“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Coming across this quote by John F. Kennedy the other day, I was struck by how powerfully it applies to the uncertainty we’ve experienced over the past three years with Brexit.
The Brexit vote of 2016 is, arguably, one of the most significant events in modern history, and heralded a time of ‘unknowns’ for the UK and the wider world. Like any period of considerable change, it resulted in many people, and organisations, doing what we do in times of uncertainty: adopt a wait and see attitude, reluctant to embark on any major plans or take important decisions.
We’ve seen it everywhere! And, the impact to the UK economy has been well documented, with evidence of a distinct slow-down, if not stasis for the past three years. Businesses have held off making investments; some, like Nissan and Dyson, have opted to move part of their operations out of the UK; and the lack of clarity about immigration policy had impacted recruitment for a number of key UK institutions including the NHS. At an individual level, studies have also shown that people in the UK report increased levels of anxiety, anger and feeling powerless.
Whatever the outcome for the UK of Brexit, it has clearly demonstrated that, in times of uncertainty, most of us are less confident about taking major decisions.
The same is true of organisations because every organisation is made up of groups of people, and it’s their responses that will determine how the organisation deals with change. As the work of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and others has shown, most of us initially perceive change to be negative and are fearful of it. Frequently, our immediate response is conditioned by our “fight or flight” instinct.
So, when organisations are going through change, we need to work even harder to help employees understand the change and what it means for them. In turbulent times, communication can be one of, if not the, most powerful tool to help organisations navigate change effectively.
So, how can an organisation engage employees during a time of change?
Our experience has shown that there are a few must haves here.
- Have a clear story about the change.
Be clear about the journey – where the organisation has come from, why it needs to change and what you expect the future to look like. The time spent on creating this story and, especially, what it means for your employees, will be repaid many times over as the organisation moves along the journey.
- Make communication a priority.
Put a premium on engaging directly with your employees. Do this face to face as often as possible, giving everyone the time to share and listen to one another’s views and to answer any questions employees may have. It’s amazing how often employees help find solutions to an organisation’s challenges when they are given a chance to have their say.
- Enable all influencers.
Every organisation has influencers throughout, at every level, not just the senior leadership. Getting their buy-in and enabling them to tell the change story clearly and confidently is a must – their teams and colleagues invariably look to them for guidance and advice; so if they don’t support the change, they will not be able to encourage their teams or colleagues to do so either.
- Be honest and open.
Most people want their organisation to do well; and almost everyone will know that, in times of uncertainty, it’s not always possible to have all the answers immediately. If there is honest conversation and leaders are upfront about when they will share more information, most people will give the organisation the benefit of the doubt.
So, while the Brexit referendum has meant that much of the UK has been “holding its breath” for three years, there is also a silver lining for those involved in organisational communications… Speaking to colleagues recently about the impact the Brexit vote has had on their organisations, it was apparent that, despite the turbulence it created, it has also put the spotlight firmly on the importance of effective communications during times of change. And that, surely, is an optimistic start to the next decade.
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