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March 21st, 2017

Brexit uncertainties – what do employees need from their leaders?

Lesley Fleming (Senior Consultant at Bourton Group – March 2017)

Uncertainties surrounding Brexit continue to occupy much space in the media, with the only conviction being that it is all going to take a long time to sort out. There is much coverage of opinion, whether expressed in the highly charged atmosphere of national politics, or through ‘vox pop’ on the street. In the absence of facts, there is a growing sense that ‘Brexit fatigue’ is setting in, with the potential excitement and gloomy predictions of last year being replaced with a feeling of disempowerment and disengagement.

But how are these feelings being translated into the workplace? Some employers have already seen the positive and/or negative effects in the changing value of the pound and this may well have impacted morale on the ‘shop floor’. However, for many the hiatus continues and this must eventually start to erode confidence at a deeper level and have an impact, however indirectly, on business results.

So what can leaders do to fill the gap? We suggest there are three key areas where employees really need positive reassurance from their leaders:

The future of my organisation

Many senior leaders will be occupied with redefining strategy, direction and risk, whether as a result of shifts in market confidence, changes in funding, or merely hedging against the unknown. Senior leaders may well be cautious about sharing their nascent thinking. This may be from a fear of having to continually regroup and risk further uncertainty, or that they just don’t know. However, most employees are keenly aware that whilst the precise source and timing of the next bombshell is unpredictable, the fact that there will be a next bombshell is not.

In order to sustain confidence in their leaders, people do not necessarily need to know precisely what is planned for the long term, but that the long term uncertainty is being prepared for. Employees need their leaders to help them to understand the potential implications of the alternatives; to show how greater agility and flexibility is being developed; and to challenge the organisation’s infrastructure, process and policies in order to eliminate barriers to change.

On a personal level, leaders who continually restate the organisation’s core mission and reinforce shared values through their own behaviours and examples will significantly strengthen corporate identity and self-belief.

The future of my team

Most people will cite being part of a social group as being among the principle motivations for coming, and continue to come, to work. People draw a sense of security and worth from those immediately around them and in a work context, team spirit is a major source of these basic human needs.

In any circumstances, uncertainty for the organisation inevitably means disruption within teams. Added to this, the current hype around the rights of current European workers, fears for future sources of specialist skills, and reduced opportunities for international collaboration will all be contributing to concerns for both colleagues and team stability.

Leaders who ensure that teams have a well-defined mission, clearly linked to the organisation’s business plan and customers’ needs, will help reinforce the strong sense of common purpose that workers initially signed up for. Providing clear performance measures with a robust process for reviewing and improving results will help keep teams collectively focused on delivering today’s agenda. Providing the authority, information and resources to enable teams to continue to take responsibility for their own performance as conditions change will help build trust and confidence in the future. In addition, leaders who charge teams with building internal flexibility and help them to establish mechanisms to feed new thinking upwards will also help teams to develop a sense that they are critical to shaping the future.

The future of me

Despite the satisfaction of feeling part of a social group, most people still come to work to earn a living. The continual, long term threat of job insecurity will ultimately have a corrosive effect on employees’ confidence and personal effectiveness. Similarly, the national sense that our fate is in the hands of others over whom we have little influence can deepen people’s feelings of being undervalued and marginalised. Most employees see their immediate manager as the organisation’s barometer so responses to changing circumstances will be directly influenced by what local management teams do and say.

This places a huge demand on leaders. Treading the line between expressing their own hopes and fears and sustaining a positive vision of the future needs honesty and realism. Without a high level of integrity this opportunity to reassure can easily become counterproductive and feed insecurities.

Finally, paying attention to what has always been good leadership practice is fundamental. Personal development, empowerment, reward and recognition is particularly important if employees are to feel confident enough to engage and take ownership in such precarious times.

Lesley is a senior Organisation Development and Change Management consultant. She specialises in the people aspect of change, focusing on developing leaders, teams and individuals to enable them to introduce and sustain business improvement methodologies, such as Lean.  She helps leaders to understand the operational and behavioural changes required to sustain Lean Thinking against a backdrop of rapidly changing political and economic climates. Lesley has developed a broad range of consultancy skills through leading and delivering major performance improvement programmes for her clients.

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