Practice of the Month

VUCA can be managed to reduce anxiety through effective leadership.jpg

VUCA can be managed to reduce anxiety through effective leadership

Finding the time and space to think clearly and act based on principle is difficult for many leaders. The demands of time, along with the stresses of leading in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (known as VUCA), make effective leadership challenging. In this context, we examine two stories that illustrate these challenges.

The Stories of Charles and Liz

Charles Woodruff is a research associate at a multi-site law firm, where he finally landed a “real job” (according to his father). Elizabeth Yeager (“Liz”) is currently the chief financial officer of a local manufacturing facility, comfortable in her position for the past 12 years. Although Charles and Liz differ in age, experience, industry, and almost every other way, their parallel stories will illustrate the broad application of both the challenge of managing capacity and the complexity of solving workplace problems.

As we pick up Charles’s story after his 3-month review, we see two very different stories being told. At his review, Charles’s boss Pam gave him a positive, albeit brief, review. Pam commented that the attorneys thought Charles was doing great but offered no specific examples. On the other hand, Charles felt unprepared, overwhelmed, and unfocused. With four different attorneys wanting different tasks delivered in different ways at different times (usually immediately), Charles had a hard time prioritizing what to do on a daily basis. Most of the work he did was submitted through Pam, and most of the work was redone by Pam. Charles began to doubt his own abilities. He was told he was doing a great job, but his work was almost always “touched up” by Pam. Privately, Pam admitted wanting to avoid the managing partners' wrath by ensuring that everything that came out of her office was “perfect.” Pam worked long hours at the office “fine-tuning” the work turned in by Charles and the other two research associates, leaving Pam overworked and Charles growing less confident by the day.

Liz Yeager was no Charles. She was confident in her role as CFO in a company founded by a family friend. Hugh Mitchell founded Eichner Machine and Mold in 1980 as a 3-person enterprise. 40 + years later, Eichner M & M employed over 200 people with gross revenue of $54 million. All this success made Hugh quite proud; it also made him quite tired. In his early 70s, Hugh shocked everyone by secretly putting the company up for sale, ultimately selling it to a large conglomerate known for taking mid-sized companies, “shaping them up,” and then reselling them for a sizable profit. This is where we pick up Liz's story. When the company bought out Eichner, changes were swift. Twenty percent (20%) of the employees were offered a retirement incentive. After a few weeks, many of the remaining 80% longed for a lifeboat as well. The new management made significant upgrades in equipment, streamlined operations, and made an expensive investment in cloud technology, becoming deeply leveraged in doing so. This put pressure on the company's bottom line and CFO Liz. The once-family atmosphere was gradually replaced by a laser focus on the bottom line while employee morale and productivity plummeted. Liz thought of speaking up but decided to focus on her day-to-day responsibilities. Four months later, Liz told her partner she wasn’t sure she could continue working for the new ownership much longer. As she wrestled with her next steps, Liz was called into HR, handed a separation agreement, and ordered to pack her belongings. She was out of a job that she hated but needed.

Although very different circumstances, here are three leadership lessons we can learn from the stories of Charles and Liz.

  1. A leader’s over-functioning erodes the capability of individuals and groups Neuroscience research indicates that 95 - 98% of our actions are unconscious. For most leaders, this often involves over-functioning, which is defined as “to think, feel or act on behalf of another in a way that erodes the other’s capacity for ownership or thoughtful action.” Charles’s boss Pam was over-functioning, while Charles began to under-function, and his work showed it.
  2. Managing capacity is essential to avoiding stress and preventing overwhelm*. As a leader, you need to pay attention to managing capacity — your own and that of your employees. Many leaders complain about being stretched too thin and never being able to catch up. In our example, Pam was taking on others’ work, increasing her own stress and undermining the confidence of those on her team.
  3. The scope and speed of change govern the level of anxiety and reactivity of the people impacted by the change. You are leading in a VUCA world where volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are with you for the foreseeable future. As illustrated by the Eichner story, making too many changes too quickly will be resented and resisted by the people you need to make those changes stick.

Stay tuned as we learn more about why we over (or under) function and ways to effectively manage our capacity to contribute more effectively to all phases of our personal and professional lives in the March and April editions of Resilient Leadership’s Practice of the Month!

*Managing capacity is essential to avoid feeling overwhelmed, thus reducing stress.

This article was contributed by Mike Nowland and John Moyer, Resilient Leadership Trainers.

Mike Nowland

Mike Nowland is a persuasive and empathetic communicator with over 30 years of senior-level experience in Leadership Development and Human Resources with companies like Marriott International, ResMed, and Kisco Senior Living.

John Moyer

John Moyer has 30+ years of experience training and coaching both student and adult leaders. His focus is primarily on individual coaching along with targeted training engagements as a complement to his teaching career.