How to lead effectively through volatility and uncertainty

Lemoine in the Alfiero Center. Photo: Tom Wolf

Release Date: March 31, 2020

“The organizations that emerge from the COVID-19 crisis the strongest won’t be the ones that gave up and waited for the storm to pass. ”
James Lemoine, Assistant Professor of Organization and Human Resources
UB School of Management

BUFFALO, N.Y. — First coined during the Cold War, VUCA refers to situations that are volatile, uncertain, complex or ambiguous. For most of us, the COVID-19 crisis clearly fits the bill.

James Lemoine, PhD, assistant professor of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo School of Management, is an expert on leading in a VUCA environment, as well as servant leadership, ethics and moral leadership. Here is his advice for leading effectively through the volatility and uncertainty of the coronavirus situation:

Assess the situation. “Most business climates—including the one created by the novel coronavirus—are not volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous all at the same time,” Lemoine says. “Being able to identify which one describes your climate is critical to understanding what the most effective response might be.”

Gather information—and plan what’s next. In a time of uncertainty and volatility—Lemoine’s assessment of our current crisis—he recommends organizations invest in information-gathering capabilities and use those insights to build contingencies and make better decisions as the situation evolves.

“With this information in hand, organizations can build agile strategies for the future: planning out different levels of potential staffing and supply needs, anticipating market changes that require proactive responses, and understanding what essential employees may be going through in their personal and professional lives,” he says.

Be transparent with employees—especially when delivering bad news. “Research shows we are more likely to respond strongly to recent events than distant ones, and negative experiences generally outweigh positive ones,” Lemoine says. “No matter how well you treated your employees before, their experience during this tumultuous time may disproportionately affect their plans for the future.”

Even if financial realities force you to temporarily lay off employees, Lemoine recommends remaining open and engaged with those team members. “It’s easy to view simple contact as a lower priority during a crisis, but the absence of information and evidenced concern can persuade employees that the company is not worth their commitment,” he says.

Don’t give up. “The organizations that emerge from the COVID-19 crisis the strongest won’t be the ones that gave up and waited for the storm to pass,” Lemoine says. “They’ll be the ones that planned proactively, paid attention to environmental cues, and laid the foundation to successfully reboot and recover.”

For more of Lemoine’s remarks, visit the UB School of Management’s On Leadership blog.

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