUCA defines turbulence in any business landscape. It’s where change is rapid and unpredictable. It’s where there are different factors in play causing confusion. Covid definitely fits the bill as VUCA times, yet it’s also worth noting that while VUCA circumstances present the same kind of challenges in any landscape, the extent of threat they present varies from industry to industry. As we have seen with Covid, some industries such as travel, food and entertainment have been far more affected than other industries which have managed to continue with more stability.
As we’ve also seen across a range of workplaces during Covid, a VUCA environment can;
- Destabilize people and make them anxious
- Reduce motivation
- Reduce the likelihood or ability for promotions and career moves
- Involve retraining and restructuring
- Paralyze decision making processes
- Jeopardize long term projects
- Infect the internal environment of an organization, creating additional VUCA circumstances within the organization
Johansen contends that the key to responding to VUCA environments is vision. He argues that leaders need to embrace the big picture and focus on a vision that unites people and offer a roadmap forward steeped in values that are solid and unchanging despite the external circumstances of change.
It’s understandable that a lot of leaders are feeling overwhelmed. Not only by circumstances of change and uncertainty in the world, but in the growing complexity within organizations and roles. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey argue in their book “Immunity to Change” that the complexities and pace we’re expected to deal with on a day-to-day basis virtually surpasses our brain capacity. They point to the fact that computing power has increased trillion-fold since the fifties, yet our brains are the same. What’s needed then to quell the overwhelm and deal with increasing complexity is perhaps a new mind, or new mind tools to address challenges.
Executive coaches Rebecca Zucker and Darin Rowell argue a greater depth of self awareness is requisite for dealing with an ever changing, complex landscape. Leaders first need to lead themselves before leading others. By this, they mean that leaders have to uncover their own fears, biases, thinking patterns and circumstances that trigger overwhelm in order to effectively lead others. This is partly so that leaders can develop effective strategies for others and also so they can be empathetic leaders. It is easier to understand the stresses that staff are facing when leaders can acknowledge the same stresses in themselves. In knowing their own vulnerabilities, leaders can be empathetic to the vulnerabilities of others and assist others to learn, evolve and rise to challenges too.
‘Embrace change’ has become such a cliché. It’s all well and good to say, but for some it’s as impractical as telling a nervous flyer to ‘just relax’ or telling a toddler not to touch something. What does ‘embracing change’ really mean when every fibre of your being is screaming otherwise? Embracing change is against our very biology. Our brains and consequently bodies don’t respond well to new instructions because they are so good at functioning on autopilot based on a set of conditions and past experiences. Change upsets the brain because it’s literally required to make new brain pathways or synapses. But the more synapses the brain makes, the more flexible our thinking becomes as we can literally change our old thinking habits by creating new neural pathways in our brain.
So embracing change is not about liking it or even being comfortable with it, but accepting that is the nature of life and also the nature of our own development, to respond to new circumstances by developing new ways of thinking by literally building new neural pathways in our brains. You can hate what’s going on but you need to accept the situation in order to move forward and find solutions. Resistance is futile and it’s helpful for leaders to remember that in the process of change, they’re not expected to have all the answers. The nature of change means that usual ways of doing things, common knowledge, experience don’t necessarily apply. Accepting change means that leaders need to extend kindness to themselves for being pushed beyond their comfort zone, and not knowing what to do. It’s then time to take a deep breath and employ some strategies below to figure things out.
Covid caught us off-guard and had everyone scrambling to catch up, to go virtual, adapting our working environments on the fly. But a year on, organizations are generally a lot smarter and the smartest are amping up their skills of anticipation and preparation for what tomorrow may bring. Anticipating future challenges means using tools like gaming, crisis planning, and role playing to generate responses to the ‘what if’ scenarios before they happen.
As far as Covid is concerned, one year in, it’s a lot clearer what kinds of situations businesses need to be considering. Leaders need to be experimenting with potential scenarios for their team, as well as the organization, that could be local or international. For example, if a team leader was considering Covid related challenges for her team locally, it may include plans for snap lockdowns, transitioning back into offices, transitioning back into business travel, plans around vaccinations and potential consequences of vaccination programs. But a team leader will also need to be considering other situations that will either directly or indirectly affect their team, like their clients and stakeholders’ situations whether locally or abroad. How does international covid numbers, restrictions, border closures and travel limits, vaccination programs globally affect the team’s workload, job requirements and tasks and the organization’s profitability generally? In what circumstances might a team leader need to let go of staff and what could a team leader do today to best mitigate that risk?
While nobody foresaw the chaos Covid would bring, we’re much better positioned to anticipate future Covid related challenges. Smart leaders will reflect on their experiences over the past year and evaluate their leadership and responses. They can also leverage data and use role playing and crisis response tools to develop plans for their teams to best mitigate the challenges to come.
Clear communication is key to avoiding ambiguity. As uncertain as situations may be, team leaders can make their staff feel safer with clearly communicated directives and guidelines as well as constant reassurance about their role and tasks in changing environments.
Prioritize people amidst the chaos and take the time to reach out whether over the phone or with a handwritten note. Up the quantity of your communications, even if you think it is overkill. Don’t assume staff are getting the message. Know that when stressed, humans usually have to have a message repeated to them a few times for it to sink in, so don’t assume a quick overview of tasks and responsibilities during a team meeting is enough. Put it in writing, send it out and follow up afterwards.
Don’t expect staff to come to you with misunderstandings - be on the offensive checking and double checking that everyone knows not only what they’re doing when, but also why. What is the big picture, how does that big picture look different in these changed circumstances and where is each individual team member in that big picture. You must be transparent about what the organization is doing and why. A failure to communicate this quickly will only fire up the rumor mill.
The more uncertain VUCA times are, the more leaders are required to be flexible. Leaders should develop the skills to be able to handle changing plans at a moment’s notice and pivoting directions. If a team leader finds this particularly difficult, hire the right people and build teams to build agile and flexible responses. Hiring people with complex thinking skills can be a valuable addition to a team when it comes to finding flexible and often creative solutions and responses to challenges.
As well as building the team, look for opportunities. Explore new vendors and suppliers or new collaborations with other teams and departments within the organization. Look at changing your terms, HR policies, and communication processes. Leaders need to be proactive about finding creative solutions to the situation at hand both logistically and how they manage their people. Covid has already forced so many to innovate in all kinds of ways they wouldn’t have imagined possible only a couple of years ago. In doing so, we find hidden resources and capabilities we never knew we had. This is to be celebrated and harnessed collectively as a team to reap the most benefits.
Looking at the third letter in the VUCA anagram, a risk presented by any circumstances of change is complexity. Leaders need to be wary of balancing a desire for action and resolution with a balanced appraisal of the whole situation. Some leaders who are very solution oriented can want to find and take a course of action as soon as possible. While this is certainly a beneficial trait in many contexts, it can be risky in complex situations where there are a number of factors to take into account. The more interdependent elements in any given circumstance, the greater the uncertainty as any of these elements may change unpredictably over time. Leaders are best advised not to rush into anything but to make considered decisions based on a holistic appraisal of the situation even if it means a delay in taking a course of action. Making quick decisions that oversimplify the complexity of the situation can have far more detrimental consequences and leaders should have the patience to investigate possible solutions thoroughly.
Don’t Panic. But Do Act.
In times of uncertainty, people look to leaders for optimism. Everyone wants to be assured that everything will be alright. Leaders cannot dissolve into panic. If you’re anxious and stressing out, you’ll spread fear and anxiety very quickly throughout your team. The brain can’t function when stressed, so no leader or team member can make any kind of rational decisions in this state. If you stay calm and encourage others to do so, of course it’s more likely everyone will make the right decisions.
But at the same time, staying calm doesn’t mean downplaying threats. It’s essential for leaders to fully appreciate the complexities any VUCA circumstance poses. For example, looking to leadership globally during the pandemic, there have been many different leadership styles across countries and even regions. Some leaders instituted strict covid measures immediately. At the time, such leaders were criticized for panicked reactions, yet as the virus continued to spread and nations failed to contain it, such measures became more mainstream and less condemned as fear mongering. Conversely, some leaders downplayed the threat of covid and their calls for calm became empty words as a commensurate lack of serious and swift response cost lives.
There is a difference between maintaining calm, reassuring leadership yet at the same time, tempering that leadership with an honest appraisal of the threat and appropriate seriousness and swiftness of response. Leadership that promotes a narrative of staying calm is but empty words if it’s not backed up by action that is commensurate with the level of threat.
While you can’t downplay the threat of challenging circumstances, as a leader you can transform that sense of risk through the act of rallying people. Rallying people around a cause has many benefits in pulling people together, helping them be more empathetic and supportive and united around common goals. If you can pull your team together successfully during a time of crisis, you can really set that team up for amazing things in the future when the groundwork of ‘getting through it together’ has been strongly laid.
These challenging times will break some leaders and make others. Covid has decimated some businesses and for others, it has been a catalyst for new and improved ways of doing business. The only true compass a leader has is calm and considered decision making under pressure that comes from accepting change and limitations and learning to think outside the box and act with courage. Leaders need to ground themselves in their vision and values which will anchor them through stormy times.
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