Brexit: Preparing your business for the unpredictable

Is there anything that can be done to prepare a business for Brexit? Jan Hills, Partner at Head, Heart and Brain gives us her thoughts on preparing a business for Brexit and the challenges that presents.

How should businesses deal with the uncertainty of Brexit?
Kaleesha Rajamantri, project manager and digital strategist at IRN, spoke to Jan Hills, Partner at Head, Heart and Brain, who will be participating in the Brexit Business Planning Forum panel discussion “Navigating through uncertainty: What role can HR play in Brexit planning?” on Thursday 7th September 2017 at 09.35.

A brief overview of your experience/expertise

I set up Head Heart + Brain to change the way businesses are managed and led. The consultancy takes the findings from neuroscience and applies them to leadership and business practice. I have a Masters qualification in NeuroLeadership, and created our brain-savvy approach to leadership development and business consulting.Before Head Heart + Brain I ran my own successful consulting business and prior to that was COO at an investment bank. That role was about getting the most from two merged businesses so I have a huge amount of experience in leadership and dealing with practical business issues.I am the author of three books including Brain-savvy Business: 8 principles from neuroscience and how to apply them. You can learn more at

Is it actually possible to plan for Brexit?

If we are talking here about a people plan to help people cope with whatever the impact of Brexit maybe in your company I’m not sure there is much we can do in the conventional sense of planning, like having forecasts, goals and targets. However, I do thing we can help people prepare themselves. One of the issues for people is the way Brexit is framed. Politics aside most of the coverage is negative. Endless headlines about worse case scenarios which in the main are light on facts and heavy on fear and that plays havoc with our brain. It creates a sense of threat or what is called the inhibitory mode in the brain. Our brain us very alert to threat. It’s a survival mechanism.When you’re a hunter looking like lunch to the predators that surround you, it’s easy to see why our ability to perceive threats and react to them quickly is an essential survival skill, but in modern-day business... not so useful. 
Read more stories from the Brexit Series:
Research by the University of Wisconsin Madison has found that while fear makes us more alert to our local environment it interferes with our ability to use our ‘executive’ brain, and limits analysis, planning and decision-making. Just the areas of the brain we need to think about Brexit. And when we are in this mode we tend to close down, become risk adverse and cautious. We also tend to be less open to new ideas and new people, we focus on what could go wrong rather than what are the opportunities. Does this sound like how you feel when listening to the 7 o’clock news?But back to evolution, when you arrived back with the kill and the tribe knew they would eat that night their smiles and congratulations and the tastiest cut of meat for you prompted the reward response. The reward response operates as the mirror-opposite of threat: we feel positively about a person so we look forward seeing them. We feel good about a situation so we’re more willing to engage, more open to ideas, probably more creative as well. Again, most of this happens unconsciously, but it still influences our behaviour. Some people have a light-bulb moment when they learn about threat and reward responses in the brain. They’re inspired to work out new strategies to overcome these unconscious responses and do what’s best for their career. This is the type of help you can give your staff. Help them understand why they feel concerned and are probably acting from a sense of threat.

How do you help people deal with ambiguity?

The focus on the concerns about Brexit together with the way the brain works, noticing threat more than reward. For survival purposes we evolved to notice something like 35 times more threat than reward and this is probably why the media and politicians also focus on issues rather than opportunities. Equates to a negativity bias.HR can tip this negativity bias by getting more balance into the ‘Brexit debate’. What are the opportunities? And if there are none consider if that’s your negativity bias! Instead of only talking about the issues, point to how your company can take advantage of Brexit. And if you really are stuck on that at least help people recognise why they may be acting a bit ‘out of character’ understanding about threat and the brain gives a different and novel focus, which the brain likes. There are tools, which help with this.

How would you advise UK businesses prepare their work force to navigate these uncertain times? 

Pushing the threat / reward buttons We respond to both threat and reward at work at four pressure-points identified by neuroscience research:
  • Certainty:our confidence that we know what the future holds
  • Options:the extent to which we feel we have choices
  • Reputation:our social ranking and understanding of our relative importance to other people
  • Equity:our sense of fairness
These four elements activate either the ‘primary reward’ or the ‘primary threat’ circuitry of our brains. A job-restructuring that seems to be patently unfair activates the same brain networks as someone standing over us with a baseball bat. Being thanked at a public meeting activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a cash bonus. The reactions happen automatically and instantaneously before we’ve even had a chance to consider our responses rationally. As you apply the CORE model to Brexit at work, you’ll find that you identify threats more often than rewards. That doesn’t mean you’re particularly touchy or insecure – it’s because our brains are wired to prioritise threats because they’re critical to our survival. At work that means we need many more rewards than might be expected in order to feel good about a new initiative. And one threat can undo the benefits of many team lunches and positive assurances.

So just how many opportunities can come from Brexit?

No doubt you have noticed that one of the CORE elements is certainty. The human brain likes certainty and feels threat when there is none. The brain looks for patterns – it’s been described as a pattern recognition machine. If the anticipated pattern is recognised, dopamine is released and we feel a sense of reward. If we don’t see the expected pattern an ‘error’ message makes us feel uncomfortable. This is our threat response: the feeling we get when something we were sure of doesn’t happen, or when situations feel ambiguous. That’s Brexit.At work, the perceived level of certainty impacts the way decisions are made. In a cycle that has come to be known as the Ellsberg paradox, people take fewer risks when there is ambiguity about a situation, which results in us looking for certainty to avoid the sense of threat. We need to increase our comfort with uncertainty to be more tolerant and responsive to ambiguity and future change.Part of the issue with uncertainty is we tend to generalise it to everything. While no one knows what Brexit will actually be like you can increase people sense of certainty about what will remain the same, even little things help. What do you know with certainty won’t change no matter what Brexit we end up with? Companies with a clear purpose will benefit here because of that provided certainty. “Within any Brexit we will always… (fill in your purpose).Again, forewarned is for armed. Help people understand why they are feeling the way they are and facilitate them finding the things they are certain about at work. If all else fails, look to the other CORE elements to provide some balance. “My advice would be to use the CORE model to diagnose where the threat and reward is. Getting people to do this for themselves is more powerful than telling them your version. If people work it out for themselves there is more ownership and more trust.” Options: Sometimes in life it feels like someone else is pulling the strings, it’s hard to feel in control. This is a classic issue with Brexit and I guess the point of this conference. How do we as HR take come control and exercise some choice? It’s worse for people if the organisation makes assumptions about people’s goals and flexibility without checking in. So, find out how your work force really feel, and then ask them what would help. Give them some control, you can’t control Brexit or even what the government negotiate but you can give people in your work force more options in how they work, how you involve them in responding and how you prepare contingencies. Involving people in creating and understanding the options they do have has the positive by-product of engaging them.Amy Arnsten professor of neuroscience and psychology at Yale studies what happens when people feel they have no options, looking at the effects of limbic system arousal on prefrontal cortex functioning. When we have no choices, prefrontal cortex functioning is reduced and in some cases, shuts down completely. This is the feeling of a ‘blank mind’. You suddenly are at a loss for words, can’t remember what you want to say and feel bewildered.If you have choices, or even the illusion of choice, cognitive functions are preserved. Even a limited number of options, or options which are not particularly attractive, can change our perception of an event from stressful to tolerable. For example, having a say in the pattern of work can improve productivity and engagement.Reputation: Our reputation at work is all-important: it’s about our social standing within any group we belong to, we all carry a mental map of where we stand in comparison to other people, whether that’s in the family, the darts club or the team at work. Reputation can be a bit of a mixed blessing in business. When things are going well our reputation rises: when we receive public praise, learn new skills and help other people. But our reputation is reduced when we are criticised, get negative feedback, especially in public, or our skills are required less than someone else’s and of course this is one of the Brexit fears for some industries and the people within them.Unless you’re a hermit in a cave everyone’s workplace is a social environment: relationships and ‘social standing’ matter a lot – we’re all keenly aware of our social standing compared to others. “I’m better regarded than Fred, but Nikhil’s social standing is greater than mine.”When our reputation is enhanced we get a boost of dopamine and a sense of reward. Being left out of a group in some way (damaging our perceived reputation) activates the same regions of the brain as when we experience physical pain. It literally hurts.Boost your work force’s sense of reputation by asking their opinion, getting them to help each other, have them volunteer and help others and emphasis being a team, “We are all in this together…” Equity: One of the things that many men and women refer to is that they’re unfairly treated at work. They tell us there’s a lack of transparency, decisions are made without explanation and information and resources unfairly allocated, based it seems on favourites rather than need. Organisations that lack equity are less profitable, have lower engagement levels and higher job dissatisfaction. If you senior management are in closed session stratagising about Brexit with the hope of coming out with a wonderful strategy you are highly likely to be pushing the equity button for the work force. Talking about the facts as your know them, opening up the debate and being honest that you don’t have all the answers is a much better strategy. A sense of fairness is ‘hard-wired’ to how we work with others. Naomi Eisenberger a neuroscientist at UCLA has found that any kind of unfair treatment activates the same neurological pathways as being physically hurt. And it’s been demonstrated in other laboratory tests that our sense of injustice will be triggered by stress, tiredness and overwork. Other research found more sensitivity to a lack of equal treatment when the amount of serotonin, which is involved in feeling content, was manipulated. When people have low commitment to a task, and low levels of serotonin (the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of contentment), they respond more strongly to perceived unfairness. Line managers and HR departments beware... Given the national sense of unfairness played up by the media one way you can help your work force through is by making sure your organisation is scrupulously fair and it’s important that equity applies to both the process and the outcome. People may not like the outcome of however Brexit impacts your company but if they see you have been fair they will be less alarmed.One thing worth noticing about CORE is what may be perceived as a reward for some groups can be a threat to others. Being more transparent and involving people will be a reward for the work force but my increase the sense of uncertainty for leaders and make them feel their options are reduced if they have to take into account the workers views.

What are the best options to protect your work force?

Well I think the question is should you even try to protect people? The truth is people will feel uncertain and threatened. People know there is no answer. So it’s better, I think to be honest, focus on what you can control, boost people’s sense of options, reputation and equity and apply the CORE elements to your communication to the work force and your decisions as the implications become clearer. And involve people, be transparent, have a clear sense of purpose which is beyond Brexit and keep your figures crossed! 
Read David Sapsted's article on Establishing Right to Remain – which discusses the uncertainty over immigration which the UK faces following Brexit – in the Summer 2017 issue of Relocate Magazine.
For related news and features, visit our Brexit section.

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