VUCA is an acronym that most in the business world have become familiar with. It is the result of an ever-increasing flow of data and information in conjunction with increasing distrust of data and information. This duality not only impacts economies and politics. It fundamentally affects how we interact and treat each other. I recently learned of the VUCA acronym at a presentation by Google’s Country Manager Adriatic Region, Joško Mrndže. Here is the irony. The acronym was unfamiliar to me, however, as Mrndže continued talking about VUCA, the hairs on my arms straightened. As he spoke I was transported back to the almost two decades I had dedicated transforming extreme manifestations of VUCA.
Volatility – the quality or state of being like to change suddenly, especially by becoming worse.
Uncertainty – a situation in which something is not known, or something that is not known or certain.
Complexity – the state of having many parts and being difficult to understand or find an answer to.
Ambiguity – the quality of being open to more than one interpretation; inexactness.
What the VUCA is going on
Left unchecked VUCA can wreak havoc on any community, organization, team, or individual. For most of my years in social work, I was responsible for managing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity in the lives of hundreds of young men in conflict with the law. Our job was to transform VUCA into positive energy and outcomes. We were tasked with ensuring that its devastating impact did not harm anyone, overrun the program’s culture, or spill into the neighboring community. One can imagine how the life of a young person coming from a home of domestic violence, abuse, and/or neglect can result in VUCA. Add to that any of the following pre-existing conditions: trauma, alcohol/drug addiction, gangs, learning disabilities, truancy, emotional dysregulation, poverty, and psychiatric illness.
Psychological safety transforms VUCA
Mrndže continued to highlight the importance of psychological safety in companies as a coping mechanism for VUCA. This is a top priority for leaders. Work environments are psychologically safe when:
A code of conduct exists and is practiced
Physical/Environmental safety is assured
Employees are entrusted to do their job
Systems and procedures promote fair treatment
A mentoring culture exists
Employees are supported in times of need
Good work is recognized
An open feedback culture exists
Personal and professional development is encouraged
Employees feel a sense of belonging
As the director of a group home, I could not control what was happening outside the walls of my program. My energy went to influencing the staff and residents inside by fostering a trusting and caring environment. A safe haven in a sea of uncertainty allows people to harness VUCA’s creative and innovative potential.
Living la Vida VUCA
Vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are not always unwanted conditions. Moreover, they can never be fully eradicated. When a safe haven to deal with such incalculable conditions exists, VUCA promotes creativity and innovation. Some of the most out of the box thinkers I have met were the young men under my care. Living a VUCA life creates an agile mind. People comfortable with instability are flexible and adaptable. As VUCA increases in a digital world so does the need for societies and organizations to create conditions for humans to effectively and efficiently deal with it. Ensuring psychological safety permits people to have the peace of mind to learn and grow from incalculable and unknown variables.
About the author
Jean-Pierre Kallanian is a Process Facilitator and Human Systems Specialist. He accompanies organizations in fully integrating their human resource potential by facilitating group processes that foster authenticity, intention, and collective wisdom. All stakeholders benefit in a culture that supports exploration, play, inspiration, and connection. He is also the author of What You Can Learn from Your Teenager: Lessons in Parenting and Personal Growth.