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How fear and anger about the EU result puts us on a path to nowhere good

How to lead your team during turbulent times

EU result video

Wow. It’s been a turbulent, emotional and fairly depressing few days, hasn’t it? And it’s not going to settle down any time soon.

The EU referendum result presents a seismic, as yet unknowable, change in the UK. No one really knows what’s going to happen next. Not even those supposedly in charge.

I think the nation is in a state of shock, anger and fear. And naturally so. Not just if you were in favour of remaining in the EU. Even if you voted to leave, you might be shocked at the events since, and concerned about how things might play out over the next few weeks, months and years. 

The problem is that shock and anger are limiting emotions. They get us stuck in a negative place, we become risk-averse and our cognitive processes shut down.

Just at a time when thinking clearly and making the most of opportunities are essential to the survival of every business in the UK.

So how do you lead your team out of the emotional doldrums?

Meet Julie, CEO of a small manufacturing business, employing some 300 people. Most of the business’s customers are in the UK, but it also exports its products into the EU and beyond.

It’s 8.30am Monday 27th June 2016. Julie has called an emergency board meeting – but she’s dreading it. She knows there were strong opinions about remaining or leaving within her team. And she knows that a number of customers have already put orders on hold.

Entering the boardroom, it is as she feared.

Ann, a passionate remain voter, is on her feet and pointing at Nigel who voted to leave. “How could you?!” she yells, “This is a disaster!”

Nigel stays seated, but his voice is rising too. “It’s not a disaster, it means Europe can’t tell us what to do anymore. That’s got to be a good thing.”

“A good thing?” shrieks Ann, who looks close to tears. “What on earth is good about the pound dropping to levels we haven’t seen for 30 years, to chaos in the markets, to a potential recession?”

Others in the room are looking shell-shocked, even a little sick. Derek, the finance director, has his head in his hands.

As Julie sits down, people turn to her and everyone (except Derek) start speaking at once.

“What are we going to do?”

“Three customers have cancelled orders in the last half an hour.”

“I didn’t vote for this, how can this be?”

“This puts us in a very vulnerable position.”

“Will we have to lay people off?”

Julie asks for calm and everyone quietens down. But she can still feel the panic in the room.

She knows that what they need now, perhaps more than ever before, is leadership. Her team is looking to her to make everything alright, to steer them out of danger. But she is all too aware that things are very precarious, that it might not be in her power to solve anything.

How can she possibly reassure them when she’s feeling pretty negative about it too.

I suspect this sort of scenario is playing out in boardrooms up and down the country this week. It’s not surprising. Everyone is in shock – whether they voted leave or remain.

Shock and anger are natural and predictable responses to the sort of seismic event we’ve just experienced (and are continuing to experience).

And it’s natural to want to talk it out, discuss and argue about it. I’ve done nothing else since I returned from holiday on Friday morning. Alternatively you might feel like retreating from the world and hope it all goes away (like Derek).

But give in to these emotions and you can get stuck in a very negative place.

We become risk-averse, upset, pessimistic; we focus on threats, on weaknesses, on problems. Our cognitive processes shut down so we become less able to think clearly, to think long-term. We become mistrustful of each other and less able to collaborate. This might lead to infighting or people being protective of their part of the empire. Our confidence goes through the floor. We feel isolated. Stuck.

That’s where Julie and her team are right now. Perhaps you are too.

Strengths Partnership has called this vicious circle of negative emotions and narrowing of choices the path of limitationsTM.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

There is another path to take. The path of possibilityTM. Strengths Partnership’s model below illustrates this well:

strengths partnership path of possibility

As I have said before, and will no doubt say again – the way to break a negative emotional cycle is to become aware of it. To recognise where you’re at, how your emotions are impacting on your behaviour and then take control. Make a conscious effort to be positive.

And if there was ever a time to take back control – this is it.

Julie smiles gently. “I know,” she says, “we’re all reeling from what has happened and we’re all very worried about what the implications are for us and this company. Feeling shocked and angry are natural responses to what has happened, but these are also very destructive emotions. They stop our brains from thinking clearly about what faces us.”

She pauses to sip her coffee. “So what I want us to do now is park our fears and worries. Let’s try, for the next hour or so, to think positively. What opportunities does this EU result hold for this business? For our customers? For our contracts? Ann, would you like to start us off?”

It takes a while for the team to think of some positives, but when they do, the ideas start to flow.

“Is it a good time to renegotiate with suppliers?” asks Ann.

“Perhaps it’s a chance to grow our export market,” says Nigel, “or we could focus all our efforts on the UK market, emphasising our British roots.”

“Is it an opportunity to undercut bigger businesses who may struggle to adapt quickly enough to the changing marketplace?” says Andrea.

“Yes, if we can move quickly enough, we’ll be miles ahead of our competition,” agrees Derek.

The effect of this positive thinking is dramatic. The team feels like a team again. People see others trying to work things out, coming up with ideas and that helps rebuild trust and cohesiveness. There’s a sense of connection and meaning.

They haven’t changed the external situation, but they have changed the way they respond to it. And by opening up their minds to opportunities, they start to see them everywhere.

The next few years will be a real test of leadership – not just of the country as a whole but of businesses, large and small.

In these first few weeks, helping your team move from an initially emotional reaction to a more positive and rational position will be key, and have a significant impact on how your business performs and adapts to the new circumstances we find ourselves in.

For more on how we react to negative news read this and how to take control read this.

If you liked the fable-story style of this blog, check out Strengths Partnership’s book ‘Optimise Your Strengths‘ which was my inspiration for this blog.

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