The term VUCA was originally coined by the US army to describe the turbulent environment in which they operated when called to serve in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. Today the term is used frequently in business. Even if people are not facing life-threatening danger, more and more people feel that their work-life is a never-ending series of surprises, instability and ambiguity. It may seem like an exaggeration to describe the average office environment as being anything like trying to survive in a war zone, nevertheless some of the seemingly minor skirmishes and benign changes that happen can provoke both physical and psychological stress for individuals, even when their lives are not actually in danger.
We have known for decades that it is not the isolated instances of stress that cause harm, but rather protracted exposure to stress over months and years that is the greatest danger. Living in a VUCA environment means that our bodies are in a permanent state of readiness to face whatever danger may emerge. The physical changes that this provokes are extremely harmful and can cause a range of health problems from cancer to auto-immune diseases and allergies to weight gain, as well as the better-known cardio-vascular problems that are associated with chronic stress.
VUCA Prime* - the antidote
Bob Johansen proposed the concept VUCA PRIME as an antidote to VUCA. This simple acronym takes the same letters as VUCA and uses them as a reminder of the things that leaders can do to mitigate the destabilising effect of working in a VUCA environment. My adaptation of this acronym describes how individuals can build the necessary resilience to thrive in an environment where there is constant change and unpredictability.
The original VUCA PRIME suggests that:
- Volatility can be combatted with Vision. Leaders need to communicate clearly where the organisation is heading and what are the core elements of strategy that the organisation is working towards, even if tactics sometimes need to be modified. It is similar to a ship steering a steady course whilst being buffeted by a storm. The captain will navigate according to the wind and waves, but still keeps the ship on course.
- Uncertainty is tackled by creating Understanding. In leadership, we advise people to clarify the facts and start to distinguish between the knowable unknowns and the unknowable unknowns. Simply knowing what data is not available is sometimes also helpful in assessing risk and choosing a course of action.
- Complexity is dealt with through Communication. This needs to be a constant during times of change. Leaders need to be available to pass on whatever information they have and to keep reminding people of the vision and letting them know to what degree the organisation is on track to attain that vision. Never assume that people are not intelligent enough/not strong enough/not interested enough to be able to tell them the truth. People can cope with a lot when they have the truth or at least as much information as is available.
- Ambiguity is countered by developing Agility, that is the ability for the organisation to respond rapidly to whatever occurs.
Johansen’s model, described above, provides a useful guide for leaders trying to steer their organisation through a VUCA environment. Let’s see how that can be applied at an individual level in order to provide a succinct checklist of what a person can put in place for themselves in order to build long-term resilience to constant change.
VUCA PRIME adapted to individuals:
- Vocation and values: When individuals know what they stand for, it makes any form of stress or turbulence easier to deal with. Just as an organisation needs to have vision to navigate a VUCA environment, so an individual needs to be able to keep in mind the bigger picture of what purpose they serve and how what they do contributes to something worthwhile. In coaching we often help individuals to define their life purpose. Vocation is another term to describe what a person wants to achieve in life. It is more than just a job or a title, but could be understood as a calling or as an overall sense of direction. Coupled with a strong sense of one’s own values, this becomes a kind of internal compass that helps a person make decisions about what they will or will not do; or will or will not accept from others.
- Understanding oneself: If establishing one’s vocation and values is the fundamental piece to establish, then a greater depth of self-knowledge can complement this by helping a person to recognise not only what is important to them, but what resources and skills they have for living their vocation to the full. Self-knowledge is also about recognising one’s own short-comings and finding ways to compensate or get help from others. Self-knowledge can also help to understand what your best survival strategies may be. What good habits do you have which contribute to building resilience? For example, an evening walk or run, a morning meditation. Likewise knowing what for you triggers discomfort or stress can help you to find preventative strategies or tactics to mitigate the impact of these stressors before they cause psychological or physical damage.
- Connection to others: Human beings need other human beings. There is a significant amount of research that suggests that people who have a strong support network of friends, family and colleagues not only fare better psychologically, but are also less prone to illness. One of the most dangerous aspects of stress is that it puts the body in a state of permanent inflammation. Inflammation is a useful part of the fight or flight response. If tissue has been damaged in any form of physical attack, it makes sense to produce large numbers of white blood cells to mop up any infection that may be present. When the body is constantly reacting as if it has been attacked, there are fewer resources available for combatting other pathogens that cause longer-term disease. This means that people suffering from chronic stress have more chance of succumbing to everything from the common cold to more serious diseases such as cancer. The inflammatory response is triggered by the hormone cortisol, as part of the fight or flight reflex and the one thing that can help to redress the balance and reduce cortisol levels is another hormone, oxytocin. A lot has been written in recent years about this feel-good, stress-beating hormone. As oxytocin is produced by physical proximity to others, it is sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone.” Researcher Paul Zak, who has worked with cultures globally to understand the impact of this hormone, has also observed an oxytocin spike in men performing a ritual dance in communities in Papua New Guinea.** It seems that not just physical touch, but also a sense of belonging to a community, can trigger the production of this vital hormone and thus reduce cortisol levels.
- Attitude: Having a constructive attitude is an important attribute which determines to what degree people cope with stress and turbulence in their life. This does not mean blithely saying that everything is fine or denying when things cause you distress. Those people who cope best in difficult situations are the ones who are prepared to acknowledge their negative emotions and rather than simply try to put a positive spin on things. Having admitted to the pain or the discomfort they are experiencing, these individuals then look for what is useful or what they can learn from the situation they are in. To some degree attitude is something that is determined by personality. Nevertheless, some of these thinking patterns are habits that we can develop. A little self-coaching can help. Try asking yourself questions like, “What am I feeling? How does this connect with my values? What different perspective could I take on this? What is useful in this situation? What is the best thing that could happen here? How will I think about this situation five years from now?
The whole point of VUCA situations is that you cannot foresee precisely what will happen; you cannot necessarily understand what is happening, nor even influence events often. The one thing that we can do is embrace the opportunity for learning and have faith that our inner resources (values and self-understanding) and connection to others will carry us through.
There is, of course, one more thing, but that will be the subject for a future article. Developing resilience is as much about developing our physical resources to combat inflammation and maintain our body in a condition that it can cope with the strains of living in a VUCA world.
*Bob Johansen, Getting There Early, 2007, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco.
**Paul Zak, The Trust Factor, 2017, Amacom, New York