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Freedom! – 5 lessons from the 2014 Scottish referendum

We are still a United Kingdom and the bricklayers of Tyneside getting ready to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall, can stand down for a while.

You cannot fail to be impressed by the level of engagement the recent referendum in Scotland has created on both sides of the border. What can we learn from this unprecedented level of engagement and how can we replicate this in the way we conduct conversations and debates in our organisations?

QuestionOne of the lessons that I believe can be replicated is the stark simplicity of the choice of question being asked. In the referendum it was a stroke of genius to keep the question simple: ‘To Stay’ or ‘To Go’? The simple ‘Yes / No’
frame for the question provided a stark choice and as such, succeeded in sparking off numerous conversations around the kitchen tables of the land in an attempt to find some answers that made sense. In too many organisations I fear we try and get too clever, asking overly complicated, or worse leading questions, that can at times be patronising to the people we are seeking to engage. Such questions run the risk of simply stimulating defensive attitudes and hardening long held views.  Great questions should require some real reflection, careful thought and some imagination to answer.

Lesson #1: When we want genuine engagement we have to learn to ask better quality questions.

Empathetic ListeningThe thing that struck me as I followed the referendum debate is that for the most part, the conversations and discussions were carried out with a good degree of mutual respect and empathetic listening on all sides. Setting aside the somewhat staged head-to-head television debates, which were designed to be somewhat ‘gladiatorial’ in nature, a real attempt was made to appreciate the other side’s point of view. The Scots demonstrated well the principle that it is perfectly possible to agree to disagree, agreeably. It was an Irishman who prior to the referendum lamented that if the vote was a Yes then it would be the first fight for independence in which not a shot was fired and no one died!

Lesson #2: Listen to all perspectives and understand their views, it helps inform your decision.

The debate had all the elements required to ensure a decision was actually taken. It had a clear immovable milestone, as referendum day was a dream with a date. The prevailing discussions had plenty of emotion on display along with some cool rational arguments being calmly voiced. The debate appealed to both the heart – it was a once in a lifetime chance to break free from what was clearly unpopular Westminster rule; and to the head – how are we going to afford to be independent and what currency will we use.

On that aspect of the debate the comedian Kevin Bridges suggestion that the Scots should adopt ‘Smackaroonies’ as their national currency is one that I think should be implemented across the UK as it would make us all smile.Kevin Bridges

I recall Senator Mitchell, when talking about how he helped broker the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, explaining what it takes to reach a consensus decision that has a chance of success. One of the key ingredients he talked about was the presence of an immovable deadline. Once the immovable date loomed large on the horizon people had to shift their views, compromises are possible and new thinking and new possibilities begin to emerge.

Lesson #3: Set immoveable milestone dates for decisions as this helps the engagement process.  

The result was clearly a lot closer than the establishment predicted it would be when they agreed to the referendum. The late surge in the opinion polls for the ‘Yes’ campaign really unsettled the powers that be. It was somewhat unedifying to see Westminster politicians scrabbling around in the week before voting day, hastily pulling together, ill thought through promises and pledges that will cause some interesting regional aftershocks now the vote is over. It left me thinking that their contingency planning left a lot to be desired.

One Sunday Times reporter mentioned the stark contrast in energy levels between the two campaigns when he interviewed the opposing sides’ campaign leaders several weeks before the vote. The ‘Yes’ campaign was buzzing and had clearly mobilised their troops, by contrast the ‘No’ campaign was relaxed, laid back and clearly expecting the result they predicted to be delivered without too much effort.

Lesson #4: Enthusiasm, passion and hope will win over a lot of people, but in the end both rational and emotional arguments have to make sense.

One of the key factors that stimulated such a high level of engagement and a record breaking turn out in the polls, (just shy of 85%), was that the decision clearly mattered to the people who live in Scotland.

SurveysI recently took my car in for a minor repair at the local dealership and immediately got an email asking me to fill in their on-line service questionnaire. I have filled this in several times before but on this occasion decided to skip the offer. The next day I got an automated email noting I had not filled in the questionnaire and exhorting me to do so as it was ‘very important’ that the garage received feedback on the service they provided. The problem was that having filled in the questionnaire many time before, I knew the majority of the questions I was about to be asked and on this occasion I would be replying ‘not applicable’ to most of them, so it was a pointless exercise and a waste of my time.

In my experience far too many workforce opinion survey’s fall into the same trap and get the same response. They contain too many questions, asking about a wide range of things that people do not really care about. There is no real substitute for an open honest debate on issues that affect people which is why in our last article we encourage leaders to have conversations that matter.

Lesson #5: Ask questions that really matter and have radical action conversations to resolve differences.

In summary, the Scottish referendum reminded us that there is a latent desire in all of us to be engaged in things that are important to us. We all want to do meaningful work. The leader’s role is to help people engage in work that matters and some of the lessons learned from the Scottish debate can translate directly into our organisations. What do you think?

Malcolm Follos

September 2014