Brexit – the consequence of a failure to communicate?

Whatever your opinion on the EU Referendum result, most political commentators and business leaders were shocked by it.

Brexit – the consequence of a failure to communicate?

The polls didn’t predict the outcome and those who had expected things to start returning to normal on the 24th awoke to a new landscape.

The markets reacted by plunging and the Governor of the Bank of England called for calm. As the political resignations began, social media came alive with comment and vitriol. Families were divided and communities felt under siege. Across the channel, the governments of other member states were stunned at the British voters’ views but then began to face calls from their own electorates for change.

There are those who argue that the referendum would never have taken place if the outcome had been expected. If nothing else, it’s been a lesson in the importance of communication. Lawyers have a saying – don’t ask the question if you don’t already know the answer.

A workforce is a population

It’s been clear for a long time that within the EU people have different ambitions and that the views of the member states have not always been aligned. The EU is a giant organisation, a mass of cultures, languages, histories and economic priorities. It is no wonder that it has its struggles. But the EU could be seen as a representation of what can happen in a multi-national corporation that doesn’t have alignment between its communication and its strategy.

In today’s Europe, a workforce can be made up of individuals of many nationalities and backgrounds. Attitudes and priorities do differ across national boundaries, but also within organisations, age groups and levels of educational attainment. Employees are like populations and in time develop their own particular heritage and culture. Any business that seeks to excel has to be aware of this. Achieving strategic goals requires employee engagement and that depends on effective communication which understands the nature of the audience.

The rules of effective communication are few and simple. It should be timely, relevant, understood, appropriate, and two-way – because listening matters as much as, if not more so than, dictating. Those few rules gloss over the difficulties – the real barriers of language and culture, and practical things like time-zones and the timing of national holidays and religious festivals. Understanding audience behaviour is also critical to message delivery. Email that may be effective in one culture could be ignored in another which prefers and respects a traditional oral briefing.

Leaping the barriers

We shouldn’t get hung-up on the barriers. With modern technology, the capability for getting the right message to the right audience, at the right time and in the right format, is huge. Match the format to the content, understand the platforms available, the working practices, the culture, expectations and perceptions and then send the messages in the language that will be understood.

Then – and this is critical – listen. Check and respond. Use the feedback, tailor and adapt. Find out who reads messages and when, and monitor what happens to their behaviour as a result. In other words, find out what works and use it. Once communication works, and it’s two-way, you’re in a far stronger position to make progress and changes.

The political leaders received a message they weren’t expecting last week. But it’s one they could have received much earlier if they’d known how to communicate effectively with the electorate. Don’t fall into their bad habits.

Mark Barlow is CEO at AppLearn