Why Brexit proves the value of engagement

flagsThere’s no doubt that the political and economic implications from the EU Referendum will take time to work through. In the meantime, as a passionate advocate for the value of engagement and change management, I’m drawn to the human implications that are already apparent.

[Part one of two]

It’s clear that many on both sides of the referendum were surprised by the outcome of the vote and are now shocked by the repercussions rippling through their social networks. Whilst debates simmer and people claim or reject other peoples’ opinions about why they voted in their preferred direction, I see two obvious parallels with employee engagement surveys:

  1. You NEED to ask the right questions
  2. You MUST respond to feedback


The most important questions weren’t asked

It’s really important that when you ask for feedback, you ask enough questions to be able to truly understand it. You can’t just ask for the answers you want (i.e., what do you think?), you must ask for the answers you NEED too (i.e., why do you think that?).

For example, if the referendum had invited voters to rank, in order of importance, the five main factors which caused them to vote Leave or Remain, imagine how much fear and uncertainty this would have mitigated, and how much easier it would be to move forward. Social media would be buzzing with more informed discussions about the similarities and differences within their networks, and leaders would have a much better understanding of how to prioritise their next steps.

Distilling a multitude of issues into a simple question – remain or leave – was always going to make the answer difficult for many to accept.

The same applies for employee engagement surveys – the ones that contain enough questions to allow proper diagnosis of how employees feel – and why – are the most valuable for everyone involved with them.


You MUST act on survey feedback

Data generated by the last few nationwide engagement surveys (or in this case, national elections and referendums held in the last decade or so) provided fair warning of a close and unpredictable result. Differences between arriving at one outcome or another have been small and some participant groups have openly admitted to using votes to provide feedback on a range of underlying issues, in addition to the ones being polled.

Some Leave voters have made the same admissions and I’m sure we can all think of examples of when we’ve experienced similar behaviours.

For example, have you ever been in a heated discussion with a loved one, focused on one fairly simple issue, and then BOOM! One of you raises the REAL issue causing the major upset (usually something that’s happened in the past) and suddenly, the tone and intensity of the discussion goes to a whole new place and level.

We see this happen in business too. I remember a particularly interesting conversation with a Workplace Relations specialist, about employee engagement in unionized workforces. He told me that over the years, he’s been involved in enterprise bargaining agreement negotiations that have became a forum for expressing emotions about a much wider range of issues (many of them old) than the ones on the negotiation table. Failure to address past issues built pressure that needed relief, and the negotiations were harder to finalise than they need to be.

As a partner, family member, employee, leader, citizen or politician, we must remember that feedback is always invaluable and deserving of our engagement. If we characterise the people who disagree with our beliefs as being inferior, or fail to understand and address some of the reasons why people are disaffected, they’re likely to react in material ways.

In organisations, passive rebellion will manifest as non-engagement; this usually results in missed opportunities and mediocre performance. When rebellion becomes active and dis-engagement prevails, the results are often highly disruptive, damaging and conclusive.

Developing plans and committing adequate resources to addressing feedback before it becomes a major issue is always an investment worth making.

As I said at the start, I’m passionate about this because I believe in the importance of engagement and change management. Core to both disciplines is empathy.

In this instance, my empathy is super-charged because I was born, raised and until my late 20s, lived in England.

With the result of the referendum decided, I don’t feel it adds value to disclose which side I supported. I’ll simply say that like life itself, change is what you make it.

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