Fight VUCA Stress in 2012

At a Christmas party this week, I took an informal poll on the question "At your workplace, what would really help you and your fellow workers most in 2012?" I heard these answers:

- hire more staff
- shorten meetings
- communicate and listen more
- be more appreciative, flexible, and considerate
- provide more training

As I keep my finger on the pulse of my diverse clients here in New Jersey, I notice that stress has been pretty high in the workplace. My prediction for 2012 is that stress will continue to stay at a heightened level.

Why? According to recent news reports on the U.S. economy, hiring will be slow in 2012, and many employers are planning further headcount cuts. Workloads, however, are likely to keep going up. "Doing more with less" will continue.

This is the main driver of workplace stress! When you combine workloads, pressure, and time shortages, with uncertainty and chaos, much of it due to organizational change, watch out: stress will increase. As decades of stress research has taught us, the more stress, the greater the negative effects.

Should managers care? In short, Yes. Stress takes a big toll on employee engagement, on performance, and on health. In today's whitewater working environment, managers need to develop leadership capabilities for resilience in themselves and others.

What can managers do? In military schools, leaders are taught about VUCA, an acronym that stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. VUCA environments, like many of today's hyper-stressed workplaces, demand much of those in leadership roles.

With VUCA as a framework, here are four more elements that I believe are key in today's workplaces:

Volatile - The more things change, the more the volatility that people have to deal with. As Holmes and Rahe taught us decades ago, change means stress. The more change, the more stress, the greater the danger. Managers and their teams need to toughen their change readiness capability to withstand such volatility.

Uncertain - In uncertain environments, predictability drops, and surprises rise. In such a climate, planning, organizing, and adaptability take on a critical importance for managers and their teams.

Complex - You know you are dealing with complexity when confusion and chaos become the norm. Many of the problems that teams face in today's organizations are truly complex. This means there are no obvious "low hanging fruit" solutions that they can quickly implement. Instead, managers and their teams need to learn new ways to think critically and creatively to solve the dilemmas they face.

Ambiguous - In the midst of chaos, a team needs the mental ability to maintain their "line of sight" toward their objective. Having a clear and compelling sense of purpose ('Where can I do the most good for the business right now?') helps to laser focus on the most pressing priorities.

If you are a Manager right now, consider the above as a checklist for 2012. What do you resolve to work on to help your team cope with the stress in your organization?

Posted by Terrence Seamon on Thursday December 29, 2011

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