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Overcoming VUCA with a Human Touch


Fri Sep 04 2015

Overcoming VUCA with a Human Touch

Despite a potentially high susceptibility to volatility in the workplace, due to ever-changing political environments, priorities, and budgets, NASA’s employee satisfaction scores as reported in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey remain high. This is due to a strong sense of mission and cultural identity, people-centered leadership, and an environment where dissenting opinions are welcome and flexibility is encouraged. 

Leading during VUCA demands the ability to leverage all aspects of human nature (social, psychological, physical), as well as the ability demonstrate empathy and equanimity. NASA's human capital innovation strategy includes creating positive work environments by connecting and building trust with staff. Employees that feel connected to their mission, as well as to their managers, leaders and teams are more resilient, engaged and creative. 


VUCA also requires leaders to stay abreast of emerging trends, and to effectively leverage a network of peers across organizations that can provide different perspectives, as well as honest, constructive feedback. The days of the “all-knowing leader” are gone. Our jobs are to create the most optimal environments that promote engagement, creativity and innovation to tackle difficult issues. We will succeed if we create an environment where our teams exceed their own expectations. 

While it might be tempting to avoid VUCA altogether, risk-adverse environments are counterproductive. When failure is not an option, creativity and innovation are stifled. Discouraging the fear of failure, and instead promoting trust, respect, curiosity, originality, diversity, and openness within teams will result in a resilient work environment that enhances employee performance. Micromanagement kills engagement; creativity and innovation focuses on results instead. 

Dealing with VUCA can also be an opportunity for personal growth. We must be open to continuous self-awareness and to understanding our own values, motivations and triggers. We must be ready to challenge assumptions frequently, and recognize the effect our behavior and actions have on others and the environment we are trying to create. More importantly, we must be willing to share our core values and intentions, to communicate with integrity, and to take the time to know staff as individuals (appreciating their challenges, dreams, and aspirations). It’s also important to be clear on expectations, as well as to have a common agreement on core values that will shape teams’ behavior and accountability.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden works to make every employee in the organization feel known and valued. That kind of humanity in senior leadership greatly enhances workplace culture, which is evident in terms of employee engagement, satisfaction, and dealing with volatility beyond a federal agency’s control. When everyone feels a sense of purpose, the purpose of an agency can thrive. 

Learn more from Jessica Southwell at the Government Workforce: Learning Innovations conference panel session “The View on VUCA: Managing Volatility in the Government Workplace.”


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