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VUCA – Leading Under Pressure and Crisis

Author: Lisa-Marie Hanson – Chief Learning Officer

I felt a little anxiety as I prepared to moderate our TalentTelligent webinar this week in response to the COVID 19 crisis.  The anxiety might have been impacted by our Governor’s stay-in-place direction (that has been enacted for the last two weeks) – and frankly I am trying to mother a gloomy teenager and well –you know.  I guess things are weighing on my mind, and I don’t know the best way to ‘show up’ for those around me.  I also recently just got off a webinar, with people talking about the devastating death rates, organizations slowing down – some having to shut their doors, redeploying talent and freezing all budgets.  It’s been scary out there and we’re all feeling the pressure of this crisis in different ways; not just the usual talent practitioner types I hang out with.  So as I prepared for this webinar, I braced myself for more bad news around the impact of the virus.

Once our Founders (Roger Pearman and Bob Eichinger) started – I knew their thought leadership was differentiated.  It was oddly, calming – calming to know they were reporting on evidence-based approaches to handling pressure and crisis – they weren’t reacting – they were talking about what is known – the data, the coding – and most importantly that what we’re experiencing isn’t just a Leadership or top level imperative – it’s the leadership we ALL can contribute to, no matter our level in the organization.

VUCA: Leading Under Pressure and Crisis
Contributing at all levels.
What we should do based on evidence.
Part One: Pearman & Eichinger, April 2020

So beyond these unprecedented times, and the ‘black swan’ terminology, they put words to how pressure and crisis is experienced.  For me, I always knew it was a bad feeling in my gut -or that anxiety I mentioned a paragraph ago – but they defined the psychology behind what’s being asked of us during pressure and crisis:  Handling an emergency/working in VUCA/short timelines/high stakes expectations/stakeholder management/high visibility/being resilient/and the presence required to not “lose it” in the moment.  Yep.  We went from a ‘feeling’ to a description of real things –  terminology I could work with.

Pressure and Crisis are not just left to those we think of as “leaders”, we all feel it no matter what level we work at.  Leaders – Sure, Managers – Yes. Individual Contributors?  Yes!  (Maybe even my Teenager.) The point Pearman and Eichinger made is that we all feel similar things – yet our responses, and needed contributions may look different.

The Knowledge, Skills and Attributes (the science behind how we show up at work) have been explored and coded and the the evidence tells us what kinds of Practices and behaviors matter most in times like these.

  • For the Individual Contributor who is often forgotten in organizational development efforts, they often find themselves left to their own devices under Pressure and Crisis. The most important things to bring to the table are #1 -Developing Resilience and Resourcefulness and #2 – Managing Conflict.  At this IC level with a Role of Getting things done – it’s not enough to just hunker down and keep working hard /contribute at the highest level.  Instead, it’s the ability to be resilient, resourceful and able to manage conflict that makes the greatest impact in times like these.
  • For the Manager level – those who are looked to for keeping their teams together in all this, they need to communicate effectively first – and be resilient and resourceful second (I’m sensing a theme here). At the Management level, Pearman and Eichinger described the evidence in a deeper way due to the complexity of managing people – but suffice it to say, there is nothing more important a manager does than managing the culture of the team and ensuring engagement.
  • For the Leader – those who keep the Enterprise “whole” financially, motivationally, working quickly to respond, staying agile and resourceful while maintaining their presence (because yes – everyone is watching). Leaders need to have Uncertainty and Ambiguity Comfort as well as the ability for Motivating and Influencing everyone around them.
  • There was another group Pearman and Eichinger took some time to discuss – a group found interspersed within the organization –found at all levels: high potentials. The best way to VUCA-proof your futures/talent pipeline is to manage your high potentials with precision.  These are the folks who seems to ‘know what to do, when they don’t know what to do’, and will show up and learn the most from a pressure and crisis experience because they wrest meaning from everything they face –and then are different by what they learn.  We’re talking about transformational kinds of learning.

So with everything going on around us in this Pandemic — Everyone feels it and responds to it. And, after we come out of this crisis and we think about our careers, the year 2020 –  this critical and difficult time will stand out and mark lasting change for all of us – because of the indelible lessons through this crucible, transformational experience.

This isn’t anxiety-causing bad news – but news of change and new beginnings we all can feel better about, as we work to contribute our best selves.

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