A few weeks ago, I was coaching the members of an executive leadership team. We were discussing how to navigate through the complicated changes in the VUCA world.
VUCA, an acronym that stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, describes the experience of their world daily. Many change management approaches present change as a one-time event that has a completion. That may have been true five years ago but it isn’t realistic in today’s environment, regardless of the industry.
Change doesn’t end. It twists, turns, morphs and gets layered with other change. This creates a lot of confusion and uncertainty for employees. It makes leading through this time very difficult.
Humans have a difficult time with change due to the way our brains work. Fear of change is real. Just like our ancestors scanned the environment to make sure they weren’t about to be attacked by lions, we continually scan the environment for threats. When our brain perceives threats, it releases cortisol and triggers our fight-or-flight response.
While today’s world may not often present the threat of a lion attack, our brain reacts in the same way to many perceived threats throughout the workday. Leadership changes, job changes, layoffs, looming deadlines — they all can trigger the brain to perceive danger.
Innocuous things sometimes trigger fear. I once coached a leader to brush his hair before leaving his office. He had a habit of running his fingers through his hair, causing it to stand up and look rumpled. When employees saw him they thought he was under stress and was withholding important information from them. In reality, he just needed to smooth down his hair.
When employees perceive threats their thoughts tend to snowball. Employees who ruminate begin to lose their ability to focus. Their minds swirl, their cortisol rises and stress increases. Facing change and uncertainty, the brain struggles to think clearly and the ability to perform is reduced.
Think of the stressed-out brain as a plate of spaghetti. The noodles are a tangled mess. One twists around another. You can’t easily identify where one begins and another ends. They are jumbled, disorderly and difficult to shape.
As a leader, trying to guide employees who perceive threats is difficult. When they don’t have answers to their questions, they make up their own. Their thinking can become as jumbled as a plate of spaghetti noodles. It is difficult for a leader to cut through the noise and help them focus.
The goal as a leader is to focus employees on what is known and ignore the unknown. In other words, create waffles. A waffle has many squares. It is orderly. Each square is compartmentalized. You can focus on one square at a time. You know the other squares are there but you don’t have to pay attention to them. When a leader helps an employee make waffles, the leader is helping shape the employee’s thinking and focus on what is known or in control.
As I coached these executives, I gave them those two visuals. Make waffles, not spaghetti. When employees stress about change, they resemble spaghetti. Leaders need to help them be waffles. Leaders should be transparent about what is known and what is still yet to be resolved. The leader can then guide the employee to focus on the known and what they can control and ignore the unknown and what is outside of their control. As change continues to happen, the leader keeps re-focusing employees and making waffles.
For change to be accepted it needs to happen at an individual level. Leaders need to pay attention to the spaghetti moments. By noticing when and how these moments happen, they can focus on making waffles and shift employees’ focus to things within their control.
What can you do to help your employees make waffles?
Karen Eber is an Atlanta-based leadership development expert at General Electric, where her work is focused on helping individuals, teams and organizations perform their best. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.