The Brexit “post-game analysis” will go on for weeks, if not months and years—and my choice of a sports metaphor is quite deliberate given how media organizations have framed contemporary political discourse for maximum ratings lately. Of course Brexit’s contributing factors are a complex miasma of populism, protest, paternalism, pragmatism, and political opportunism, with just a touch of a particular brand of snide malice that is as quintessentially British as Marmite.
Most telling, perhaps, is the news that the two most frequent Google searches coming out of the UK immediately following the official results are, “What is the effect of leaving the EU?” and “What is the EU?” These – coupled with the thousands who have since shared with news outlets that they didn’t really think their vote would count, or that they thought it was simply a protest vote, or that they didn’t really trust the experts who predicted precisely what seems to be happening – seems to suggest something, perhaps many somethings, went horribly wrong.
For me, that horribly wrong chain of regrettable analysis points to one, unequivocal fact: Many people are disengaged—from thoughtful analysis, from an ability to discern truth from falsehood, from connecting with reasoned discourse, from a feeling that they matter and what they do matters. When leaders use convenient, populist justifications for policy, actions, or proposed decisions that ignore larger, nuanced contexts, they create disengagement. When leaders put forward simplistic, cause-and-effect rhetoric as justification propaganda, they enable distrust. When leaders appeal to base self-interest rather than holding to a higher standard of collective tactility – what are the intended and actual effects on all whom the decision will touch – they shut down connection to a higher purpose. And when leaders place themselves on a paternalistic pedestal speaking down to those whose status or station they see as beneath theirs, they foment the type of cynicism so highhandedly captured by Conservative MP and Leave-side proponent, Michael Gove, who (in)famously intoned, “people in this country have had enough of experts.” (In an act of supreme irony, Mr. Gove’s wife tweeted a call for experts to assist with a sorely needed post-Brexit plan on Facebook).
Notice in the preceding paragraph, I said, “leaders,” and not “political leaders.” Certainly, creating apathy, disengagement, and populist rejection among voters with much to lose is a well-established strategy in the blood sport that is modern politics. However, when organizational leaders take analogous actions, they risk a type of disengagement that shows up as poor quality, customer dissatisfaction, and a profound inability to innovate or capitalize on opportunities that spiral down to reduce pretty much every measure of organizational goodness, including the bottom line. Employees end up mounting their own Brexit, either with the best of them resigning and walking out the door, or others checking out psychologically or emotionally.
Research has shown that engaging in authentic conversations that enable people with opposing points of view to consider a situation from the other’s perspective is remarkable effective in achieving a more balanced approach to complex policy issues and decision processes. Even if both parties cannot come to agreement, such engagement creates empathy between the opposing parties. That empathy can be harnessed towards jointly discovering alternative approaches to deal with difficult situations. Ideally, there would be commonality of intentions and effects drawn from mutually held values to provide guidance.
When organizational leadership – not to mention political leadership – is treated as a win/lose game – my policy decision has to prevail, no matter what – people disengage and those seemingly inevitable “unintended consequences” happen. When leaders create conditions that encourage authentic engagement, real conversations, and thoughtful discovery of new paths leading to common intentions, two things happen: First, leaders cede singular control in favour of collective responsibility and mutual accountability. And second, leaders create leaders throughout their organization. And that all leadership leads to great possibilities for the future. And isn’t that the essence of contemporary leadership—enabling a conducive environment so that an alternate future becomes possible?