Dealing with Change in a BANI World

September 22, 2022 Judd Hoekstra

We are passing through an incredibly tumultuous period. Consider the business realm. Leaders must contend with the aftereffects of the pandemic, the hybrid workplace, and the speed at which companies are being forced to reinvent themselves, to name just a few.

We have entered a new moment, according to anthropologist and author Jamais Cascio. He has coined an acronym to describe how many of us perceive the world: ‘BANI’—brittle, anxious, nonlinear, and incomprehensible.

Here is a brief description of BANI:

  • Brittle: The systems in society appear flexible and robust but are, in truth, brittle. Under stress, they shatter.
  • Anxious: The fear of impending doom. It is caused by a sense that the systems we rely on are unreliable. This existential threat weighs on us.
  • Non-Linear: Events are disconnected and disproportionate. Cause and effect are difficult or impossible to identify. Covid is a good example. A virus that began in a marketplace in China eventually had global ramifications. Highs and lows in world events are similarly disproportionate.
  • Incomprehensible: We search for answers to problems we don’t truly understand. Our answers are unsatisfactory and do not solve the challenge. This creates more anxiety and a sense of resignation.

BANI and the Workplace

Covid may be receding in the rearview mirror, but the changes it has triggered have ushered in a BANI world. More specifically, many leaders are still struggling with operating and leading in the virtual and hybrid workplace. There is no consensus about it. You’ll find companies on opposite ends of the spectrum. For example, some are demanding employees return to the office while others are providing their people full choice about where they work.

If a company doesn’t mandate a work policy, leaders are left to set the rules. Many are understandably uncomfortable with this, especially when they know the rules they set will impact their ability to attract and retain valuable team members.

Today’s labor market is more employee friendly than ever before. Some employees think the grass is greener elsewhere and are willing to take the risk and leave. Many feel that a job can't be only 98% satisfactory; it must be 100%. Now throw in the phenomenon of quiet quitting. Leaders must do everything to keep their employees engaged. But quiet quitting often includes leaders, which creates even more havoc in the workplace. Who wants to work for a leader who has quietly quit?

Change Saturation

Learning how to adapt to change, which is the essential skill in a BANI world, is like working out a muscle. The more often we deal with change, the more resilient and adaptable we become. But there is a saturation point—and many have reached it—because people can handle only so much change.

Of course, we all have different saturation points. Yours is different from mine. This speaks to the non-linearity of BANI. Leaders construct a plan with assumptions built in about how long a project will take. But they don’t consider the different saturation levels of the people working on it. You may be going along swimmingly with the plan because you have a high saturation point, while I may be struggling because I have a low saturation point. Meanwhile, leaders haven’t accounted for these variances.

The One Predictability of Change

We don't know what changes lie ahead or how they will affect us. But we do know how people respond to change. People go through predictable and typically sequential stages of concern. Each stage is marked by questions people ask themselves in relation to the specific change.

Here are some of the early questions:

  • What is the change?
  • Why is it needed?
  • What is wrong with the way things are now?
  • What's in it for me?
  • Will I win or lose?
  • Will I look good?
  • What happens if things don’t go as planned?

Telling people these concerns are normal brings some predictability to a non-linear event. It lets them know everyone is feeling the same and these feelings are not random. We teach this in Leading People Through Change.

Chart, funnel chartDescription automatically generated

When you give people some knowledge and some predictability, they fare much better in a BANI world. You can help move a person from one end of the BANI spectrum to the other—e.g., from anxious to some sense of control—maybe not on all measures but at least some. This improves the person’s overall sense of well-being.

 

Knowledge is Comforting

People want to know what's going on, why something is happening, and what they can do about it. The simpler the answers, the better.

When people are faced with this significant amount of change, leaders need to start by anticipating and responding to the predictable questions and concerns (see the above graphic; Information and Personal) and by surfacing additional questions. By answering these questions and concerns, you keep people from getting stalled and help them move more quickly through a period of discomfort. You let them know that it is normal to have these questions and concerns, and that they have agency about them. They are not left to languish.

Honest Dialogue is Crucial

Leaders don't want people ruminating about their worries and not sharing their concerns. Unsurfaced and unresolved concerns often result in what is viewed as resistance to change. We are predisposed to dwell on the negative. In fact, 80% of our thoughts trend this way. The answer to this challenge is to engage people in productive dialogue.

Here are some ways a leader can do that:

  • Provide answers to the predictable questions or share that you don’t yet have answers when that’s the case.
  • Have one-on-one conversations with your people to surface additional personal concerns.
  • Discuss the change initiative in a team meeting. This demonstrates courage and vulnerability by sharing how you are working through the concerns you have.

A New Perspective on Data-Driven Decisions

Many of our clients recognize the need to make decisions rooted in data. Going with your gut feelings or historical precedence is not sufficient in a BANI world. Surveys and assessments are critical if you want to get the pulse of people at various points of a specific change.

The challenge is that leaders typically don't think of data-driven decisions as being related to human behavior; rather, they think of them as being related to financial performance. But BANI demands that we consider both. This is an opportunity for us to incorporate the human element into data-driven decision making.

A BANI world demands that we look at challenges with a new perspective. No one knows what the future will bring—but we have tools to meet whatever challenges come our way.

About the Author

Judd Hoekstra

Judd Hoekstra has over twenty-five years of experience leading people and organizations through change. He is the coauthor of Who Killed Change? and Leading at a Higher Level. He is also the co-author of The Ken Blanchard Company’s Leading People Through Change® learning experience. Judd is a graduate of Kellogg School of Management’s Advanced Business Management Program and received his bachelor’s degree in business management and marketing from Cornell University.

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