Engagement in a VUCA world

BLOG ARTICLE | By Debbie Mitchell

Insights > Employee engagement > Engagement in a VUCA world


BLOG ARTICLE | By Debbie Mitchell | 18th September 2018

Recognising external issues is vital to success

There is no getting away from it – we can do our very best within the confines of our own organisation, our processes and our determined leadership style to maintain great levels of employee engagement. To keep our employees committed, enthused and delivering their very best every day. What we cannot ignore though is the external environment – issues going on in the world that impact stability, our business, the markets we operate in. One of the ways used to describe those external conditions is the VUCA world. These VUCA conditions will, of course, impact employee engagement.


What is a VUCA world?

The VUCA acronym originated to describe the difficult conditions experienced by the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. It stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, and has become a term used frequently in strategic leadership to express the craziness of today’s business environment. Here’s how it relates to challenges businesses might be facing:

  • Volatile: market fluctuations in response to political unrest
  • Uncertain: a predicted competitor product launch will have an impact, but the extent is unknown
  • Complex: different compliance regulations across countries for the same product
  • Ambiguous: interpreting things in different ways depending on our perspective e.g. Brexit

VUCA implies that businesses are unable to plan ways to deal with the environment proactively. In turn, this can have an impact on how a business prepares its people. The issues become conflated and act as a warning sign for chaos - and this chaos means that for employees, job security, satisfaction and capability could all be challenged. When people feel challenged in these ways, they are more likely to detach - starting their job search, looking for an opportunity which might feel more stable, at least in the short term.

Organisations might aim to prioritise the strategic or operational impacts, but as leaders and people managers, we need to prioritise employee engagement as we seek to deal with VUCA conditions. So, what can we do?



We don’t like being left in the dark. We don’t like being treated like children. These two factors influence how we feel when we experience VUCA in our workplace. Do you make people aware of uncertainty and instability, which might impact their focus, commitment and confidence? Or do you share all news - good or bad - and hope that people will work with you towards a mutually successful outcome?

I’m not sure there is a right answer here, but there are pros and cons to both approaches. Being transparent and inclusive about your business challenges provides people with the opportunity to get involved, and to be part of the solution. But the counter-argument is that it can lead to instability, distraction and potential loss of talent. Keeping the truth from people can allow them to maintain their focus on delivery, but the intent to protect them may not translate well and could be perceived as a lack of trust.

The answer will depend on your company culture, and the nature of the impacts the company and its people will experience. Early communication is always advisable, but leaders should first understand the challenges well and have a strategy in place that employees can be involved in at an early stage.


People-centred change

A VUCA environment may well be a stimulus for fast, reactive change. This could focus on product and service, process, technology or people, or a combination of those factors. One of my favourite soundbites about change is that it’s not that people don’t like change - they just don’t like having it done to them. They want to be involved, and this is the essence of people-centred change. We’ll talk about involvement in the next section, but for now, let’s consider the change process itself, and how we can focus on elements of it to keep people engaged.

Human reactions to change: Keep a copy of the change curve close by at all times. As you consider your strategy, change plan or actions, think about the implications for people. Recognise that a range of reactions is normal and that the pace of acceptance could be different for everyone. Talk about it. Be curious about how people feel, about the issues they see or the opportunities they recognise. Listen well to what they are saying and build feedback into your planning.

Impact assessment: Consider people first in your change impact assessment. What will it mean for individuals, teams and functions? What actions does this mean you should take?

Readiness assessment: Before leaping into implementation, take time to check how ready people are. Have they been well communicated with and consulted, do they understand, have they been trained and prepared? If not, go back and do more before moving forward.


Involvement and participation

The idea that people don’t want change done to them suggests that they want to be a participant in it. So, how can you encourage people to get involved?

Idea generation /innovation: Position the problem and invite people to participate in finding solutions. Brainstorming sessions, group discussions, project teams etc. can all support the involvement of employees in fixing VUCA challenges.

Consultation: This is broader than just communication. Consulting with people gives both parties the opportunity to share information, seek advice and collectively contribute to future plans.

The turbulence we have been experiencing over recent years, with economic challenges, political surprises and rapidly changing trends and consumer preferences isn’t going away. Organisations need to find ways to manage it, but perhaps most importantly, to keep their employees engaged, committed and loyal throughout these times. Don’t hide things from people – involve them. You never know – they might have a genius idea up their sleeves.

Next time, we’ll be addressing the concept of a 100-year life, and what it will take to keep us engaged with work throughout.