How many conversations have you had about Brexit following last Thursday’s referendum?
Whether work or personal, every conversation I’ve had since has, at some point, got round to this topic and I’m sure you’re no different.
It’s inevitable, as we start a new week at work, that Brexit will still be a hot discussion topic in most workplaces across the UK. There’ll be plenty of speculation and catastrophising along the way as we step into what is undoubtedly an uncertain time.
To help people manage this uncertainty, leaders need to be ready to contribute formally as well as joining in the more general chat, not just today but in the coming weeks and months as the impact of Brexit becomes clearer.
There was plenty of evidence to show how badly communication was handled during the uncertainty brought about by the economic crisis in 2008, adding unnecessary strain at a time that was already stressful enough.
People heard about changes in their organisation via the media rather than from their own leaders; half-truths and spin destroyed trust that has been hard to rebuild; and leaders went AWOL at a time when the people they led needed them most.
Let’s not repeat those mistakes. Your people may well have questions now about what Brexit will mean for your organisation, and they are certainly likely to have more as time passes.
Here are my three top tips to make sure you communicate well as you lead people through these uncertain times.
1. Don't say 'I don't know.'
For too long now leaders have used the answer ‘I don’t know’ as a sign that they are an authentic leader who has the confidence to admit to being less-than-omnipotent. That’s because there’s been advice on all those Presentation Skills workshop – and other leadership programmes – that you shouldn’t make up answers, and that strong leaders admit when they don’t have an answer.
Well, of course it isn’t okay to lie outright or make up answers to get yourself off the hook. That really isn’t helpful for anyone. But that doesn’t give you carte blanche to play the ‘I don’t know’ card and leave it at that.
There’s a difference between not knowing what the final decision will be and having no idea about it at all. Most of the time, when leaders say ‘I don’t know’, what they mean is the former. In fact, there’s lots they know about how the answer will be reached – and that’s worth sharing.
So, rather than saying ‘I don’t know’ when you’re asked what Brexit will mean for your organisation, share what you do know. For example, what factors will impact? What factors will you base any decisions on? What information are you waiting for to enable you to make those decisions?
There’s lots you know, even if you don’t know the final outcome – sharing this fills the vacuum that an outright ‘I don’t know’ creates.
2. Don't get so caught up in the technical stuff that you forget the people stuff
There’ll be lots of technical decision-making to decide how to respond to the impact of Brexit. Will your US paymasters decide that your UK-based organisation is less desirable if it is no longer a direct line to European markets? How soon will funding from Europe for your particular organisation stop? Are interest rates going to rise or fall and what does that mean for your growth plans?
Oh yes, there’s plenty of technical decision-making to keep you busy. And the necessary focus on that can absorb so much of your time that you overlook the need to communicate with the people you lead.
But this comes at a time when they need your input more than ever. So, stay visible – whether that means spending more time on the shopfloor, being more active at creating vlogs to share with your global team or setting up regular briefing calls, stay connected if you want to keep a steady ship.
3. Keep people focused on what they can control – and avoid catastrophising about what they can't
There is a significant risk during times of uncertainty that we go straight for catastrophising mode – it’s human nature to focus on the worst when we don’t know what’s going to happen.
This drains energy and resilience. So, as well as giving space for people to express what worries them, get talking about what is within their control and discuss what steps to take to build on that. When we have a sense of control, we also have increased resilience and energy to deal with whatever does happen – whether for better or worse.
This isn’t about misleading positive spin or Pollyanna thinking. It’s about being practical and genuine – what is within people’s control? How can they use this to move forward with confidence?
As the ramifications of Brexit become apparent, providing steady, relevant communication will be crucial if you are to lead people through uncertain times:
- Don’t simply say ‘I don’t know’ – share what information you will use to make a decision, or which sources of data you are keeping an eye on
- Stay visible – don’t let tough technical decisions steal all your time from people
- Focus people's attention on what they can control – avoid catastrophising about things that are beyond their control