The rise of the angry voter: observations and questions for business (UPDATED)

2016 continues to shape up as a year of the “angry voter” in the West, as evidenced by such phenomena as Donald Trump’s unexpectedly high poll numbers at this late stage of the U.S presidential campaign, the narrow victory of the “Brexit” referendum to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union, and strong electoral showings and polling numbers for anti-establishment political parties elsewhere in Europe.

With very little academic or practitioner research on the current situation, it’s difficult to tell directly what the current trend towards voter anger means for businesses and for business communicators.  But it’s worth looking at the question – to what extent does a person’s political anger spill into his or her behavior as an employee or customer?

Here are some observations:

  • Angry voters are angry because they are insecure

Fears and dissatisfaction about economic standing and social status have long been recognized as drivers of voter anger, and that insecurity will almost certainly manifest itself in customer and employee behavior.

  • Not every voter is an angry voter

Even with the surge in popularity for anti-establishment and anti-immigrant parties and candidates in the West, they are not the majority.  Even support for Brexit was barely over 50%.  So voter anger is a strong trend but not the whole picture. It’s something to account for, but not something that is yet overwhelming .

Some practical questions:

1)   Should you adjust your tone?

Brand voice and internal leadership tone often reflect a one-way flow of power in the relationship, but employees and customers who are challenging the establishment at the voting booth may well bristle at being talked at, or in the case of the use of the “corporate We,” spoken for without their explicit consent.

2)    Is there any shared dissatisfaction that can be used to build common ground?

Although angry voters have been presented as being driven by such factors as racism and xenophobia, there may be issues of common dissatisfaction where businesses can tap into and get ahead of voter and employee anger and be seen as making a tangible contribution to address matters of common interest

3) Is this a time for organizations to be brave and challenge misconceptions?

The idea of diversity in societies and organizations is implicitly being challenged by the tone of the current political climate.  But studies show that diversity benefits organizations even when feared by some employees. Could this be the right time to make that case in a fact-based and emotionally resonant way?

4) Is it time to change the messengers?

At a time when mainstream corporate leaders as well as political leaders are being viewed with increasing suspicion, could this be a good time to think about making better use of mid-level employees and trusted peers as advocates of organizational messages? This year’s version of the Edelman Trust survey has some interesting insights in this regard (see slide 21).


Recognizing that the dissatisfaction among voters has the potential to color their relationships as customers and employees is a step that can help safeguard organizational credibility in volatile times. At the same time, the current political climate presents an opportunity for organizations to address pressing issues that could strengthen their relationships, and draw more heavily on the credibility of line employees as channels and advocates. Organizations should not ignore the changes in the political environment, and there may be opportunities to seize by looking at the broader picture.


Lesson from Brexit: never ever (ever ever) underestimate your opposition

As a dual US/UK citizen living in mainland Europe, Brexit is something I’ve watched with deep, often emotional interest.  Indeed, the personal angle – 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 – 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 one’s opposition. Or, to borrow a phrase from Rule Britannia, the oft-chanted tune during England’s ill-fated Euro 2016 campaign, never EVER EVER EVER underestimate your opposition.

Opposition and resistance have many places to hide these days. It can be buried in no-longer-accurate political polling based both on dishonest responses and inaccurate representation of the communication preferences of the electorate, or rumble beneath the surface of corporate cultures where stated agreement with organizational ambitions gives way to active indifference or outright sabotage.

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 Brexit’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: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog”

All things being equal, emotion wins, and it certainly wins over logic.  In this case people wanting to “take back control” beat people who didn’t want to have to get visas for their trips to Paris and who were concerned about the future of the country’s financial services industry.  The fact that opponents had offered no actionable definition of “take back control” 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 “politically incorrect” 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.  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.  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.  In both cases, it is possible to gauge enthusiasm for a given initiative by seeing whether a participant gives it an “appropriate” 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.  Far more valuable is an understanding of whom the supporters and opponents are, and how their levels of influence flow.  For more information about conducting influencer research, download my free guide.