Leaders cannot orchestrate in a vacuum. In fact, they depend on others in at least three important ways:
We’ve all come across leaders who trigger volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity—or even worse, those who exhibit VUCA characteristics themselves. How do we recognize them? Typically, the shelf-life of their decisions is short: They could say white one day, gray the next, and black the day after. They praise one day and express doubts another. It’s hard to make sense of the sequence of their decision-making. The same situation may elicit different responses from them at different times, often without proactive explanation. They might say one thing to one person and have a divergent version for someone else.
VUCA leaders are not always explicit in their instructions and in defining who is responsible; they sometimes expect deliverables without necessarily providing the means to succeed. They tend to avoid communicating to the whole team at once, preferring one-on-one interactions. When they give credit for success, it is at times ambiguous, yet they can be quick to blame publicly. Sound familiar?
Obviously, there are different positions along the VUCA leader scale. At the top, we find toxic leaders. They consciously manipulate. They are dangerous not only for the individuals who report to them but also for the entire organization. But the scale covers a whole range, and to some extent all leaders have their VUCA moments. The issue is that they do not necessarily realize they are hurting themselves when they trigger what can be described as the “triple switch-off effect.” This is when their own behavior starts working against their interests by negatively impacting what they most need from others:
Execution: If there is a culture of fear in the organization, if employees don’t feel safe applying the maxim “when in doubt, do the right thing,” then they will end up only doing what is asked and will require details on how to execute. In the same way as websites stop functioning when flooded by multiple simultaneous service requests (denial of service), this dynamic can paralyze leaders. In a successful setting, leaders are supported by wise and autonomous execution in the organization. They have empowered colleagues who can adapt their actions to the context while keeping the overarching direction.
Information: If employees are not acknowledged when they provide input, if they are not told which data are useful and why, if they do not understand how decisions are made, then at some point they will no longer know how to contribute and will stop providing information. By doing so, they make their leaders blind. In a successful setting, leaders will receive the right information at the right time in order to make the right decisions. They have colleagues who proactively gather and deliver insightful data, which are modulated according to changes in context.
Feedback: The fire is burning, but there’s no smoke. This is a pretty common situation. Everyone talks about how bad the leader is, but no one dares to help. Often leaders only receive positive feedback on their actions and decisions because this is what they unconsciously reward. If leaders are rude or dismissive when supporters try to provide input, these colleagues will switch off the feedback. De facto, the leaders become deaf. In a successful setting, leaders receive timely warning. They have colleagues who are not afraid to provide direct—and sometimes tough—input to address a situation long before it becomes critical.
A leader who allows the triple switch-off effect somehow becomes paralyzed, blind and deaf. Business-wise, this is lethal over time. Four recommendations to prevent this happening can be summed up in the mnemonic ROCK.
The enablerof ROCK is the ability to listen. Welcoming input from others shows respect. Also, leaders can only be open and coherent if they proactively seek out other viewpoints. They can empower themselves and their employees to succeed if they are prepared to hear what colleagues, or even people outside of their own organization, are saying.
The good news is that doing a good job of avoiding the triple switch-off can result in a triple boost: boosting execution capabilities, decision-making and the leader’s impact on the organization. Indeed, besides connecting with people, accepting feedback shows that the leader has worked to improve his or her own self-esteem. And this is a key ingredient for leadership.