Communicating through VUCA

smartphone messages

Yes, the term VUCA is overused and has become cliché in some circles. The talking heads and management consultants have been warning us that new leadership will need to navigate conditions that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The term originated in the U.S. military, and has been described in countless management and leadership articles over the last 20 years. In this 2018 article, 7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto said, “Disruption is as great as we have ever seen it.” We. Had. No. Idea.

It is appropriate to use a military term now as nations take on so-called “war footing” in addressing the challenges of containing COVID-19. If there were ever a VUCA time, this is it. 

Adjusting communications strategy

The characteristics of each element of VUCA often dictate a different approach in both strategy and communications.

  • Volatile: the challenge is unexpected, unstable and of unknown duration
  • Uncertain: despite a lack of other information, the event’s basic cause and effect are unknown
  • Complex: the situation has many interconnected parts and variables
  • Ambiguous: causal relationships are completely unclear; no precedents exist

Our current global situation has all these characteristics to varying degrees, depending on the industry or sector you serve. Managers are scrambling to address issues of supply chains, the health of their workforce, and the continuity of their operations. The key challenge is the ability to communicate when we don’t have all the information. 

In this Harvard Business Review article, preparedness experts Eric McNulty and Leonard Marcus distinguish between managing through a crisis and leading through to an outcome. Whether someone is managing or leading comes through in the communications from the C-suite.

Evolving messages

How leaders communicate through a crisis has significant implications for employee morale, customer trust and loyalty, and investor confidence.

The first wave of communications is often  practical. Leaders address core concerns about logistics, such as their hours and methods of operations. 

On March 15, just two days after the United States declared a “state of emergency,” Eileen Fisher sent an email explaining that they were temporarily closing their stores nationwide, and would continue to pay their employees.

As the crisis drags on days, weeks or even months, the topic, tone and tenor need to be adjusted. Eleven days later, on March 26, Eileen Fisher sent an update — the closures would have to continue and they would have to reduce or cut salaries in order to sustain health insurance coverage for staff.

Consistent themes

The second message carried a much more sobering tone. What was consistent, however, was their focus on the value of their relationships. That message reaches beyond the crisis, and provides the guidepost for their policies and actions.

Communicating through any crisis is delicate, and exhausting. Communicating through this crisis is an order of magnitude more challenging.

Despite all the variables, leaders’ communication efforts need to reflect their guiding values and principles. Leaders need to be able to communicate beyond the current crisis. They need use their positions to foster resilience, purpose and hope. 

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