The media was full of descriptions of people’s reactions to the June 23, 2016 result of the British referendum to exit the European Union. Not surprisingly, those reactions mirrored what we know about how people respond to change that they did not initiate.

Shock, anger and upset

“Brexit protesters hold Westminster Rally” (News headline.)

“I want my EU back.”

“EU, we love you!” (Chant by protesters.)

“I was stunned. I felt winded. Not what we expected at all.”

Initially the UK citizenry reacted with a sense of shock and disbelief. When people are in shock all bets are off when predicting how they will respond. The FTSE (UK stock market) fell dramatically, Sterling plunged. Investors scampered for the exits to such a degree that other world markets followed suit.

While this might seem like a predictable outcome, it didn’t have to be. This decision does not have the scale and impact of the Great Recession of 2008 for example. There was no immediate collapse of the UK economic system. Few thought that was likely anyway. Cool-headed people reviewed history and discovered that shock decisions initially create panic and then things return to how they were before.

So here we are a few days later with markets gaining back much that they had lost. Even the FTSE got itself turned around, though it may be some time before it returns to its previous level before the vote.

Is this reaction irrational and illogical? Yes! But this is what always happens in the first stage of change. People do not think clearly. They honor their emotions more than logic.

Because emotions often run high during this first stage we also saw anger and sadness.  David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, was not immune. During his speech shortly after the votes were tallied and where he announced his future resignation, his voice cracked when describing how he had seen himself as honorably leading the country.  Even Boris Johnson, the de facto leader of the Leave campaign gave a rather muted and uninspiring speech which was completely out of character for him.

Some, though, exhibited jubilation because they wanted the outcome.

“It feels great to have our sovereignty back.”
“We should declare this day as Independence Day!”

Interestingly this was not universal among those who voted to leave the EU because they voted in protest, not expecting that the Leave campaign would win.

How any leader can take action to reduce the impact of this stage

Let’s start with what not to do. Don’t hide or be quiet. Even if the leaders themselves are experiencing the emotions of change it is critically important to be present and visible. Apart from exhibiting empathy, which is a key competency to demonstrate throughout the process of change, it is important to relate others by being a “woman/man of the people.” Now is the time to hear and honor their reactions and to gently, assuredly, talk about what happened and what you plan on doing next.

This is not the time to describe your plans down to the last detail.  (Hopefully you have plans.)  They won’t hear much of what you say anyway.  Calmness is key.  While a Churchillian response is not required, it is important to remind people that you are in charge of what is going on and that you have a steady hand on the tiller.

Loss, doubt and questioning

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it”  (A voter explains why he voted the way he did.)

“Can we have another try?”

“I feel betrayed.  Like my future has been taken away from me.”

“We were looking to buy our first house, and now we don’t know if we can.”

“Millions sign a petition to parliament for second EU vote.” (News headline.)

“It makes me feel nervous and unsure.”

When it settles in that the change is here to stay people pine for the old days and question the logic of the decision. Frantic attempts are made to try to erase what happened, and there is a wistfulness for the past. Second guessing occurs. This is when scapegoats are found and villains identified. One way people try to deal with this stage is to find solidarity with others, gathering like minded souls to voice complaints and frustrations.

Apart from demonstrations, appeals were made to parliament to overturn the referendum. Long discussions were held about the potential negative financial effects of the vote. There was very little talk about what could be gained from leaving the EU.  While some pundits made a case for a resurgence of British power and achievement, they were drowned out by those who could list many areas where Britain would suffer.

Grieving is also a natural result of this stage.  The length of time it takes to move through this is difficult to predict.  As a wise person once said: “Grieving is like digestion.  You cannot rush it.”

How any leader can take action to reduce the impact of this stage

This is the time to clearly lay out what your plans are to achieve the new direction. The plan should be rich in logic and data. However issuing emotional appeals is important too.  “We will be a stronger company with more opportunities available to us” or “You may not feel it now but we will all be much happier because your work will become more meaningful, satisfying, enjoyable.”

It is also important for leaders to have patience with their employees by allowing them to grieve. If people want to talk about the past then this should be tolerated. The biggest danger for leaders here is that they can appear to lack empathy. “I think this change will be great for us, get on board!”  is a statement often heard by leaders who have forgotten that it is easy to adjust to change if you initiated it.

Anxiety and confusion

In this stage reality starts to set in and people have many questions and few clear answers. Without a specific path forward the unknowns take center stage.

UK dinner and pub conversations echoed these questions:

“What will be next for the UK?”

“Who’s in charge?”

“Will the UK economy fall apart?”

Could Brexit break up the UK?”

“What will my retirement account look like?  Will I be able to retire?”

As these feelings set in, people seriously start looking for answers. They want them immediately. However, in the UK, given the nature of politics as well as the absence of future leadership, those answers will not be quickly forthcoming.

How any leader can take action to reduce the impact of this stage

It is important that leaders not be swayed by people’s reactions. This is the time for steadiness, re-communication of the desired direction and the plan to get there, and at the same time a doubling down of empathy and listening. Venting is healthy here and it is essential that leaders do not disagree with how people are reacting. Now is the time to explain how life will be better for employees and at the same time acknowledging that for some it may not appear that way. This is the time to emphasize what the organization will do to mitigate people’s losses.

It’s important for leaders to be realistic about productivity (it will have dipped) and focus the employees on short term tasks. Don’t overwhelm them. Now is the time to build motivation systems to help employees.  It is the perfect time to revisit what you know about what motivates your staff and amplify processes that help them self-motivate.

We know that organizations have turned the corner when employees start to look for ways to reinvent the work they need to do and make decisions for themselves about their futures. In some cases this may mean people leaving or transitioning into new roles. It may also mean expanded responsibilities and promotions for others. For a few it may not mean much of a difference.

Whether this will be an easy transition or a difficult one for the UK will depend on the quality of new leadership there. For leaders in organizations it is a time to adeptly reinforce new ways and start to celebrate successes even though they appear to be minor and seemingly inconsequential. This means seriously looking for pockets of success.

One UK citizen ( a self employed fruit and vegetable stall owner) said: “We‘ve been through this before. We survived the war. We’ll survive this and be a better country for it.”

Ah, so British. Keep calm and carry on.