Lesson from Brexit: never ever (ever ever) underestimate your opposition
As a dual US/UK citizen living in mainland Europe, Brexit is something Iâ€™ve watched with deep, often emotional interest.Â Indeed, the personal angle â€“ wrapped up in potentially losing the right to live and work anywhere I want to work in Europe just as I am starting a consulting business â€“ has made it difficult to see what lessons from Brexit are relevant to professional communicators, be they internal, external or political.
But one lesson cries out: to never underestimate oneâ€™s opposition. Or, to borrow a phrase from Rule Britannia, the oft-chanted tune during Englandâ€™s ill-fated Euro 2016 campaign, never EVER EVER EVER underestimate your opposition.
The invisibility of opposition makes it hard to challenge, much less counter, with often disastrous results, such as the complacency leading to the woefully inadequate voter mobilization campaign of Brexitâ€™s opponents, who were beset by low turnout among those most sympathetic to their position.
But two insights from my own experience in American politics can provide some guidance to those managing initiatives and campaigns through hostile territory:
INSIGHT 1: â€œItâ€™s not the size of the dog in the fight, itâ€™s the size of the fight in the dogâ€
All things being equal, emotion wins, and it certainly wins over logic.Â In this case people wanting to â€œtake back controlâ€ beat people who didnâ€™t want to have to get visas for their trips to Paris and who were concerned about the future of the countryâ€™s financial services industry.Â The fact that opponents had offered no actionable definition of â€œtake back controlâ€ was, if anything a plus, as it afforded the opportunity to channel intense emotion towards a ballot choice than towards a set of actionable policy outcomes.
Moreover, in elections, as voters holding â€œpolitically incorrectâ€ are less likely to share them honestly with pollsters, being able to sense an undercurrent of anger and agitate and mobilize your supporters is essential especially when the polls appear narrowly favorable.
INSIGHT 2. Identify supporters AND opponents
Even in a business situation where open dissent is not tolerated, it is still possible to identify supporters and opponents.Â While in a campaign one can ask a person directly how he or she will vote, in the business world, in the business world, there are other ways to ask the question, and assess attitudes.
Two offer viable insights.Â The first is to ask the employee/leader to identify and rank his or her top priorities, and the second to ask the participant to provide a definition to a number of commonly known phrases and project names.Â In both cases, it is possible to gauge enthusiasm for a given initiative by seeing whether a participant gives it an â€œappropriateâ€ level of importance, and whether he or she uses language compatible with a position of support.
Combining with influencer research
As the Brexit result showed, it is hardly useful to have an estimate of the eventual vote result, especially if its already known that the inputs are flawed.Â Far more valuable is an understanding of whom the supporters and opponents are, and how their levels of influence flow.Â For more information about conducting influencer research, download my free guide.