Language Shifts to Help Us Make Sense of Our Disruptive & Challenging World

Our words have power. As human beings, we are a meaning-making species; language helps us make sense of our experiences. When we don’t have accurate language, it impedes our ability to understand, process, and move through things.

We regularly leverage the acronym VUCA to help us understand our world and it has long and widely been used by the business world:

  • Volatile
  • Uncertain
  • Complex
  • Ambiguous

VUCA gives us language to help remind us and assist us in processing the fact that we live and work in a world where disruption is the norm; which was the case long before Covid entered our existence. And with disruption comes good things like technological advances, medical and scientific breakthroughs, and more. At the same time, disruption bumps us up against our own human DNA.

We as a species are hardwired to seek out familiarity and comfort—which a VUCA world is anything but. And the more VUCA our world gets, the more our self-protective instincts want us to cling even tighter to what is familiar. So, the gap between what the world demands of us and our innate biological instincts continues to widen. Now, put a bunch of us together in a team, workplace, or community, and we have a recipe for defensiveness and disconnection – something we’re seeing all too often nowadays.

In recent years, a new acronym has emerged to go a step further than VUCA to take into consideration our increasingly chaotic world – BANI:

  • Brittle
  • Anxious
  • Non-linear
  • Incomprehensible

The BANI model, influenced by climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, was coined by Jamais Cascio, an American futurist. He suggests that models like BANI will become increasingly important for organizations that want to stay ahead of the curve.

VUCA or BANI – Who Cares?
Whether you call our world VUCA or BANI, the point is that we are increasingly recognizing that we need accurate language to help us prepare, process and move through this world that isn’t going to get any simpler. We don’t think it’s an either/or; we think it’s a both/and; together, these acronyms can help guide us to navigate both disruption and chaos.

Whereas VUCA tends to describe the external environment, BANI takes it to another level and gives us language to help us understand how we tend to perceive, process and respond to the VUCA environment.

Let’s unpack this a bit.

  • Brittle means being fragile, and breakable, while seeming firm; we use the term to refer to something not being as strong as it seems. It refers to the myths we tell ourselves and each other to try to feel more comfortable. So if we embrace Brittle, we must let go of this illusion of strength and lean into and accept our vulnerabilities that emerge in the face of the VUCA-ness.

  • Anxiety emerges when we feel overwhelmed and even helpless due to stress and worry of our ability to cope with what the VUCA world is demanding of us. And in the absence of data, our brains fill it in with story. So when things feel out of our control, it can be easy to be hijacked by a narrative that impedes our ability to cope.

  • Non-linear refers to the fact that there isn’t a straight line for most things; life is full of squiggles and detours. This is a key aspect of complex systems. It can help us remember that there isn’t predictability like we sometimes like to think there is and help us let go of our desire for – and illusion of – control. So we need to remember that wishing things would be more linear and predictable isn’t a feasible reality in a VUCA world; instead, we can lean into the discomfort and embrace what the journey has to offer and teach us.

  • Incomprehensible shows up when we realize we really don’t understand what is happening. It also reminds us that there is a lot that we don’t know and will probably never understand; and the more we try to force something to be comprehended, the more we can tend to struggle. Afterall, ambiguity is part of living in a VUCA world.

VUCA and BANI give us language as a starting point to make sense of our experiences. And we need to go further to equip ourselves and others to effectively close the gap between the chaos and disruption and our biological instincts. We need to turn up the volume on the importance of effective, meaningful development to upshift our mindsets and skills to thrive in this new reality.

Developing Ourselves & Others to Thrive in a VUCA/BANI World
Our modern workplace demands that we bring attention to our individual team members as much as the work itself. We need to effectively navigate the adaptive challenges so people aren’t surviving the VUCA world but thriving inside of it. This all starts with fostering people’s ability to operate with greater mental complexity.

This idea of mental complexity derives from the theories of adult development, renowned by Robert Kegan, PhD. He determines that of the five stages of development, three are found in adulthood and the majority of adults don’t develop past the first or second stage.

Understanding these stages of development opens our minds up to responding with higher levels of mental complexity. If we can bring new thinking in to solve adaptive challenges, we’ll be able to thrive in a VUCA world. The first step is shifting from acting from the ego (our inner voice that craves acceptance and approval and leads us to please, perform, pretend, and self-protect) and being reactive (or using our socialized mind) to hearing our own voice.

Unfortunately, there is a large gap between where we are as a population and where the complex world needs us to be. We expect people to innovate, act intentionally on behalf of their own voice, and take initiative (all characteristics of a self-authoring mind). Yet only 20 percent of the population is estimated to be in the self-authoring stage of development.

The majority (75 percent) operate from the socialized mind (or somewhere between socialized and self-authoring), showing up as faithful followers seeking external direction. And when things get difficult, we tend to revert to this stage. We’re also expecting leaders to be able to move toward self-transforming—where they can embrace a compelling vision and hold multiple perspectives at once, yet only 5 percent of the population is actually in this developmental stage.

In this VUCA world, we are essentially asking for a quantum shift in individual mental complexity across the board. As Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey write in their book Immunity to Change, “When we experience the world as ‘too complex,’ we are not just experiencing the complexity of the world. We are experiencing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and our own at this moment . . . there are only two logical ways to mend this mismatch—reduce the world’s complexity or increase our own.” Since we know that the world’s complexity will never decrease, we must find a way to increase our own mental complexity.

Leadership Behaviors Necessary in a VUCA/BANI World
Why it’s critical that we focus on adaptive development is that the skills and behaviors required to navigate ourselves and others through chaos and disruption cannot be gained without a fundamental shift in mindset – and mental complexity. We have to do the messy work to strengthen our inner game of leadership.

In fact, Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy states that,

“Leadership styles for the future will need to combine courage and openness towards new things to deal with the adversities of the BANI world.”

The leadership behaviors that are most likely to lead to successful organizational change are those that:

  • Foster adaptability
  • Promote exploration and learning
  • Encourage risk-taking
  • Foster a climate of trust and openness to identify their weaknesses and create structures to address them.

What You Can Do to Be Prepared for What Our VUCA/BANI World Brings 
Several years ago, former CEO of Medtronic and bestselling author Bill George suggested we need to make a shift to VUCA 2.0 for this unsteady world

The principles of VUCA 2.0 also help us cope with the BANI aspects of our chaotic world. What can we do to be future-ready leaders? We must normalize the messiness of being human. Giving your people language and context to understand the challenges they’ve likely been facing (and will face) to reduce (or at least not add to) the inherent sense of threat, chaos, and disruption will make a change in their view of the world. 

Revisit your people development strategy and see how to leverage specific individuals’ strengths and address their weaknesses, to help them get stronger in areas they may be lacking. We offer services to close this gap and create ease as you navigate prioritizing your people.

Consider our Courageous Leadership Program to support you and your team as you navigate the messiness of our VUCA 2.0 world. The live, inspirational, virtual workshop takes an inside-out approach to your development, starting with tools to help you lead yourself before helping you better lead others.

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✨ Shift Your Self-Limiting Mindset
✨ Become the Best Version of You
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Get 11 hours of training PLUS unleash your purpose with the WHY.os Discovery from the WHY Institute.

💸 This program is FREE for nonprofit organizations.

Learn more here.

Stay HUMAN. Stay connected. Stay safe. Show Up as a Leader.

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