Big Ideas

Managing Yourself in a VUCA World

By Rob Kaiser

In a previsou post I considered the leadership requirements of today’s fast-moving, disruptive operating environment in terms of the VUCA framework, which defines this environment as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. That analysis explained how modern leaders need to be fast, flexible, broad, and self-aware. This post provides some practical tools for mastering these requirements.

In order to use these tools, you need an overview for understanding the skills and behaviors to be mastered. You might think that the way to do this is with a competency model. But these models are often insufficient for guiding development; they were originally designed to measure peformance. (FWIW, Marc Effron has a great whitepaper on a longer list of problems with competency models.)

Instead, Bob Hogan and I have taken a different approach by defining a hierarchy of management skills that provides a simpler way to think holistically about the various types of competencies and how they relate to each other in day-to-day performance. The hierarchy organizes competencies into four broad categories:

Technical skills—basic business, management, and function-specific expertise; knowing the industry or sector

Leadership skills—influencing others and getting them to work together as a team

People skills—social functioning, forming and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships

Self-management skills—self-awareness and self-control, emotional maturity, resilience

Domain Model

This ordering reflects how skills in one category depend on those in the next category. For instance, self-control is needed to get along with others, getting along is prerequisite for effective influence, and influence is needed to get your expert knowledge accepted and implemented.

Another thing about this hierarchy is that lower-level skills are progressively harder to assess and develop. Technical skills are the most obvious to spot and are relatively easy to learn. But self-management skills are harder to identify and even harder to enhance.

And this is the secret to succeeding in a VUCA world: What may seem like a need to refresh technical know-how, learn new influence techniques, or relate to a wider range of people often depends on knowing and managing yourself better. For instance, a bad decision may not be the result of a lack of technical understanding so much as confused thinking caused by stress and worry. As you learn the inner workings of your operating system and how to manage yourself, the rest gets easier—especially when you are surrounded by chaos.

Managing yourself can be tricky, but it is a learnable skill. The hard part is that we often don’t think about how we are thinking because it happens automatically. And when sudden change catches us off-guard, when complexity overwhelms, and the pressure mounts we fall even deeper into primitive ways of thinking through the fight-or-flight stress response.

There are two simple tools for keeping your cool and responding constructively when the world gets all VUCA: First, calm yourself with deep breathing and, second, make sure you are thinking constructively.

Deep breathing exercises can short-circuit the stress response to sudden, unexpected change. There is a lot of science to back up the old advice to take a deep breath and count back from ten. There are many different programs and methods, but a simple yet powerful technique is taught by Dr. Andy Walshe, the head of Red Bull’s high-performance lab—where they hack talent to train extreme-sport athletes:

Take a slow, deep inhale for four seconds, hold it in deep in your chest for four seconds, then let it out slowly for four seconds, and repeat.

A few minutes of this will do the trick, slowing down your heart rate, decreasing blood pressure, relaxing your muscles, and increasing the flow of blood and oxygen to your brain. Protip: go slow and steady; progressing fast through the breathing can actually amp up your heart rate and stress response!

Once you are in this calmer state, check your thought process and tune it to a constructive channel. There are four dichotomies to consider:

Do you see the situation as a threat or challenge? When you define it as a threat, your focus narrows, making it harder to see the forest for the trees and you miss opportunities. When you define it as a challenge, you consider more options, are more creative about solutions, and identify strategic possibilities. Some of the most offensive behavior comes from a defensive mindset; but rising up to meet a worthy challenge can bring out your best.

How do you know what’s happening: Are you assuming or assessing the situation? When we assume, we “think fast” with our emotional mind and jump to conclusions—often imagining the worst-case scenario. We are hard-wired to think fast and assume the worst when surprised: It was more adaptive in our evolutionary history to assume the rustling in the bushes was a predator. But when we slow down and “think slow” with our analytical mind, we consider cause and effect more logically and often reach a better understanding.

Are you reacting or responding? Reacting is typically an emotionally triggered knee-jerk—often because we quickly assume a threat and swing into action to fight it off or flee from danger. The alternative is being thoughtful about deciding the best way to respond. This involves considering options and their likely effects, and then choosing the one that seems most likely to be helpful and productive.

Finally, are you focused on yourself or others? When we feel threatened, assume the worst, and react, it is often to protect ourselves. Again, this is hardwired: A bias for self-protection often spelled the difference between life or death on the hostile Savannah. But in the modern social world, the bigger danger is negatively affecting other people. When we stop to think about how our actions will impact other people, we are usually more effective—and better supported.

The best way to use these tools is to prepare before you need them. Practice the deep breathing exercise. Research shows that a regimen of deep breathing can produce lasting and measurable effects: lowering your blood pressure, increasing your energy and alertness, and even rewiring your brain to override the stress response. Dr. Walshe recommends a 4x4x4x4 routine: 4 seconds in, 4 seconds out, for 4 minutes, 4 times a day. A short two-minute version before an important meeting or tense interaction can also help you to prepare to be at your best.

And monitor your self-talk, the voice inside your head: Is it positive and constructive or threatened and defensive? Is the story you tell yourself characterized by worry, doubt, and criticism? Notice how when you frame problems as threats you also assume the worst, react without thinking, and neglect to consider other people. Learn to flip the script by using the language of challenge: Slow down to assess the situation, consider options and other people, and thoughtfully choose a helpful, productive response.

Leading in a VUCA world is hard, and we can’t control what wicked problems will flare up or when. But we do have control over how we deal with them. As a leader, the key is to keep yourself steady in the midst of the storm so your relationships, influence, and judgment can be at their best to guide your team and organization.

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