The phrase ‘there is no certainty but uncertainty’ really rings true in this post-Brexit period. Theresa May’s recent comments that she “will not provide a running commentary on every twist and turn of the negotiation” only adds to the difficulty for companies to plan ahead. The British Chamber of Commerce’s announcement this week ‘slashing its forecasts for domestic growth’ in 2017 adds further to the uncertainty. We are in unchartered territory and there is no guidebook for what has worked in the past.
The implications of Brexit are so far reaching – the decisions that will be made touch every part of our lives – personal, family, career, right down to our very identity. How do leaders steer the ship through times of uncertainty on so many levels? How do they create unity where there is division? Create positivity where there is anxiety? We explore how the role of strong internal communications is vital to avoid post-Brexit paralysis.
The impact of uncertainty and worry
Uncertainty breeds anxiety. When people’s work life, family life and even national identity come under threat, all the pillars of stability in their life start to look shaky. Some are already facing very real impacts of Brexit, for example the announcement in August from Royal Mail that thousands of employees could have their pension schemes cut due to the deterioration of the financial markets following the Brexit vote.
‘Coaching Positive Performance’ identifies the six mental effects of worry as hyper vigilance, reduced concentration, indecisiveness, overplaying risk, pessimism and becoming problem focused instead of solution focused. What do these all have in common? They are all productivity and engagement killers.
How to use internal communications to kick-start engagement and manage uncertainty
There are four key ways in which leaders can protect productivity by using internal communications to help cultivate a culture of trust and openness during these post-Brexit uncertain times.
Open, honest dialogue
First and foremost leaders must listen to their employees, providing forums for open discussion. Employees must be given the opportunity to have open and honest dialogue on issues that emerge around Brexit. Leaders must be visible and accessible even when they don’t know the answers. Recognising that no one knows the answers just yet is much more powerful than simply avoiding the questions. A communication vacuum will only feed uncertainty and the negative behaviours associated with it.
Leaders need to develop a strong narrative and regularly reinforce it to employees – ‘we have contingency plans, we are strong enough to weather the storm’. Employees must feel as if they are part of the decision making process and will be kept informed. This needs to be backed up with agile planning of communications to cope with the inevitable peaks and troughs in activity around Brexit news. This will serve to help instil a sense of calm and stability that employees should then be able to carry over to their interactions outside of the business.
Build capability in line managers and employees
Line managers need to be able to show understanding of the personal worries of individuals and be given tools to help with the ‘how will it affect me?’ questions. For example for EU nationals in the UK, UK nationals in the EU, those with a partner from the EU etc. Until employees are reassured on these questions they won’t be able to focus on the broader picture. Line managers will need support with this very challenging and emotionally charged task. Extra training and tools for line managers will be key.
CEB highlight their research showing that ‘improving employee capability to cope with change is the most effective way to sustain performance through a period of uncertainty’. A focus on training for coping with change along with helping employees to focus on their day-to-day tasks that they do have control over will be important as we move through this current phase.
It is critical that leaders recognise and understand the diversity of employees’ attitudes towards Brexit. Leaders should cultivate and vigilantly maintain an environment of tolerance and inclusivity within the organisation.
How to lead in times of uncertainty
Leaders are equally vulnerable to the effects of uncertainty. The natural tendency is to retreat to a position of inaction, to turn inwards and batten down the hatches. Employees look to leaders for reassurance and therefore the leadership must live and breathe the values that they want the employees to buy into. If employees perceive the leadership to be inactive, risk averse and disengaged this can lead to a crippling state of post-Brexit paralysis.
If leaders focus on the internal communication techniques identified here:
- generating open, honest dialogue,
- reassuring employees and agile planning,
- building line manager and employee capabilities,
- recognising diversity;
it will go a long way towards providing a framework for action in an era of uncertainty where there really is no playbook to turn to.
About the author:
Roz Harvey, Managing Director, Marrow Communications
Marrow Communications is an internal communications and employee engagement consultancy working with clients and their advisors in mid to large private and public sector organisations.
Image courtesy of stuartmiles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net