How the concept of VUCA can help us cope with a complex world

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are all around us. How we respond can make us happier and more resilient leaders and people.

If you’re looking to learn about VUCA, 2020 offered plenty of examples to study. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. 2020’s VUCA posed challenges to investors, business owners, governments, and families all over the globe. We asked Senior Consultant and Executive Coach Jeremy Spidell, MSW, LCSW of Truist Leadership Institute to offer guidance for navigating uncertain times in and outside of the workplace.

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In 2008, my wife and I bought a building downtown in the city where we live. We were happy to be investing in a district that was undergoing a revival, and we took out a five-year loan for the purchase. A few months later, our financial advisor guided us not to get ahead of ourselves about a potential upswing. She told us, “I want you to set aside some money for when you have to refinance in 2013, just in case. Maybe the building depreciates. Maybe downtown doesn’t grow as much as you think it’s going to. Let’s keep it fairly conservative.”

When 2013 came around, the building had depreciated about 10%, which meant there was a cash call at the refinance. And we were ready with the savings set aside.

Our mindset, and the advisor’s guidance, was built for VUCA. If you’re not familiar with this old military term, it stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It’s been used widely in business and by leadership authors like Brené Brown. Even if you’re new to the acronym, you’ve undoubtedly faced off with its components in your career and other aspects of your life. We’re all experiencing disruption and loss. Right now, we are in the definition of a VUCA environment. The coronavirus pandemic and the recent U.S. presidential election have added to the VUCA conditions we face.

VUCA is a familiar concept in the work I do at Truist Leadership Institute, facilitating leadership development and helping business teams work together more successfully. The leaders I meet might be working with VUCA from external sources, like the pandemic or competition in their industry. Or they might face it internally from a change initiative in their organization.

Right now, we are in the definition of a VUCA environment.

When I coach leaders about how to deal with VUCA, there is often an element of fear involved. But there’s also some relief in normalizing their situation. They think, “There’s a name for this,” and they are not alone in experiencing it. That can have a calming effect. And it’s not just business leaders facing VUCA. It’s our kids, our siblings, our parents, our friends. It’s healthcare workers, schoolteachers—everyone during this global pandemic.

Throughout 2020, we’ve all experienced loss. Some people have lost people close to them—some have lost jobs or businesses. There’s also more ambiguous loss—of things like going to a graduation, a wedding, going to a friend’s house for dinner. Losses like that mount. Luckily, there are some simple things we can do to cope.

5 practices for handling VUCA

1. Stop and label your thoughts and emotions

Give yourself permission to acknowledge, “Wow, this is really stressful and I’m feeling frustrated.” Pay attention and be aware of what’s going on. Starting there can help turn the volume down on some of the stress and fear. It can also engage our prefrontal cortex, which allows us to shift from a fight/flight/freeze response into a more creative, empowered approach.

2. Adjust your mindset

Remember when my wife and I bought the downtown building? Rather than making the building our only path to an investment gain, we got comfortable with the idea that success could come from multiple outcomes.

3. Start a gratitude practice

The most confident leaders are optimistic. One way to increase your optimism is by starting a gratitude practice. This can be as simple as writing down three things that you’re grateful for once a day. It quickly puts things into perspective and helps you rewire your brain to see positive opportunities. It can also help give you a sense of power and control over a situation.

4. Don’t go it alone

Confident leaders have a team of experts to advise them, whether that’s an executive coach like me, an attorney, a mentor, or a spiritual advisor. Advisors are there to help you talk it out and focus on what matters.

5. Get comfortable with contingencies

It’s OK to say, “I’d love XYZ to happen,” but build in a backup plan for flexibility so that you’re not let down when something different happens. The sooner we get our arms around that, it allows us to be more agile, content, and resilient in these VUCA times.