Leadership and Anxiety–Containment and Metabolism I: Anxiety in a VUCA-Plus Environment
Locus of Control
There is one additional dimension to be taken into account when describing the sources of anxiety and the need for containment and metabolism in an organization. This dimension concerns our assignment of control in a specific situation. We perceive mysteries as taking place outside our sphere of control or influence. Psychologists call this an external locus of control and note that some people are inclined to view most issues as outside their control (that is, as mysteries). By contrast, puzzles are usually perceived as being under our control. Psychologists identify this perspective as an internal locus of control and note that some people are likely to view all issues as being under their control (that is, as puzzles).
Problems and dilemmas are usually complex mixtures of controllable and uncontrollable elements. To successfully address a problem or dilemma, one typically needs a balanced perspective regarding internal and external loci of control. This is an important discernment in which to be engaged—and is often quite difficult to engage when members of an organization (and particularly leaders of the organization) are anxious. Each of us is inclined to revert to our preferred perspective (internal or external locus of control) when we are anxious. One of the most helpful inquiries when confronting problems, dilemmas and (in particular) nested dilemmas is for us (individually and collectively) to identify what is and what is not under our control. A container and mode of anxiety-transformation are critical to this discernment. This process of discernment resides at the heart of the metabolism process (to be described in my second essay). A problem or dilemma that is embedded in a rugged landscape is more likely to have components that are under at least the partial control of a leader than is a problem or dilemma that is embedded in a dancing landscape..
There are myriad VUCA-Plus challenges associated with identifying and addressing puzzles, problems, dilemmas and mysteries. First, leaders typically want their issues to be puzzles that they can control or perhaps mysteries for which they have no responsibility. Puzzles can be solved—and we know when we have solved them. Mysteries are outside our control, so we don’t have to feel it is necessary to resolve them. But problems and dilemmas—these are much more difficult to address. We must determine which aspects of the problem or dilemma are under our control and which aspects are not.
This confusing mixture of internal and external control is inherent in problems and dilemmas. That’s what makes them so difficult to address— and makes indispensable a container of safety and a process of metabolism. A second challenge concerns the values inherent in the typical role played by leadership. Leaders are often considered much more successful, in terms of both fortunes and fame, if they can “solve problems”—often by approaching them as puzzles. This criterion of success is prevalent even in a VUCA-Plus environment.
In essence, I am suggesting that we must fully appreciate the nature of a VUCA-Plus environment in which most contemporary leaders operate. In such an environment, effective and sustained organizational containers and processes of metabolism are needed. I turn to these important organizational concepts in the second essay.