The Brexit blogs: working through change

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Cindy Vallance explores how the Kubler-Ross curve can be used in the work place.

My last blog encouraged leaders to take an active role in supporting staff to share their feelings in relation to Brexit, particularly given the complex and emotionally charged nature of this particular change. The UK, and the higher education sector as a whole, continue to receive a daily stream of Brexit-related announcements and uncertainty has not decreased, nor is it likely to in the near future.

University leaders are well-used to change. However, the scale of Brexit has had an unprecedented impact that continues to reverberate. Once you and your staff have named and shared your initial feelings, which may be grief or shock, and opened up the door for further discussion – then what? How do leaders use the change model and deal with feelings once they are unwrapped?[1]

Firstly, working through change is not linear and people may move backwards as well as forward through the phases.

During this phase of shock or denial, people need to take time to adjust to a new reality. They will want further information to understand what is happening and will need to know how to get help. Regular communication is the critical element here – web-based written communications, links and FAQs (ideally that have been tailored for the context of each institution) [2] can be helpful but it is also important to retain the human element. Some questions can be answered in writing, but there will also be those individuals who want to have direct face-to-face conversations, particularly if they feel they are being very personally affected. Even if universities do not have the answers yet, people will want to know that someone is listening.

When working through any kind of change, feelings of anger, concern and depression often follow shock and denial. This phase is often experienced as resistance and this is often the most challenging element of change since, if it is not managed well, the organisation can quickly lose the goodwill of its people and may begin to descend into a sense of chaos. There is little value in denying people’s feelings. It can be difficult to predict where the pressure points will be and the unexpected will undoubtedly occur. However, this is where leaders can use the diversity of their experience to determine what questions people may have. Understanding the thematic sector and organisational issues as well as the specificity of individual concerns will enable leaders to begin to plan and prepare clear responses.

Eventually, some certainty on the full extent of Brexit changes will begin to emerge and it will be possible for people to explore and reach a level of acceptance of the new reality. It is at this point that people will start to consider ways to make this new reality a success. This is a phase of testing possibilities, experimenting with and discovering new options with regard to what the change will mean. Learning can take place at this stage but working through the options presented by the changes requires time and support by organisational leaders. Building in time for adjustment should be incorporated into any plans.

The final stage of integration and commitment occurs when people begin to embrace new ways and find positive opportunities that will enable universities and the sector as a whole to continue to succeed – a sector to be proud of – one that changes individual lives and makes a global difference to society. It may be difficult for some to see this as a possible future but it is this stage that is most worth working towards.

Cindy, is the Leadership Foundation’s Assistant Director, Membership. She liaises with higher education institutions in London and across the South and East of England developing relationships with our members, coordinating events and leadership development initiatives that support and complement individual institutions’ strategies and the higher education agenda.

[1] Healing the wounds, Martin Milton, Regent’s University London, THE Letter, 7 July 2016.
[2] Brexit FAQs for universities and students, UUK, and Brexit: What will it mean for universities, students and academics? Dame Julia Goodfellow, UUK President, Telegraph, 1 July 2016.