Brexit – just keep calm and carry on?


March 28th, 2017

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Whether it was shock or elation that people felt on the morning of 24 June 2016, there was a shared feeling that nothing was going to be quite the same again. It is this feeling more than any other that gives the label to the period we are currently living though – and that is “uncertainty”.

Today, after a nine month hiatus, Theresa May will formally give notice of the UK’s withdrawal from EU membership.  Whether this is a hard or soft Brexit and what this might mean for our organisations remains unclear for the immediate future.

I am reminded of the American politician Donald Rumsfeld who famously purloined the phrase “known knowns and known unknowns” from the work of two American psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham who were responsible for creating (in 1955) a tool (which we sometimes use in our programmes at Roffey Park) known as Johari Window. This tool focuses on the idea of “unknown unknowns” and is used to help individuals gain insights into parts of their personality which (to them) are hidden. The phrase “unknown unknowns” is often used in project management to describe phenomena that are effectively risks that come from unforeseen quarters: they differ from risks that are broadly known (“known unknowns”).

Brexit today is a known unknown: the UK is leaving the European Union but under what circumstances exactly, no one really knows right now. Under these circumstances and in the absence of “facts” about Brexit, a reasonable reaction might be to “keep calm and carry on”. And as our data from The Management Agenda highlights, this is very much what’s going on in organisations where views of managers on the impact of Brexit are at best vague, so it is no wonder that uncertainty is prevalent.


Perhaps the dearth of reliable information for senior leaders to share means they have little to say and therefore end up saying little or nothing (which only serves to feed anxiety). And as the implications of Brexit become clearer, it is likely that for many people, the unease will become palpable, while for others, the tumultuous changes ahead will be energising and exciting.

But one thing we do know is that managing organisational change successfully is an ongoing challenge and our latest Management Agenda data highlights this again with over two-fifths of managers not feeling adequately supported in coping with change.  What’s more, more senior managers feel better supported than middle managers who are often at the sharp end of organisational change initiatives.  When asked about what they would value most in helping them cope with change, greater clarity, consistency and transparent communication was the answer.

As leaders, we may think that the best way to lead our organisations through Brexit is to say little or nothing until we have all the answers.  But actually the opposite might be true and opening up to your organisation about the potentials and pitfalls of Brexit could be a very powerful way of harnessing the collective power of your organisation to face the future outside the EU with confidence.

As leaders, one thing is clear – the “known known” therefore is that leading organisations through the years to come – is going to be full of surprises.  We can’t wait!