Managers will have to handle uncertainty post Brexit

05 Jul
July 5, 2016

Susy Roberts, 6th July 2016

It’s a good thing the British have a steely resolve for remaining unflustered and carrying on during a crisis. We’ll need that more than ever in the coming months. Not only don’t we know how we’ll continue to trade with Europe and the rest of the world, nor how long the pound, FTSE and cost of living will take to recover, but we don’t yet know who the next Prime Minister will be, nor whether Scotland and Northern Ireland will use the result to break with the UK.

The only thing certain about Brexit is just how uncertain everything is. The upshot of which is that now, more than ever, managers, and leaders, need to be able to develop the key skill of managing ambiguity, so that they can continue to take steps forward, without yet knowing what the end destination might be.

From a people development point of view, this requires developing people managers to accept that not everything is black or white, so that they can start to become comfortable with the unknown. Companies might have ten-year visions, but few have detailed plans looking more than a year ahead, because there’s too much that can change.

Instead of simply being able to set objectives and go out and achieve them, managers now need to focus on taking things one step at a time, while the bigger picture unfolds. Critical to this is:

– Focusing on the future to identify any positives that can be found.  As Winston Churchill once said, “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” So while it’s true that a weakened pound will cause the cost of food imports to rise, might it also mean that we can better support our own farmers? It might require eating more Cheddar and Stilton than Camembert or Brie, but once we leave the Common Agricultural Policy, there’s a real opportunity there. Managers who want to keep their people united and engaged will have to look for similar opportunities within their own businesses at every level.

– Inspiring people to move forward. Taking steps in the dark requires real confidence, as anyone who’s stumbled to the bathroom in the middle of the night knows. By communicating everything they know, whether it’s good or bad, managers can give people the confidence required to take that first step and get used to the feeling of finding their way without having all the answers immediately to hand.

– Managing differing expectations. Just as the 72% of millennials who voted to remain in the EU have voiced their disappointment with the baby boomers who swung the vote (saying older people shouldn’t have been allowed to dominate a discussion that affects young people more), so too in business will different generations, classes and nationalities, clash over the best way forward. Just as our political leaders are now trying to create a more inclusive form of politics, where the government seeks to look after the interests of the country, and not just the party faithful, so too will managers have to have to listen to and respond to the concerns of all their employees.

If the result is a generation of future leaders who can successfully put one foot in front of the other, while engaging and uniting others to follow them through uncertain times, Brexit may have provided an opportunity for leadership development.


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