Post-referendum Britain: what are the lessons for managers?
28 July 2016 -
Brexit may have come as a shock to many of the UK’s leaders, but you still need to make sure you are prepared for the upheaval that lies in wait
Guest blogger Dr Tom Vine
I suspect most readers of Professional Manager will have voted to remain in the EU. I certainly did. Like many of you, I was disappointed.
But politics aside, what are the lessons for managers?
On the face of it, it is a result that is extremely difficult to interpret. Indeed, analysis of the result suggests there was clear correlation between those parts of the country that had received the most generous investment from the EU and those parts of the country that voted to leave.
How on earth are we to make sense of this? Although there were question marks in respect of the marketing, the Remain campaign conveyed logical, robust arguments for remaining part of the EU.
Indeed, by almost every economic metric you care to consider, it was a convincing position. But it failed. Why?
It failed because this was not a vote contested on the basis of rationality, but a vote contested on the basis of emotion. As a management academic with experience in elections consultancy, I reflect here on the lessons for managers.
This referendum was not about economics. It was about the human capacity for change. Noted writer and management consultant Alvin Toffler coincidentally died a few days after the referendum.
Among his accolades, in 1970 he published Future Shock. In this arresting thesis, he argued that rather than describing change in and of itself in good or bad terms, it is the pace at which change takes place that determines the likelihood of acceptance.
Fast-paced change is almost always unsettling; where the pace of change is slower we acclimatise more readily.
Compared to that of previous generations, the British electorate have endured change on unprecedented levels in many aspects of their lives: in meeting the expectations of the neo-liberal agenda, many of us have had to trade secure, permanent jobs for temporary, contracted work; in meeting career expectations today, we rarely stay put in the town we were born; in meeting the day-to-day demands of work, technological connectivity engulfs us ever more vehemently.
And all of this has taken place against a demographic and cultural landscape which has undergone unsettling shifts in guise with each fresh wave of immigration.
This observation is in no way intended as fuel to the xenophobic cause. However, it is important that we acknowledge the limitations of the human condition. I am referring to anxieties that many of us – perhaps most of us – endure, not least in terms of how we perceive the security of our jobs.
Related to this point about change, shared identity takes time to develop. European identity is, at best, difficult to discern. Addressing this issue is by no means easy: attempts to engineer a sense of identity among EU states are fraught with difficulties, not least in terms of artificiality.
Equally, as sociologists remind us, the emergence of an identity involves a process of Othering in which the identity is achieved only once we have a clear idea of what we are not.
The English and Scottish often consider themselves rivals, as do Arsenal and Spurs. But the EU does not really have an obvious Other and, as a result, it struggles to cultivate a sense of belonging and passion among its membership.
The emotional currency underpinning change and identity was ignored by the Remain campaign.
This is clear evidence of a disconnect between the political elite and the electorate.
As managers, what can we learn from this? Is there a comparable disconnect between our organisational elites (senior managers) and their subordinates (the staff)? Are we, as managers, assuming we know best?
Are we using rational arguments to defend our decisions while ignoring the all-too-human emotional ramifications of these decisions?
As a student at Warwick Business School in the late 1990s, one of my professors, Gibson Burrell, pointed out to me something blindingly obvious and yet rarely, if ever, acknowledged in management education: the further up the corporate chain you climb, the further removed from the deliverables of the organisation you become.
I like to encourage my students to think about it this way: if the CEO fails to turn up for work next Monday, do we have a problem? They typically answer: “no!” If the cleaners fail to turn up for work next Monday morning, do we have a problem?
The truth is the organisation is unlikely to grind to a halt. However, to everybody else it will be obvious that the cleaners haven’t turned up for work. The CEO’s absence, by contrast, will be noticed by very few.
I use this scenario with my Executive MBA students as it illustrates how easy it is for managers such as themselves to be perceived as disconnected from those further down the chain of command.
As organisational elites, we face challenges comparable to those of the political elites. We regularly speak of strong leadership. But what of followership? We rarely ever stop to think what followership involves.
In much the same way as the politicians are now having to acknowledge, perhaps an analytical focus on followership would better equip us as leaders? Equally, if we are to truly understand the nuances of the organisation and the role it plays in the emotional experiences of employees, we must move away from hackneyed accounts of what ‘business’ and ‘businesslike’ means.
Rather than perennially perceiving our employees as ‘resources’, might we endeavour to better understand their hopes and fears? We are enmeshed in an economic system which is in a perpetual state of flux.
But rather than regard organisational change as an ‘event to be managed’, we must impress change into the collective psyche of the organisation.
However, in so doing, we must recognise that for both employees and other stakeholders connected to the organisation, as managers we have a responsibility to exercise stewardship when it comes to change; as humans, change is essential to our nature and yet we can accommodate only so much at once.
With this in mind, if we as managers recognise that the organisation needs to adapt; be it to the market, to our competitors, or to a shift in the supply chain, in so doing we must endeavour to try to maintain points of anchorage and stability elsewhere in the organisation.
This means orchestrating change such that each employee has enough that is constant elsewhere in her or his work life so as to maintain a sense of identity and belonging with the organisation.
Dr Tom Vine leads a suite of MBA programmes at Suffolk Business School. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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