Jan 24, 2019

4 min read

Managing Upwards in a VUCA World

Let me start this piece with a very classic, cliche term. You must’ve heard the good news — we’re all living in a VUCA world.

VUCA is an acronym that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity — in short, it’s a concept that describes why working in today’s world is so hard and messy to figure out. Here’s more about it: https://www.tothepointatwork.com/article/vuca-world/

While this new reality calls for agility, smarts, ability to make fast decisions and adjust quickly, most of the businesses carry along with them processes and procedures that seem to come from a very different place. There’s a natural, both human and organisational need, for structure, clarity and a mapping of what needs to be done in a given role and situation. But the truth is by the time you end up developing those really thorough, all-encompassing processes, the market and the pressures felt by the business have already changed a couple of times, and the process becomes irrelevant before implementation even starts. Super fun! (not)

There’s many different angles you can take when trying to map out how this new world of fast change and high pressure impacts an individual, a team, an organization or a process. The one I’m interested in exploring right now is how this changes your relationship with your manager.

Traditionally…

  • you were expecting direction from your manager. He/she set the tone, the priorities, and most of the times you stood-by for direction
  • the assumption was your manager knows all/best/more than you
  • another operating assumption was that learning was happening downwards — your manager had all the answers, and you were to do your best to soak up the knowledge and the wisdom from him/her.

In the new world…

Managers are chosen in this role because they have an ability to work with the complexity, work with the change and have a high-level understanding of the business. This high-level understanding is focused more on aggregating information from multiple sources — whether external (information about the market you’re operating in, about trends of the industry or the economical context) or internal (comprehending how different parts of the business interact and affect each other.)

As a consequence, the old model of the know-it-all manager no longer stands up. There is simply too much information flowing from one side to the other. The pace of change is too rapid. And if we talk about a large organisation, there are way too many stakeholders to interact with. So, not only is there not enough time for a manager to be aware of everything relevant going on, both high level and ground level, there is also no possibility, from an anatomical point of view, for our brains to be able to retain and process so much information.

As another consequence, that model of the direct report who stands by and waits for instructions has also become obsolete.

This changes a couple of things …

  • while your manager continues to set the direction of your work, it is now up to you to speak up when there’s a need to shift perception. You can (and are expected to) bring pressing matters to attention and advocate for those to be pushed at the top of the agenda
  • information flows upwards, not just downwards — make a deliberate effort to help the manager understand the specific realities you get to witness beforehand. In a world with so many things happening, no one person can be expected to have all the answers
  • your manager doesn’t do everything better than you, nor he/she should. You can definitely find areas where you are better equipped to perform. Most of the times, that turns into a source of frustration, but take a step back and remember — no man is an island. Just for the sake of interdisciplinarity, Esther Perel talks about this in reference to how relationships work. She talks about how we expect our life partner to at the same time be our confidant, our teacher, our best friend, our entertainer, our finance and administrative partner, and so on. No one person can live up to those expectations, just as much as no one manager can be the best at everything. It’s time to drop the myth of heroes and superstars! Companies and systems generally cannot rely on individuals, but on teamwork and synergy.

“Things may come to those who wait, but only things left by those who hustle.”

So, if you really want to make a change in the role and company you are in, it’s time to ditch the old rules and the old model. Highlight and showcase your talents and abilities — this does not make you arrogant, this makes you a person who is willing to present what you can contribute and bring your skills in service of others.

Speak your mind. Raise risks. Present solutions. Dare to share your opinion and perspective, even if … actually, especially if it contradicts the majority’s point of view. Take yourself off stand-by mode and actually be proactive, including in your relationship with your manager.

And yes, just because I like to be realistic, there might be a need for you to negotiate this way of working with your manager. So continue to ask feedback on your approach, make sure your motives are understood, invest effort and attention into defining ground rules — discuss, with your manager, the kind of decisions and situations where his approval is needed, and, at the same time, define the ones where you have empowerment and autonomy.

It might be messy. You will, most surely, make mistakes and sometimes even be uncomfortable for others. But be open to learn, to receive feedback, to adjust your approach. And, surprise surprise, you might after all notice you can actually effect more change and have a bigger impact than you imagined!