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How to Reduce Being Overwhelmed in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) World

Authored by Graziadio Faculty:

  • Julie Chesley, PhD, Associate Professor of Organization Theory and Management
  • Terri Egan, PhD, Associate Professor of Applied Behavioral Science
  • Suzanne Lahl, MSOD, Adjunct Professor 


Restore Energy, Uncover Insight, and Gain Support

Are you working longer hours, getting less done, and feeling bad about it? Well, you aren’t alone. New research suggests that our workday has increased by almost 40% since the pandemic began. On top of these extra work hours, many of us support remote learning for our children or care for aging parents. 

And while we can’t control the external environment, we can work with our inner resources to become overwhelmed with a growth opportunity. By prioritizing rest and recovery time, leading with a purpose (versus autopilot leadership), and reconnecting with friends and colleagues, you can better manage the challenges of a “VUCA environment” and position the organization and your employees’ success.

The first thing you can do is reclaim your energy. The prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that helps us do our best thinking, is fragile. Focusing on too many things at once can be mentally exhausting and may lead to more errors. The lack of clear boundaries between work and home may have you sleeping less, eating poorly, and putting exercise on hold.  

Most of us have a built-in signaling system that we can bring online to help us be more brain savvy and manage our energy. It begins by checking in with ourselves.

  • When are you at your best—energized, clear-headed, strong-voiced, open-minded?  
  • What are the signs you need a break or a pause to reflect on what is going on?
    Hint: tight shoulders, neck, and jaw, thinking is harder than it needs to be, digging in when someone has a different perspective.
  • Are you eating, sleeping, and exercising to fuel your daily life?  
  • Do you schedule breaks in your day? If not, we recommend starting with 5 minutes and add to it. Twenty minutes is ideal in the morning and afternoon. During those breaks, drink water, move, and stretch.

We need brain-friendly practices like frequent breaks and adequate sleep to be at our best. If we do this, we are more productive, and we create the conditions for learning and growth.  

Once we have energy, we need purposeful time to reflect on new insights as our work contexts continue to change. Maybe you, like many of our executive clients, have found that leading as if things will go back to normal results in frustration, burnout, and employee disengagement. Without pausing to reflect and review, we risk falling into automatic habits and patterns that don’t get us where we want to go.

Much of our behavior (over 90%) is controlled by our unconscious. An antidote to this is to adopt a new habit, calendaring time to reflect on both the big picture and what’s working for you today. Even 15 minutes can lead to better performance.

Some crucial questions are:  

Big picture:

  • What patterns are you seeing in your significant projects as you scan the past weeks and months?
  • How are disruptions impacting you and your team? 
  • What could release stress and open up creativity and connection?

What’s essential for you and your team today:

  • Are you investing time where you have the most influence and impact?
  • How do you perceive your employees and co-workers are feeling right now?
  • Where do you see and feel alignment, collaboration, good communication, and strong connections?
  • Where is there divisiveness, depletion, or lack of energy?
  • Is there a different way to look at a complex situation?  

The conditions of VUCA, while challenging, can also stimulate new and better ways of leading if we are willing to reflect. Our brains are plastic, and with consistent attention to new habits and practices, we can grow new neural pathways and shift out of automatic. We now have more energy and unique insight to help us become more productive and efficient. 

It’s now time to capitalize on the fact that our brains are social organs and need to reconnect with others. Isolation during the pandemic and any patterns of being stoical, go it alone, the leader may be working against you. Our brains are wired for connection- healthy, trusting, caring relationships enhance our ability to learn and deal with challenges. 

Here are some ways to start cultivating more beneficial relationships:

  • Reach out and invite colleagues and friends into a professional or social circle to offer and receive mutual support. 
  • Have curious conversations and surface your beliefs and assumptions in your circles, opening yourselves to new perspectives. 
  • Schedule time with your team at work to check-in about how things are going.  Ask for feedback regularly. 

Remember, when our external world is throwing too much our way, our inner world’s state is critical. Our brains can grow new neural pathways because we put new practices and habits in place. To make these changes now and for the foreseen future, we need to have energy, insight, and support.