By Gail Gumminger, MPA, BA, FACHE
More is being asked of us, as leaders, than ever before. The work of now is different than when we originally signed on. Leaders are quickly and agilely responding to an unpredictable crisis and rethinking workforce strategies in real-time to create safety and virtualization. In addition, we are also being asked to connect with our employees and touch people’s lives in a whole new way. Our role to serve and support our teams has not changed, but our focus on the individuals’ needs has now become the center of attention.
We know that a healthy and engaged workforce— fostering a culture of respect, integrity, transparency, and accountability— is an important factor in determining an organization’s success. However, in today’s chaotic environment, it moves from being important, to being essential. As leaders, we are accustomed to managing and supporting our teams through difficult environmental situations, but the Covid-19 pandemic has made managing and supporting the individuals on our teams through difficult situations paramount. Our leadership lens must be multifocal. We must build our capacity for a broader long-term vision while seeing and connecting with each member of our team. Much like progressive eyewear.
In 1987, the term VUCA was coined by the US Military. It is an acronym that reflects the rise in disruptions, shifts, speed and globalization in our world. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Together, these qualities characterize the nature of difficult situations and challenges. The pandemic has thrown our country, and the world, into a VUCA condition. A VUCA leadership approach shifts the focus from relying on set outcomes to and approach which considers all the possibilities and prepares for as many alternatives as possible. As we move to recovery from the pandemic, VUCA leadership will be a helpful approach as we support and lead individuals on our teams to come to terms with new realities.
Our people— our most important asset— continue experiencing stress on so many different levels, requiring us to step back and consider alternatives with care, understanding and empathy. The pandemic itself has created difficulties for our employees, from establishing and maintaining remote work environments to navigating childcare and homeschool demands, from feelings of loss and isolation from lockdown and stay-at-home orders to financial stresses and employment insecurities. And these are only the tip of the iceberg.
Even as we begin to recover from the effects of the pandemic, things do not appear to be business as usual. The timing of a vaccine is unknown and the opening of our businesses and schools still uncertain, it is difficult to plan. These emotions, stresses and fears do not disappear when we show up to work whether in person or on our remote screens. As leaders, we must understand everyone’s reality, perspectives and experiences are different. We must also be willing to lead courageously and view each other as whole, capable, and resourceful.
Why does it matter? Because if we do not take notice, start to lead differently, deepen our leadership and coaching impact with our employees, our teams will weaken, and our employees become disengaged and unproductive. By connecting with each individual, we can keep our employees and our teams strong and maintain engagement.
So, how do we ensure we are sensitive to the emotions and the needs of the individuals on our teams?
We first must maintain an environment of stability and manage our personal emotions. This requires our attention to our own emotional intelligence practices. We can do this by staying calm in the face of uncertainty, maintaining confidence and initiative, focusing on what is known and within control and by applying a growth mindset.
What becomes important is redefining VUCA and VUCA leadership in a positive light–Visionary, Understanding, Clarity, Agility:
- Be VISIONARY
Share your vision and purpose often to manage the chaos and confusion. Lead with optimism and gratitude. Communicate often with your team members both individually and as a team. Keep your messages concise and consistent. Follow-through on promises to keep positive momentum.
- Be UNDERSTANDING
Keep individuals engaged by being fully present. Listen more. Check in with your biases and manage judgement. Ask questions. Stay curious. We deepen our connectivity with the individuals on our teams when we lean in a bit more, show empathy, and demonstrate hope. By truly engaging with individuals, we can then understand them as a whole person – not to be responsible for fixing the issues – but to listen to understand. There are times when things just don’t make sense anymore and that is okay. Widen your perspective, act with respect and honesty and be trustworthy.
- Provide CLARITY
Be direct and transparent, open and honest. While the information may seem repetitive, constantly clarify, and communicate to ensure individuals have the information they need. If the organizational structure is no longer working, adapt it to match new complexities. Create new connections. Re-focus everyone on smaller steps and/or reduce the complexity in the environment into smaller pieces. Improve decision-making speed, be inclusive, streamlined, and efficient.
- Be AGILE
Re-engage and recommit to your purpose and take the time to design for the future. This may mean shifting the way things have been done. Practice rapid prototyping. Adopt a fail fast and fix it approach. Experiment and pilot to discover what you and others don’t know. Create modern solutions. Facilitate innovation. Make room for mistakes and re-takes. Adjust expectations while maintaining accountability.