UK Election Fallout: Time to Adapt

No knockout on the vote, but PM Theresa May can still take engagement steps companies follow.

You’ve been leading your team for a year and you think everything is going just dandy. Then you get the 360-degree feedback only to find that you simply aren’t connecting with your people. Your performance grading feels like a kick in the teeth. 

That must be what last week’s UK general election results felt like if you were in Prime Minister Theresa May’s shoes. The somewhat unexpected way the vote went highlights important leadership lessons which May is no doubt quickly adapting. 

These are steps savvy companies use as well--or should. The first lesson is different people need to be engaged in different ways. “It has clearly shown that there is a need for politicians to recognize the many pockets in society,” says Jonathan Magee, head of Public Sector Consulting at Korn Ferry Hay Group. “In particular, the young people in society have a different way of engaging than do older populations.” In other words, if young people are on social media and leaders want to reach them, then that’s the forum for communicating. Of course, it’s more than just young versus old. There are many different communities in every society and in every business. 

The next lesson is that engagement isn’t just about sending a message; it is also crucial to listen to what concerns people and what resonates with them. “Something wasn’t chiming with the electorate,” says Magee. “That might be Brexit; it might be lack of participation in leader debates.” May famously had a colleague fill in for her in a prime-time debate with other party leaders. It wasn’t just May’s message that didn’t resonate. Scottish nationalists also lost ground possibly because their leader was seeking a second referendum on independence from the U.K. The last vote on the matter was in 2014, and it seems that some voters wanted to leave the issue alone.

Then there is managing in times of uncertainty. “May initially ran on Brexit to strengthen her hand in negotiations,” writes Jason Lejonvarn, managing director, global investment strategist, Mellon Capital in London. The election the prime minister called just a few weeks before the June 8 date was designed to help garner a mandate from the voters to charge ahead with tough talks with the European Union. “Now whether a Conservative-led coalition government will change the Brexit strategy is another 'unknown known' to add to the unclear Brexit strategy.” The unknown piece of the equation is something that leaders need to get used to, especially when the matters at hand are fluid. “The leadership style of I know everything and I need to be in control of everything isn’t going to wash in this society,” says Magee. In other words, leaders need to acknowledge that they don’t know everything and communicate that to their team.

Openness isn’t something most people think about when negotiating. The phrase, "wearing your cards on your sleeve" comes straight out of the gambling world, where no one would be open to a competitor. Still, the message from the general election may be that the cards were held too close to the vest. Business, unlike a card game, is a team activity. Letting employees know the inner workings of what is happening can be helpful, if for no other reason than people like to feel included. Magee sums it up: “The leadership job hasn’t changed, but perhaps there needs to be more openness about the E.U. negotiation.”