Brexit’s Lessons for Organisations – Are you Listening Closely?

Three months on from the historic vote that divided Britain, what can organisations learn about about giving people a voice?

Lesson #1 – The Power of Participation

When historians come to look back on the events leading up to the in-out European Referendum, it’s my hope they’ll remark upon what is arguably the most important key learning employers ought to take away – the power of participation.

Turnout in this historic vote was a massive 72.2% – a level not reached since the 1992 General Election. Experts agree it was the fact people felt their voice actually mattered (and not wasted, as per the usual first past the post system), that really got them out to the polling station. You could say this was one of the biggest surveys ever – and the message was loud and clear: when people felt they were going to be listened to they were more than happy to speak out.

Lesson #2 – What Really Listening Really Means
What’s interesting though, is the post-result period we now find ourselves in. Despite David Cameron acknowledging that ‘the people have spoken’, with PM Theresa May quickly following up by saying the now famous words ‘Brexit means Brexit’, there is the palpable worry for pro-leave voters that Brexit might not actually happen.

After the excitement of empowerment, comes the classic ‘why did I even bother voting’ feeling – and yes, there are obvious parallels when it comes to employers taking their own staff polls too. Worse than not listening to employees is appearing like you will, then not doing anything about it. And there is some interesting new social media data that I think sums this up rather nicely.

The clever people at Loughborough University have recently published their analysis of 30,000 postings from 18,000 leave and remain protagonists on social media, and it concludes that it was the leave contingent that garnered the most followers. Brexit supporters were five-times more active than remain activists, and ‘outers’ posted seven times more posts on Twitter than remainers. In fact, on average, Instagram posts made by members of the leave camp received 26% more likes and 20% more comments, than those in remain. The conclusion of the academics was this: “Using the Internet, the leave camp was able to create the perception of wide-ranging public support for their cause that acted like a self-fulfilling prophecy, attracting many more voters to back Brexit.”

Lesson #3 – Taking Part Takes Passion
So why is this important in employee research? Well, apart from the obvious fact you should never underestimate people with real passion (sentiment analysis of leave voters shows their language was more emotional than the dry facts-and-figures narrative of remain voters), the data indicates it’s those with the strongest value-sets that are the most successful mobilisers. Ergo this people will also feel most spurned if ignored. The message to employers is clear. Response rates to surveys can be low, but it’s the ones with the most passion – the ones with the most to say – that typically feel compelled to take-part. Ignoring these strong characters is a recipe for disaster.

And there’s one important footnote to all of this that I think makes the immediate future even more interesting. Theresa May’s first speech in front of Number 10 talked of establishing employee representatives on the board – at a time when many firms barely do what their staff already report back.

So, it’s interesting times. Here’s a PM that’s saying she’s going to take notice of what the electorate have said, but here’s one who also wants businesses to take note of what their own people say on other matters too.

If the EU vote teaches employers anything, it’s that who have real passion are the ones who’ll want to put their heads about the parapet. These are precisely the people who will want to be employee representatives on your boards. Moreover, if you’re not listening to your most vocal employees, you’re probably arguably not listening to popular opinion in the organisation either. The message is clear. Don’t dismiss what the majority want to say – even if it’s something you don’t always want to hear.

Silverman Research
IABC Event: Looking Back on the Enterprise Social Network Evening
Silverman Research
People Management Cover Feature: Why Smart Companies Listen to Their Staff