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Ignacio Cristóbal Urbicain, Director Servicio de Personnel Management Service (SDP)

From the management of change, to the management of uncertainty in those first moments of the COVID-19 crisis.

Thu, 21 May 2020 11:07:00 +0000 Posted in University of Navarra

For years we have received and taught many hours of training on the management of change in companies and organizations. It was an essential subject in masters of Personnel Management Service, of General Administration, of production, innovation and many others. We were in a rapidly changing environment, which was becoming global and therefore more complex. 

It was the US Army War College that started talking about the VUCA environment to describe the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the post-Cold War world. These acronyms were soon appropriated by the business world to define the new work environments of non-military organizations. They were right, the mere management of change was not enough. Change" had to be redefined, and to do so, it was best to scrutinize the new volatile environment (a step up from the changing environment), but with several more adjectives: uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

In the future, we will soon be adopting more military terminology in the enterprise management : hybrid environments, gray zone ... everything will come. The best and most agile organizations in the world, modern armies, continue to create doctrine because their members' lives depend on it: it is their best motivation.

For many years, in addition to explaining the management of change, we have researched the characteristics that organizations demand from their leaders in this environment. We have talked a lot and for a long time about work teamwork, delegation, empowerment, management of time, information, decision making and dozens of other managerial competencies. For years we have defined, redefined, measured, practiced, studied and even paid for them.

However, were they sufficient in the new uncertain environment we experienced during the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic? Because during those first days the VUCA environment remained almost alone in the "U" of uncertainty. It is certain that when we take steps forward in the crisis generated, we will complete the rest of the letters.

Why? Because the "volatile" is one more step in the changing and we have been at a standstill. Can anyone remember what the week was like when everything changed? It's hard to remember, but there was a huge change.  

Because the "complex" and the "ambiguous" gave way to the "uncertain". Everything was so complex and ambiguous that what was happening was only "uncertain". In that first period of the crisis we changed dimension.  

During those first weeks of shock we had to survive the uncertainty, but in such a Degree that we are still digesting issues such as confinement, restricted constitutional rights, unknown and contagious disease, deaths of loved ones and the impossibility to accompany them and say goodbye, protections that do not work, saturated hospitals, a government in the same circumstances, lack of a single command with criteria, dance of data, de-escalation, and dozens of other issues. Neither society, nor certain institutions, nor the Government itself were prepared for such a shock.

But during those first weeks of uncertainty, behaviors could be observed in organizations, families and some institutions that have attracted attention. We could say that, in this new environment of uncertainty at Degree unknown, some characteristics became visible that are worth commenting on.

Firstly, in those who had to make decisions, it has been observed that those managerial competencies that belong to the most internal sphere of the person were the decisive ones to pull the team, the family or the environment.

Self-control and emotional balance were decisive to put the instructions, daily, of reconstruction and survival in those hard days, with many shocks and with a very high uncertainty about what will come tomorrow, or in two hours.

Only people who knew, as the IESE Business School defines these managerial competencies, how to undertake costly actions, resisting the fatigue of the day, of what will come tomorrow, and who were constant, strong and decisive, knew how to take small but sure steps in the right direction. And all this while knowing how to react in a balanced way at every moment, perhaps several times during the day, with patience, using kind words, sensitive to the joys (few) and sorrows of others, and calming the mood in moments of tension or depression.

This status of uncertainty became an opportunity to recover the inner self, so forgotten and sometimes annulled. It happened in the previous economic crisis with issues such as honesty, sincerity and seeing beyond short-termism and the "pelotazo".

These competencies, virtues, I would dare to say, are not acquired in courses or master's degrees. They have more to do with a way of being tanned over the years and very attached to the family, with the example and effort of our parents, with the Education received and transmitted by teachers, with the maturity that is coming, with the example of good friends, colleagues from whom we learn, with that person who already in the early years of work an inspiring example, so many things, but always with the effort, seeing beyond things and with the experience that thanks to the falls we have learned to get up (today they call it resilience).  

There are two other skills that were key to making progress in the uncertainty of that first phase of the crisis: communication and charisma.

financial aid Once again, IESE Business School is here to help us define communication at core topic : listening and transmitting effectively, using the right medium and style, and contrasting sources of information.

Whoever knew how to handle it won a good part of the battle. The news, the fakes, the hoaxes, the over-information, the memes, the criticisms, the whatsapp beeping every half minute, made knowing the correct information an art in these first moments of the crisis. What was true? Why did so much and such disparate information arrive? Don't they know or are they manipulating? Wasn't the opposite said yesterday? What do I transmit to my team? How? When? These were all questions we asked ourselves several times a day.

Handling it has been difficult, but as the days went by we realized where the reliable sources were, the solvent voices, where to find truthful information, what not to pay attention to, what media were the best to reach our people, what they expected to be told and so many other things.

We found that sharing information in a transparent and prudent manner, financial aid builds trust in the teams, which leads to commitment and cohesion of the team itself.

Finally, one skill that in that uncertainty was fundamental for whoever was in charge was charisma. Not in the core topic with which the word sometimes betrays us, leading us to heroic deeds of a chosen few who possessed a gift. History has given examples.

Nothing like that. The directive skill "charisma", like all of them, can be acquired since in the business environment it consists of issues such as encouraging and exciting those around, to inspire confidence and give meaning to what they do, motivating them to achieve the objectives, sometimes small and unimportant, but objectives that keep us united and with our heads busy. And always in the background that old adage, the frontispiece of what should be the example, that the command should always be in the places of greatest risk and fatigue, characteristics that have been very much in evidence during these first weeks of crisis, and that well define this environment of uncertainty.

A simple but forceful example was that of a young manager who, in the midst of chaos and discouragement, at a time of confinement when there was still no light at the end of the tunnel and in the distance that virtuality produces with her team, announced to her collaborators that in two days the Easter vacations would begin and that they would have to rest during those days. It was nine o'clock in the morning of a nondescript Tuesday, a bad time to get encouragement from where there was none, but with a certain grace and charm to cheer them up, from the kitchen of her house -place of work those days- and exhausted by the care of a little girl who forced her to get up at 05AM to "be able to work", she managed to excite again a bewildered team. That is charisma: so much and so little. 

Conclusion. We have been preparing ourselves for years for change, globalization, the complex, the agile, but in the end it is the same old recipes, adapted to the circumstances, that help us to move forward. Thinking of others and worrying about them, doing things well, not complaining, knowing ourselves well, knowing how to overcome, being patient, honest, transparent, exemplary and humble make uncertainty an opportunity to get something good out of uncertainty.