Brexit lessons for HR

Written by
Anthony J. Nyberg

25 Jul 2016

25 Jul 2016 • by Anthony J. Nyberg

A plea for help

Examining sentiments behind the Brexit vote and the subsequent post-vote reactions reveal two valuable messages for HR leaders:

  1. From Hungary to Poland, from the UK to the USA, many people are disenfranchised, long for hope, and fail to see value in globalisation; these feelings are held by a non-trivial percentage of your workforce.
  2. Many leaders (political and business) are blind to these concerns. As an HR leader, one of your responsibilities is to understand your organisation’s culture, and the surprise that many of us are experiencing concerning recent political trends demonstrates that we have a poor understanding of how many of our own employees feel.  

Common decision-making fallacies

We are prone to subconscious biases that can adversely affect our decision-making. One such bias is to believe that our situations are idiosyncratic – we believe that our challenges and decisions are unique. This hinders our ability to learn from others and our own past. For instance, in the Brexit situation, it would be a mistake to assume that the majority vote was isolated to politics or to this singular situation. Rather, this vote is another step in a long trend that can provide insights into the mindset of employees and the pitfalls that leaders face in our own organizations. Failing to internalise lessons from these occurrences can be costly.

Another related decision-making challenge is to assume that others share our views. For instance, in the US, political leaders and media pundits are stunned by Trump’s success. In the UK, Londoners struggle to understand how anyone could vote to leave, and are shocked that their cultural views are not shared by half of the country. Popular commentary would have us believe that most who voted to leave (or for Trump) were either bullied, incapable of clear thinking, misinformed or otherwise did not know what they were doing. This sentiment is ironic because it is this contempt and an inability to understand or accept differing perspectives that is partially responsible for leading to these very outcomes.

What HR leaders should do

Avoid scare tactics. Once you have convinced people that there are substantive fears (e.g., poor economy, troubled business health, etc.), it is extremely challenging to alleviate those fears. This often manifests itself by proclaiming dire financial challenges. These proclamations fuel the type of fear that fuels voter unrest. Such proclamations also affect the organisation’s culture, often in ways unintended and unexpected.

Be honest with yourself Are you sharing information and concerns that you truly believe or are you stating things to motivate short-term behaviors? Business (and political) leaders often make proclamations designed to help drive specific behaviors. However, to the extent that these proclamations are over stated, the long-term repercussions can be problematic, including losing your employees’ confidence in management.

Avoid seeming to be hypocritical. Few things disrupt employee confidence in leadership more than when those leaders appear to be hypocritical. Companies professing dire outcomes if costs are not cut while simultaneously increasing leader pay are one such common example. Throughout your organisation and in all actions, it is wise to strive continually to ensure that you implement practices that match your rhetoric. This is obvious and yet involves constant, intentional reflection and honesty.

Appreciate different perspectives. Your view looking down is dramatically different from an employee’s view looking-up. Most of us want to work hard, want our hard work to matter, and want to be rewarded for that hard work. However, when our hard work does not seem to us to be appreciated, we become disengaged, disenfranchised, and disbelieving in our leaders. As an HR leader, you are the link between your employees and the top leadership. This means keeping constant vigil to stay alert to changing employee perspectives, concerns, and beliefs. Your top-down view gives you insights, but do not assume that others appreciate these insights. If you want a shared vision, then you must communicate that vision clearly and continually. 

Understand that fear is powerful. As Thomas Kochan writes, the relative real wage relationship with productivity was closely linked until the early 1980s and since then productivity has increased substantially, but disproportionately to wages. The disconnect that employees feel between the prosperity of companies, the wages of leaders, even their own productivity, and that of their own real wages is legitimate and problematic. For instance, those doing well appreciate that a closer, better-connected world means opportunities. However, a growing number do not share such hope. This enables fear that, as we have seen, can be directed to shocking views with substantive cultural backlash. The shock we feel, however, represents our own ignorance regarding how substantial portions of our workers are living. In simple terms, the belief that if you work harder and smarter and become more productive, you will earn more and your dreams will come true is simply not manifesting for many in our organizations. This disparity is affecting company and national culture and must be remembered by leaders when trying to understand and ultimately motivate behaviors.