Leadership and Anxiety–Containment and Metabolism I: Anxiety in a VUCA-Plus Environment

Leadership and Anxiety–Containment and Metabolism I: Anxiety in a VUCA-Plus Environment

The leaders of organizations in the 21st Century often must deal with major challenges associated with the anxiety experienced by specific members of their organization, as well as the diffuse anxiety that pervades specific departments in the leader’s organization or the entire organization. This anxiety can be induced in many different ways—and there are multiple sources of organizational anxiety. As leaders, we often face the “perfect storm” of organizational anxiety. Perhaps the easiest way to sum up the multiple sources of anxiety is to evoke the now commonly used acronym: VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). The challenges in a VUCA environment involve both determining what is “real” and how one predicts and makes decisions based on an assessment of this elusive reality.

The VUCA-Plus Environment

I will dwell briefly on the meaning to be assigned to each of the VUCA terms and then suggest how we might expand on VUCA. Complexity concerns the many elements and dynamic interaction among elements that have to be taken into account, while Volatility refers to the rate and shifting rate of change among the elements. The other two terms have to do with epistemology (the way in which knowledge is acquired and reality is defined). Ambiguity concerns the assessment of both the evidence available regarding reality and the meaning assigned to this reality. The fourth term, Uncertainty, is about the stability of any assessment being made regarding reality. Does reality change over a short period of time? Why do an extensive assessment if our world is constantly shifting?

VUCA is deservedly becoming the coin-of-the-realm among contemporary organizational analysts. These four terms (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) clearly capture much of the dynamics swirling around in the perfect storm of contemporary organizational life. I have offered a similar description of our current environment (Bergquist, 2019a). However, my categories differ a bit and expand upon VUCA. I have identified four challenges: complexity, unpredictability (uncertainty), turbulence and contradiction. Two of these challenges align directly with VUCA, while the other two (turbulence and contradiction) expand on the VUCA environment.


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William BergquistWilliam Bergquist, Ph.D. An international coach and consultant in the fields of psychology, management and public administration, author of more than 50 books, and president of a psychology institute. Dr. Bergquist consults on and writes about personal, group, organizational and societal transitions and transformations. His published work ranges from the personal transitions of men and women in their 50s and the struggles of men and women in recovering from strokes to the experiences of freedom among the men and women of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Bergquist has focused on the processes of organizational coaching. He is coauthor with Agnes Mura of coachbook, co-founder of the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations and co-founder of the International Consortium for Coaching in Organizations.

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