The VUCA World of Work

By: Caroline Dowd-Higgins

If you haven’t heard the trending business buzzword, VUCA, it stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The term originated at the US Army War College in 1980 to describe the global landscape after the Cold War, and quickly found traction in the business world.

Our world circumstances have shifted from the 1980s, but the complexities of an interconnected global marketplace are VUCA and relevant today as we continue to navigate the pandemic journey, a turbulent economy, and continued racial inequality and social injustice.

Tackling ambiguity.

The pandemic forced us to deal with ambiguity out of necessity. We charted new territory in real time and learned to change and adapt quickly. The ambiguity kept us on our toes and forced an entrepreneurial mindset to create business solutions quickly to meet consumer demands in uncertain times.

While nobody wishes for VUCA circumstances, the practice of staying agile is a skill we must hone and incorporate into our emotional intelligence lexicon. Being agile requires change that happens quickly and a willingness to take a risk to try disruptive and unconventional solutions. Failure is likely but the learning and iterative approach softens the vulnerability of failing and focuses on the possibilities.

[Related: Gratitude at Work Spurs Empathy and Compassion]

VUCA impact in the workplace.

VUCA has seeped into the workplace and can create an environment that impacts organizational culture and productivity. MindTools offered these VUCA changes to be aware of for the workers and the company:

  • Destabilizes people and make them anxious.
  • Saps their motivation.
  • Makes constant retraining and reshaping a necessity.
  • Increases the chances of people making bad decisions.
  • Paralyzes decision-making processes.
  • Jeopardizes long-term projects, developments, and innovations.
  • Overwhelms individuals and organizations.
  • Takes its toll on internal culture.
  • “Bleeds” inwards and creates VUCA.

Reframing VUCA.

While VUCA can evoke emotional angst and even fear, it can be reframed and deconstructed to focus on action and creating solutions.

  • Volatile — Consider how you can diffuse an unstable scenario and bring stability.
  • Uncertain — Seek information, gather input, analyze, and share it to help others find clarity.
  • Complex — Break it down and restructure to simplify.
  • Ambiguous — Experiment and test drive cause and effect. Iterate and test again.

Change is a constant and unpredictable feature in every work environment. Defining change as positive and re-energizing with clarity about the WHY will engender trust and buy-in.

[Related: Achieving Workplace Inclusion: Three Steps Toward a Sustainable Organization]

VUCA leadership.

The emotional wake of VUCA is hitting home in the workforce and savvy leaders must be prepared to communicate clearly and showcase empathy. Transparency is essential because even if the news is difficult, people value honesty and clarity vs. secrecy and being kept out of the proverbial communication loop.

VUCA-savvy leaders will focus on key areas to help teams not just survive but thrive in turbulent times.

  • Team Culture — Dig deep into co-designing and developing culture as a place where people can do their best work with psychological safety and recognition.
  • Acknowledgement — Recognize the events and circumstances that are causing angst in the world, nationally, and at the community level to show you care and are empathetic about how this is impacting their lives. Ignoring the volatile sends a signal that you don’t care.
  • Innovation — Consider how you can infuse cutting edge tools, resources, and ideas to make your team and your company more future-ready. Engage your team for input.
  • Recruiting and Retention — Increase your agility by promoting and recruiting talent that flourishes with change. Some thrive with less structure and having this talent in your organization can help others optimize change when it happens, because it will.

Preparing for VUCA.

Predicting the future is not possible but being future-focused will help organizations anticipate possible scenarios, threats, and how they might play out. It’s the classic fire drill scenario, companies need to create strategies for “what if…” so when something does happen, you have the muscle memory to move forward quickly.

There is no doubt that VUCA is impacting the world of work, but with a reframe from volatile to high-impact, you can set a new tone of flexibility, collaboration, and shared goals to hone team and individual agility. VUCA provides an opportunity to turn the unknown into the art of the possible.

[Related: How Failure Actually Grows Your Innovation Culture]

Caroline Dowd-Higgins is passionate about unlocking the art-of-the-possible in her work with individuals and organizations as a career and executive coach, consultant, and speaker. She authored the book “This Is Not the Career I Ordered” and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name. Her online video series about career & life empowerment is on YouTube. Caroline hosts the 3-time award winning podcast, Your Working Life, on iTunes,Spotify, and SoundCloud. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Her TEDxWOMEN talk about reframing failure and defining success on your own terms is available on YouTube. Her new book, “Your Career Edge: Overcome Challenges to Achieve a Rewarding Work Life,” will launch in early 2023.

Originally published at on November 16, 2022.



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