Leading through volatility and uncertainty

How managers and organizations can navigate the COVID-19 crisis—and come out stronger

Jim Lemoine

By Jim Lemoine

Already, articles have popped up in business media referring to the COVID-19 crisis as a VUCA situation—an organizational climate that is volatile, uncertain, complex or ambiguous. Given my research in this area, my ears perk up when I hear this. Often, people say VUCA environments defy logical planning, with some even suggesting that the best any business leader can do is to make things up as they go along. In a time like this, that probably sounds familiar.

The organizations that emerge from the COVID-19 crisis the strongest won’t be the ones that gave up and waited for the storm to pass—they’ll be the ones that planned proactively, paid attention to environmental cues, and laid the foundation to successfully reboot and recover.

It’s natural to feel like it’s useless or even impossible to plan for VUCA situations, but that’s not a helpful impulse. My colleague Nate Bennett, of Georgia State University, and I have proposed that most business climates—including the one created by the novel coronavirus—are not volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous all at the same time. It might be one or two, but it’s generally not all four. And being able to identify which one describes your climate is critical to understanding what the most effective response might be.

Clearly, the COVID-19 situation has been volatile, and now we’re living in a time of uncertainty. The prescription for this particular blend of VUCA attributes is to invest in information-gathering capability and then use that information to build agility and contingency options for the future. Research shows that with more robust information, not only does our decision-making capability and effectiveness improve, but our intuition also leads us to better choices. All in all, the better informed we are, the better decisions we make—even when we don’t take time to think through those decisions.

With the wealth of information—and misinformation—available on the novel coronavirus, managers should prioritize building trustworthy and relevant information networks for the purpose of today’s decisions and tomorrow’s foresight. Then, with this information in hand, organizations can build agile strategies for the future: planning out different levels of potential staffing and supply needs, anticipating market changes that require proactive responses, and understanding what essential employees may be going through in their personal and professional lives.

That last piece is crucial because, as challenging and dangerous as current operational demands may be, it’s the effect on employees that may have the most long-term impact for organizations. Research shows we are more likely to respond strongly to recent events than distant ones, and negative experiences generally outweigh positive ones. No matter how well you treated your employees before, their experience during this tumultuous time may disproportionately affect their plans for the future.

Whenever the coronavirus crisis clears and the business environment—and life in general—returns to some semblance of normalcy, an onset of opportunities may give your employees new expectations and options. Whether they respond with loyalty to you will likely depend on how they feel they’ve been treated during these difficult times. For instance, many organizations have been forced to furlough or lay off employees. There’s no getting around the financial realities that make these decisions necessary, but for organizations and employees who suffer through this, are the lines of communication open? Are managers being as transparent and engaged as they realistically can with their current and former teams? It’s easy to view simple contact as a lower priority during a crisis, but the absence of information and evidenced concern can persuade employees that the company is not worth their commitment.

Jim Lemoine is an assistant professor of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo School of Management. He is an expert on servant leadership, gender and leadership, and ethics and moral leadership. He has written for Harvard Business Review, and his research has been cited in popular media, including Forbes, Entrepreneur and Fast Company.

One Reply to “Leading through volatility and uncertainty”

  1. So proud that you have achieved so much in such a short time. Your article makes really valid points, and I’m happy to see that your grammar is perfect! Congratulations on your stellar accomplishments.
    From an old English teacher

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