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MANAGING THE HUMAN SIDE OF BREXIT AT WORK

29 April 2017

Opinion from one of our official partners

Prime Minister Theresa May has just announced that Article 50 has been triggered. This means that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union by March 2019. We’ve been told that Brexit means Brexit. 

These are the facts. This is all we know at this stage. Now begins the two year negotiation process with much posturing, rhetoric and no doubt bumps and bruises along the way. The outcome is what we don’t know. 

You may work locally for an EU-based company, a UK company that has employees based in the EU or employ EU citizens. Even if not directly affected then your customers and suppliers may be. Brexit has implications for all. 

No matter what we feel about Brexit it is happening. But can we ignore our feelings and, perhaps more importantly, those of the EU citizens who are working for or alongside us? We keep hearing that leaving the EU is a process. But I feel it’s far more than that. People’s lives, fortunes and aspirations will be changing because of Brexit. 

Let’s consider how to approach managing the human side of Brexit at work. Over the years much has been written about managing change. As science and technology has developed, we now understand more in the field of neuroscience – i.e. how we think drives our behaviour.  Neuroscience informs us how we view and cope with change as people. Applying this in the context of Brexit now seems a worthwhile thing to do. 

Before getting into the neuroscience, let’s look at some more facts:

● There are 2.38 million EU citizens working in the UK (see graph). 
● Northamptonshire’s unemployment rate is now 3.3% and the labour market is as competitive as ever.
● The UK has the lowest productivity levels of the G7 nations. 

(source: Office of National Statistics)

For me these facts spell out that the UK has grown to become dependent on EU citizens across our labour market, there are more jobs than ever and our productivity needs to improve. In summary, if we don’t manage Brexit well then our economic future will be at risk. 

So what can neuroscience tell us about how we need to manage the human side of Brexit in business? 

The first point is to recognise that as humans we are naturally hard-wired to see change as a threat. Our ancestors faced saber-toothed tigers and other dangers which ignited either a fight or flight response. The first option was always safety first and then weighing up the odds of winning the fight. Instead of tigers, these days we face lots of emotional as well as physical challenges and for many Brexit is certainly one of them.

Thought leader David Rock’s work provides a useful checklist based on the neuroscience responses that have been observed. Let’s now examine this checklist in a Brexit context:

Status: When faced with change people become concerned about their status. Reassurances around citizenship and employment rights are needed. Until Government advice is clear make sure your people feel valued and wanted. Workers from the EU are often from fledgling democracies so avoid making assumptions about people’s feelings about their status.

Certainty: Lack of information creates a vacuum. The laws of physics tell us that vacuums are naturally filled. People dislike uncertainty. Work hard to separate fact from fiction and combat the rumour mill. 

Autonomy: People would like to have a say in how they would like to be treated during the Brexit process. Without any say in their future they may well feel helpless. Listen, involve and react wherever and however you can. 

Relatedness: People are social beings and relationships at work are very important. Strive to maintain relationships by being inclusive. Communication channels need to be open and two-way. Avoid ambiguity and assumptions around interpretation and understanding. 

Fairness: 
Being treated unfairly is a huge negative factor when things are changing. Even those who feel that they are treated fairly will react badly when they see others being treated poorly. Act with integrity by making sure that you do the right things as well as doing things right.


(source: David Rock, SCARF - a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others: 2008)

The next two years and beyond promise to be the some of the most challenging times that business has ever known. Some of us may well view Brexit as more of a kitten than a tiger as no doubt opportunities will arise for some.  However for others the feelings of threat and insecurity, whether real or imagined, will exist. Given our economic dependence on non-UK workers we need to be mindful of how we manage our people. 

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