How Do We Survive VUCA?

Jul 18, 2016 1 Min Read

[Updated on July 28, 2017]

TODAY’S volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (Vuca) business environment places extraordinary stress on employees. A United Kingdom study by MetLife found that 47% of employees believe that work is becoming more stressful (with 42% saying that it is the same, and only 10% saying it’s less stressful).

Andrea Ovans wrote “What Resilience Means, and Why It Matters” in Harvard Business Review that the greatest source of workplace stress is dealing with colleagues and office politics. Clearly, resilience is important for high-performing leaders to advance and thrive.

Leaders also carry the added responsibility for building resilience into their employees and organisations. Being resilient is a precursor to inspiring and guiding others to continuously achieve ambitious goals.

We all face struggles in our personal and work lives. Why is it that people react so differently to these challenges? Some people get mad, some quit, some avoid the situation, and some become deeply depressed or physically ill.

Cases of C-suite-cides

In recent years, we have observed a large number of high profile C-suite suicides as a result of major business failures or discovery of their corruption.

Most recently, chief executive officer of insurance giant Zurich Insurance Martin Senn took his own life following the suicide of Zurich’s chief financial officer Pierre Wauthier in Aug 2013. Wauthier left behind a note blaming former Zurich Insurance chairman Josef Ackermann for creating an unbearably stressful work environment.

The co-inventor of the popular 1990s computer game Tetris Vladimir Pokhilko is believed to have killed his wife and his son before committing suicide after facing financial pressures associated with a failing e-commerce business.

Japanese executive Tsutomu Omori hanged himself over the alleged shame associated with huge loses at the Indian unit of Olympus Corp.


Leaders who fell and rose again

In contrast, there are many leaders who face difficulties with excitement and vigour. The most resilient leaders refuse to accept failure as the end of their story. Instead, they come back after multiple failures again and again, each time learning something new and returning stronger and smarter after each attempt.

Some of our most vaulted entrepreneurs have faced and overcome multiple failures. One of Bill Gate’s first commercial opportunities called the “Traf-O-Data” (a system to help government agencies manage traffic information) didn’t work when he tried to demonstrate it the first time.

While most of us have heard of Virgin’s successes (airlines, mobile phone, music), we don’t remember Virgin Cola, Virgin Brides, Virgin Cars, Virgin Vie, Virgin Clothing, or Virgin Digital – all failures. Sir Richard Branson has what he calls a “failure principle” by which he takes risks and learns from them each time.

Even Steve Jobs faced a massive failure when his Lisa project caused Apple to lose a considerable amount of money. The Lisa fiasco led to Jobs being fired from the company he founded in 1995. Jobs said that he was “devastated” by the firing but he learnt from his past mistakes and became a better leader.

With such drastic differences in how leaders face failure and demonstrate resilience, it leads us to ask why there are such stark differences. How can we improve our own response to adversity?

You might like this: 5 Leadership Roles That Help Organisations Cope With Change

What is resilience?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress”. We know it when we experience it and see it in others.

Neuroscience tells us that genetic factors play an important role in an individual’s response to stress as well as in exhibiting resilience. Based on genetic research, we know that some people are more vulnerable to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition, neuroscientists have also been able to influence the shaping of our neural circuits that regulate our ability to respond to stress. Specifically, prolonged episodes off uncontrollable or overwhelming stress during childhood can lead to “learnt helplessness”. However, exposure to mild to moderate stressors that have a positive outcome can help children become more resilient in the future.

Even though genetics and early childhood development play a role, research also clearly demonstrates that resilience promoting interventions can be beneficial for adults throughout their life span. In fact, these interventions can be even more helpful for those who have less-than-average resilience to begin with.

5 ways to improve resilience

1. Cognitive training

Research has shown that cognitive training methodologies improve resilience. The first is called “cognitive reappraisal” and the most effective type of cognitive reappraisal is a practice called “distancing”.

Distancing involves training participants to view their circumstances as if observing themselves to learn from the situation and then “reframing” the event in positive rather than negative terms.

Coping self-efficacy training has also shown promise in building resilience. Coping self-efficacy involves practising and receiving feedback on dealing with stressful scenarios through real or simulated exposure (e.g. role playing).

Finally, training in problem solving has also helped some people to improve how they frame problems and improve cognitive flexibility to learn to address issues in new ways that reduce stress.

2. Emotional regulation

Mindfulness training, including reflection and journaling, has been shown to have a significant positive impact on resilience by helping participants to focus on positive memories and emotions rather than constantly dwelling on negative events.

Exercises such as keeping a gratitude journal help individuals to start and maintain the “upward spiral” of emotions that go along with improving resilience.

3. Social support

Research shows that strong and deep connections with friends and family improve resilience. Having people with whom you can share and talk through troubles with supports positive emotions and clear thinking that underlie resilience.

Programmes such as the Penn Resilience Program train people to build relationships by challenging beliefs that hinder good communication and build skills that improve communication.

For example, participants are taught to focus on giving praise; increase their ability to have active and constructive conversations; and improve communication flexibility in response to the situational demands.

4. Physical health

Much like the relationship between resilience and emotion, the relationship between physical health and resilience goes both ways. To improve resilience, it’s important to begin a virtuous cycle by working to improve your overall physical health any way you can.

Getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating right are factors that can improve resilience. Additionally, research has shown that getting less than six hours of sleep a night is tantamount to not sleeping at all and creates a downward spiral in cognition, emotions, and overall performance.

Likewise, exercise and diet impact the physiology of the brain in ways that can either support or undermine an individual’s ability to deal with stress.

5. Neurobiological training

Meditation is one of the best ways to enhance our brains’ abilities to deal with stress. Neuroscientists describe mindfulness as non-judgemental, present-moment awareness and recommend meditation as one key to practise mindfulness.

They encourage mindfulness training to help keep our brains healthy, to support effective decision-making, and to protect ourselves against stress – all key components to improving resilience.


In her book, Bossypants, comedian Tina Fey explains resiliency as being “blorft”. She defines “blorft” as “an adjective I just made up that means completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum. I have been blorft every day for the past seven years.”

While this approach may work for famous comedians, blorfting your way through each day is not an effective strategy for dealing with the VUCA nature of today’s business environment. But there is hope. There are ways to learn to manage through constant stress and changes which will allow leaders to grow stronger and better at dealing with ever increasing levels of challenge into the future.

As Winston Churchill said:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

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Daniel Russell is a partner at the management psychology firm RHR International. He has been researching destructive leadership since 1991 and has published research articles and professional papers on leadership assessment and development, talent acquisition, and workforce analytics.

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