Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity…over the last several years, the term VUCA has gained momentum in everyday life as a way to describe the fast-changing, chaotic, and unpredictable global environment in which we live and do business. Everywhere you look in leadership circles it’s VUCA this or VUCA that. A recent internet search on “VUCA leadership” returned over 347,000 references! It’s clearly a dynamic that leaders must manage in today’s world.
When faced with complex issues or situations, a leader’s job is to simplify things down to a reasonable level that allows people to understand what’s going on and to act in ways that create positive, forward progress; not get stymied or stuck in complexity. Unpredictability and chaos breed distrust, so just by living in a VUCA world, distrust has the power to run rampant. It’s imperative for leaders to understand what VUCA means and how to nurture trust with their followers amidst change.
But what exactly is VUCA? And whatever it is, how can a leader build and maintain trust in a world that seemingly can change overnight?
In a recent Forbes article, author Jeroen Kraaijenbrink provides a helpful definition of VUCA. When you understand the individual components and their relationships to each other, it’s easier to know how to lead in such an environment. Within each VUCA element, I believe there are four principles leaders can apply to build trust with their teams and organizations.
Volatility has to do with the speed of change. A tweet from a world leader can set a new wave of change into motion. New markets emerge overnight, or business models appear out of nowhere that put other organizations out of business in a snap of a finger. The more volatility there is in the world, the faster things change. The trust-building antidote to volatility is for leaders to be reliable and consistent in how they respond to change. Freaking out, making rash decisions, or retreating into a shell to resist change will further erode trust in leadership. Steady, thoughtful, and predictable leadership builds trust. As my fellow trust activist Stephen M.R. Covey points out in his book The Speed of Trust, when trust is high, teams and organizations can move faster and adapt to change easier.
Uncertainty is the extent to which we can reasonably predict the future. With change happening so fast, this is a tremendous challenge for 21st century leaders. The trust-building corollary is to emphasize what is known and to keep teams focused on things under their control. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, leaders need to extend trust in times of uncertainty. Trust requires risk. If there’s no risk, there’s no need for trust, and risk and uncertainty are brothers in crime. Leaders must resist the urge to control and play their cards close to the vest. Control is the opposite of trust, so if leaders resort to controlling behaviors like micromanaging or withholding information during times of uncertainty, they’ll further erode trust with their teams and kill their ability to thrive during change.
Complexity is the number and variety of factors a leader must consider and their relationships with one another. Often, a leader’s challenge is not having enough information to make a decision, but having too much information. We are overwhelmed with data, and many times it is too vague or inaccurate to breed a sense of confidence. When dealing with complexity, a leader builds trust by leveraging the skills and abilities of team members. They involve others in solving problems, bringing their best and brightest to the table to help figure out these complex issues. Trustworthy leaders share information liberally and foster a culture of transparency, because they believe that people cannot act responsibly if they don’t have the right information. High-trust leaders know that the answers to their most frequent business challenges often lie with the front-line people who deal with them every day. To build trust, ask questions, listen to learn, and incorporate your people’s ideas into decisions. A good team axiom is no one of us is as smart as all of us.
Ambiguity refers to the lack of clarity about how to interpret something. Information may be incomplete, the truth may be indiscernible, or the data may be contradictory. Fuzziness, vagueness, and indecisiveness reign in times of ambiguity. To build trust, leaders must be clear on the vision and purpose of the organization. Proverbs 29:18 shares the ancient wisdom that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” When your team has a clear vision of where they’re headed, they can cut through the noise, confusion, and distractions swirling around them. The leader’s job is not just to articulate a clear vision, but also to equip team members with the necessary mindset and skillset to achieve the vision.
I believe that high-trust leaders are uniquely positioned to successfully navigate their teams through the waters of VUCA. People are craving leaders of integrity and truth. They are searching for anchors of confidence and hope during turbulent times. Leaders who act in trustworthy ways build trust with their teams and gain their commitment and loyalty. That is what’s needed to survive and thrive in a VUCA world.