Around the time of the Cold War, the military coined the term for the climates of unpredictable and turbulent: VUCA. What does it stand for? Volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. And as you likely know, it’s now applicable to the business world. Despite all of our increasing data and knowledge, our environment is hard to predict because of rapid changes in technology and consumer expectations.
In a turbulent, unpredictable, multi-factored, and foggy environment, leaders and team members have to stay on their toes. The problem with being on your toes? It feels like it’s easier to be knocked over. This is where emotional intelligence kicks in. You can use what we know about the brain and its habits to make the best of this VUCA environment
Don’t get stuck on the little things.
In a situation where the environment is uncertain, the brain will try its best to solve the easiest problems first. It’s a natural tendency – if something is big and complex, we tend to gravitate toward the more defined, solvable pieces before diving into the big stuff. This is dangerous for two reasons. First, tackling smaller tasks may prohibit you from ever getting to the “big problem.” Second, if you do get to the bigger, complex issue you’ve already used a lot of time and energy on small tasks.
My guess is that we’ve all experienced this one way or another. Take, for example, email. We’ll open our email thinking we’ll just take a peek – but what happens? An unexpected crisis pulls us in and the next thing we know, two hours have passed without much to show for it.
What’s a more emotionally intelligent way to handle this? Understand that the brain’s tendency is toward easily gratified and less strenuous tasks. Choose to tackle the analytic, strategic, creative tasks first. If you find yourself getting sidelined or falling into a common trap, notice it and redirect your time and energy.
Recognize the difference between problems and dilemmas
There are problems and then there are dilemmas. A problem is something that can be solved. This includes tasks like deciding which software program to use for which task. You and perhaps a small group of people get together, work through the options, gather more information in order to eliminate uncertainty, and decide. A problem, in other words, can be clean.
So what about dilemmas? That’s another animal. Dilemmas are messy and complicated. They involve many different sectors. Dilemmas cannot be solved or ended – they can only be managed. Bob Johansen, a researcher at the Institute for the Future says, “We’re moving from a world of problems to a world of continuous dilemmas.” *
The emotionally intelligent response to dilemmas is first to identify it as such and understand that they will evolve and come back to you – a fact that is scary for the brain. The biggest challenge in managing them has to do with timing. Leaders need to be careful not to judge too quickly or decide too late. Emotionally intelligent leaders will recognize when they’re continuing to mine for more information past a point that is helpful. They are also willing to be nimble once they decide and understand that dilemmas evolve and come back to you.
In his work, Bob Johansen defines “dilemma flipping” as “reframing an unsolvable challenge as an opportunity.” For example, when Disney World faced the dilemma of long lines at their amusement park, it wasn’t fixable – but the negative effects could be mitigated. They started providing video entertainment, an interactive app for people in line, and wait-time indicators. They used the dilemma of long lines as an opportunity to innovate and change the experience of park-goers.
Because dilemmas are unsolvable, Emotionally intelligent leaders understand they have a choice. They can get tripped off on an ever-evolving issue and feel like they’re fighting to swim upstream, or they can accept the reality of the dilemma and look for opportunities within the challenge.
There’s no escaping VUCA. Our industry environments are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon. If you want to do more than survive in this challenging climate, use emotional intelligence – what we know about the brain and its habits and tendencies – to thrive.
* Johansen, Bob. Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012.
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