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.