In the space of 12 months, Britain has left the European Union and Donald Trump — a candidate no reasonable pundit took seriously a year ago — is now the leader of the free world.
The media is still full of questions. How did this happen? Who voted for it? But perhaps the more interesting question is, how did the pundits and pollsters get it so wrong and what can we learn from it for our organisations?
One theory stands out above the rest: there was an undetected feedback loop in both samples. Put simply, both Brexit and the US election presented two choices, one of which was regarded as largely unfashionable in mainstream conversations.
This socially unfavourable choice causes a person who supports that view to second guess who they share their opinion with. Instead, they share it when they feel it is safe to do so. They share it when it counts. And then we get vote shock.
In many organisations the same effect is likely to be at work when you undertake an employee engagement survey or a pulse check. In each case, these instruments suffer in that they have “ideal results”.
When confronted by a perceived apparatus of the establishment, employees are less likely to share opinions that deviate from these ideal responses — for fear of reprisal.
The characteristics that make them attractive to leaders and human resources departments — external benchmarking, statistical normalisation and longitudinal analysis — mean such tools are more prone than opinion polls to gaming.
When a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a useful measure. Put simply, your people know what the right answers are — even if it is not what they think.
If they hold unfashionable opinions, they may well be under pressure to give the “right answers” instead. Just as we saw with Brexit and the US election.
So what then do we do? We know uncertainty in this type of work increases with distance from the action. The more separated we are from the source, the further we are away from knowing the real opinions prevailing within our organisations.
The right approach is simple but unglamorous. Ensure you don’t put all your trust in the polls. Go and talk to your people instead. Watch what they do. And join the conversations already taking place.
Find out for yourself, first person. Generously listen to them — actually listen. Listen to their concerns, goals and fears. In due course, they will learn to confide in you. They will share what keeps them up at night and not blindly feed you what they think is expected of them.
Yes, it is easier to do mass polling and, yes, the numbers can prove comforting — particularly when our leaders start ensuring those numbers head in the right direction. But if Trump and Brexit have taught us anything, it is that it is better to know uncomfortable truths than to remain blissfully ignorant until the day of reckoning.
Chris Maxwell is a co-founder at 10,000 Hours, a firm specialising in helping leaders work in uncertainty.
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