Leadership X.0
30 July 2020

In the impossibility of reducing complexity, uncertainty, volatility and ambiguity, the individual in a VUCA context can change his perception of these characteristics. By doing so, he will be able to modify his emotions and improve the emotional basis on which decisions are made

“The belief that one’s own view of reality is the only reality is the most dangerous of all delusions.”
Paul Watzlawick
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
Albert Einstein

In this article we argue that the individual operating in a VUCA context, exposed to a relentlessly changing environment that does not lend itself to being learned, risks being bogged in a situation of impasse and suffer burn out, that is, an acute form of stress that is very harmful to his emotional balance and decision-making capacity. In principle, the problem could be solved by reducing the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the context. However, in a VUCA context these characteristics are irreducible and ungovernable. The individual must therefore modify the perception he has of these characteristics. Perception, defined as the subjective process that operates a synthesis of sensory data in meaningful forms, is never positive or negative per sè, but is affected, on the one hand, by the individual’s experiences and, on the other, by how the individual organizes sensory information in light of such experiences. By changing the perception of the context, the individual can also change what he thinks, the emotions he feels, the thoughts he develops, and the actions he undertakes. In order to intervene on his perception, the individual has to become aware of the mental mechanisms and strategies used to form his perception. There are numerous techniques developed by different disciplines to gain awareness of these mechanisms and elicit the mental strategies shaping perceptions. A Leader X.0 cannot ignore these techniques and their application on himself and on others.

The essential characteristic of a VUCA context is that its complexity, uncertainty, volatility and ambiguity are irreducible and ungovernable. From this it follows that a VUCA context cannot be made objectively less volatile, less uncertain, less complex, and less ambiguous.

The irreducibility of its essential characteristics makes the evolution of the VUCA context unforeseeable, except for its very short-term developments, since the paths according to which the context can evolve are innumerable, due to the extensive interdependencies between individuals and their actions.

In principle, an individual can approach a VUCA context by adopting two approaches

  • waiting-reaction stance: the individual lingers in observing the context and its developments, to react when he thinks he has acquired useful information to inform his decision-making process. In this way, however, the individual will be at the mercy of events and will feel overwhelmed. At best, he will only be able to anticipate the very short-term developments of the contexts and will remain fully exposed to medium and long-term uncertainty. All this will generate increasing stress on the individual, which will likely culminate with the arising of acute burn out;
  • interpretation-proactivity stance: the individual subjectively interprets the context and its evolution, derives its own representation, and hence a narrative, to give coherence to the past, the present and the future of his context. Based on this narrative, he proactively undertakes initiatives and influences, as far as possible, the evolution of the context itself. In this case too, burn out will arise, even if, in all likelihood, of lesser magnitude than that of the previous case, since the narrative will provide the necessary coherence to mitigate the vertigo of uncertainty.

Although the evolution of a VUCA context cannot be anticipated, neither the volatility, complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty mitigated, the individual may still intervene on the perception that he has of these elements.

At this point someone might ask: what role can the perception of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity play in resolving the impasse and mitigating the burn-out? If the difficulties are objectively linked to the volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity of the context, how can a different perception of these characteristics be resolutive?

Perception is the process by which an individual acquires information about his world through his senses. This process is never accidental but implies an organizational activity through which the individual assigns, in the light of his personal experiences, a specific meaning to the information gathered by the senses. In particular, the individual structures his own perceptions through real strategies that, most of the time, remain unconscious and used by the individual in a mechanical and automatic fashion, being embedded in his own routines, without being consciously or, even less, critically reconsidered.

When the individual is overwhelmed and disorientated by a VUCA context, rationality becomes ineffective. Whoever insisted on using rationality to break out of the impasse and reduce the burn out will end up, as if trapped, in a negative emotional state that the impasse itself has generated. The negative emotions will eventually impoverish the individual’s thinking and his action’s potential. As a consequence, the individual will likely persist in his waiting strategy or elaborate a narrative that will be negatively affected by his poor emotional state. His actions will be distorted, disarticulated, short-sighted, and eventually, a failure.

In these cases, it is of critical importance to intervene on the perception of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity which is responsible for the impasse and the burn out, with the aim to modify the perspective with which the individual looks and approaches his context and generate a new emotional state.

Changing the perception of the context will change the way in which the individual will think of the context and, consequently, the emotions that his perception will generate and, eventually, the actions that the individual will initiate. Because when the individual changes how he thinks, he changes what he feels and, consequently, he changes what he does.

The individual can intervene on his own perceptions by

  • acquiring full awareness of the mechanisms and the strategies deployed to generate his perceptions,
  • disentangle his strategies between functional and dysfunctional ones and
  • restructuring dysfunctional strategies to make them functional. By doing so, the individual will change the perception of observed situations, circumstances and events. Consequently, his experience will change too.

Coaching offers numerous techniques with which to acquire awareness of one’s own perceptions, to evaluate the mechanisms and mental strategies that have determined them and modifying them as necessary. A Leader X.0 cannot ignore the knowledge and the application of these techniques on himself and on other individuals. Now more than ever, in fact, it is required that individuals working in VUCA contexts have the ability to go into their inner self and connect with themselves and to effectively use techniques to restructure their strategies, rebalance their perceptive function an restore their emotional balance to break out of the impasse and to overcome the burn out.