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As the only professional body dedicated to internal communication in the UK, we exist to help organisations and people succeed through promoting internal communication of the highest standard.

Since the referendum result was announced on 24 June, organisations of all sectors, shapes and sizes have been asking themselves the same question: “What does it mean for us?” And, in most cases, the honest answer at this stage is: “We don’t really know.”

There are just so many variables. How long will the economic shock continue and how deep will it bite? What will be the consequences of the re-shaping of our political landscape? How quickly will we initiate the process of leaving the EU? How long will it take? What kind of deal will be negotiated? Taking all that into account, it’s hard for any organisation to face the future with certainty.

For internal communicators, managing that uncertainty is the real challenge now; because – like markets – workforces don’t respond well to it. In her recent book Neuroscience for Organizational Change Hilary Scarlett explains how the human brain is wired to find comfort in predictability, and to treat a lack of predictability as something that must be resolved before comfort can be achieved once more. The consequence of this is that people, when faced with uncertainty at work (or anywhere else), become distracted and less productive. They also try to fill the gaps to achieve greater certainty… even if this is not really possible. Think about the last time an important development in your life was out of your hands. Maybe you were waiting on exam results or for an offer on your house. Did you feel anxious? Was your brain on overdrive trying to predict what the outcome would be? It’s this natural process of trying to resolve uncertain situations that can prove tricky for organisations.

According to Karl Weick’s work on sensemaking (something explored as part of the Masters in internal communication management) people extract ‘cues’ from all sorts of places – maybe an interview on TV, something a colleague said, an evasive answer from a manager or a comment from a customer. People use these cues to build up a narrative that they can accept, even if it isn’t ultimately accurate. What’s more is that that sensemaking is social – so when groups of people are in close proximity, these narratives spread and become widely adopted (this is what we mean when we talk about the ‘grapevine’). These narratives can prove incredibly tough to counter once they have emerged. One of Robert Cialdini’s six key principles of influence is ‘commitment and consistency’ – ie. once people have said they believe something out loud, it’s very difficult to get them to break from this belief.

To summarise, in the post-referendum world we can expect to see the following in our organisations:
  • uncertainty about what the ultimate impact will be
  • employees striving to overcome that uncertainty by arriving at their own narratives through a process of collective sensemaking
  • narratives emerging that may often be inaccurate, but will be extremely difficult to shift.

As internal communicators, what can we do to help manage all of this? That’s by no means a simple question, but here are some ideas inspired by some of the sources referenced above.
  • It may be that all you can say is ‘we need to wait and see’ at the moment. If that is the case, keep repeating it. This will at least help people to put their natural sensemaking in context.
  • Reinforce the things that aren’t likely to change – whether that’s strategy, shared values, product, location or something else. Anything that people can safely include in their vision of the future will help to mitigate the effects of uncertainty.
  • Accept that people will want to talk about Brexit – even if there is little more information that you can give. Don’t try and shut these conversations down. Facilitate them, encourage leaders to participate in them, and always bring people back to what you can (and cannot) be certain of.
  • Use networks to make yourself aware of emerging narratives, and communications channels to offer cues that may help to shape these in helpful ways.
  • Concentrate on the here and now. Communicate your organisation’s short-term goals, celebrate when these are achieved and increase individual recognition. In uncertain times, do whatever you can to keep morale up.

Of course, you should also communicate any clear plans that do emerge in a timely and transparent way. But for many practitioners, the reality is that this may be some way off. Our world is an uncertain one at the moment – and by understanding and responding to this, internal communicators can make our workforces and organisations more resilient.

Oli Howard, IoIC Board Director

    Voice Online 1st December 2021 In the world we live in – a world that should be equal, but isn’t – being an ally is a moral imperative. This means going out of your way to actively support and advance marginalised individuals, communities or groups,....
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Internal Comms Insights 17th November 2021
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