I wish I knew then what I know now.
This expression has practically become the mantra of retrospective professionals—including a CEO I spoke to recently. A few wins early in the company led him and his colleagues to grow overconfident and complacent. While they were busy basking in the glow of their success, their competitors were adapting. As a result, they had to scramble to catch up after a significant market shift, rather than innovating and growing market share.
Scenarios like this are all too common. They’re also precisely why the World Economic Forum identified emotional intelligence—or the awareness and intelligent use of emotions—as a skill that employees need to have to navigate unprecedented change.
For the first time, American workplaces have five generations working side by side. As baby boomers retire, we’re left with a massive gap in leadership. There aren’t enough Gen Xers to fill newly empty positions, but many millennials haven’t acquired the experience to take up the torch either. Thanks to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which includes advances in AI and blockchain, we’re seeing people’s roles at work change rapidly, and it’s triggering widespread panic.
While IQs have increased over the past few decades, emotional quotients have declined. This is a dangerous trend. In volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environments, EQ bottoms out, and we choose strategies that are ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. Luckily unlike IQ, which remains stable after teen years, we can work on refining our EQ as we move through life and learn from our experiences. Here’s how you can do just that so that you can thrive in this uncertain environment
1. Hit the refresh button
Outdated skills are the ultimate career killer. Organizations want people who can adapt and learn on the job. Traditional hard skills like typing speed and financial acumen are less critical in many fields due to the rapid change we’re experiencing. You need to have voracious intellectual curiosity and passion for learning that can help you rethink your job.
To identify and fill your skill gaps, look at the trends in your field. Pick one skill that will help you adapt to your work environment, transition in your career, or snag that promotion— whatever goal you’re trying to reach.
For example, at the beginning of every year, I choose a new skill to develop. In 2019, I focused on growing my expertise in process design. This year, however, I’m focusing on being vulnerable. I’m a very private person, so I’ve shied away from opening up during interviews with media outlets. As the leader of our firm, however, I know I need to be seen as a living, breathing human. So I’ve challenged myself to let my personality shine through.
2. Throw out what’s not working
Elimination is more challenging than many of us realize. As humans, we tend to double down on existing beliefs even when the evidence tells us they’re not working. It’s how former Blockbuster CEO John Antioco justified his decision to stay the course despite massive marketplace shifts. (We all know how that turned out.)
In our current VUCA environment, we can’t afford to “wait it out.” Emotions lead to your best or worst decisions. Your limbic system tries to take over, and it can send you into fight or flight mode. Fight might manifest as blame-shifting, while flight might mean sticking your head in the sand. Your EQ levels dictate how you respond.
For example, I set a goal to eliminate business lines and projects that aren’t profitable or aligned with our mission. Recently, I had to make the tough decision to turn down two projects that weren’t aligned with our mission but would’ve been very profitable.
I kept trying to justify why we should take on this work, even though it conflicted with the goals I’d already set. Finally, I sat down and reviewed my written goals. It made me realize saying “no” takes courage. It’s painful to let things go because, on some level, we see it as a failure. But once you put your foot down, you’ll realize that you’ve just created space for something that does make sense.
3. Embrace uncertainty
We all crave certainty, but we won’t get it in this VUCA environment. Instead, lean into uncertainty and try to make sense of it. You can create meaning out of the chaos by asking probing questions: What patterns do I see? What doesn’t fit my worldview? What data can I gather?
Often, I ask myself, “What am I holding as true that may have changed?” Then, I set expectations accordingly. Our brains are pattern-making machines. If we expect that things won’t change, we’ll become frustrated and defensive when they inevitably do. So adopt the mindset that things are always in flux, because they are. What works today probably won’t work next year.
Then, use scenario planning to prepare for the unknown. Basically, you have to think like MacGyver: What does he do in a sticky situation? He focuses on reading his environment, taking stock of what he has, and getting creative with his resources. Going through this same exercise will help you remain agile through career bumps.
Kerry Goyette is the president of Aperio Consulting Group, a corporate consulting firm that utilizes workplace analytics and implements research-based strategies to build high-performance cultures, and the author of “The Non-Obvious Guide to Emotional Intelligence.” Follow her on Twitter: @thinkaperio.