Lessons from Brexit – a study to help you address change

In this post Nick Marson shares thoughts on a framework for understanding recent political events in the UK.

BREXIT – A case study framework to help you address change.

Why a majority in the UK voted to LEAVE the EU.

On June 23rd 33 million people, 72% of eligible UK voters and thee highest turnout since 1977, voted to leave the EU.

So why did this happen when 7 out of 10 people expected the result was going to be REMAIN.

What went wrong for the campaign to keep us in the European Union?

According to theLord Ashcroft Polls there were three main issues behind this result:

  1. Decisions about the UK should be taken by the UK (49%)
  2. UK should regain control over immigration and borders (33%)
  3. And we should prevent expanded membership and/or power.

So that is a cold analysis but were the emotional reasons behind the result? And what can we learn from the latest neuroscience research into how the brain deals with change?

SAFE Change

The brain needs to feel safe. Safety comes from certainty. The brain seeks to control its environment. The emotional centre in our brain, the limbic system, is an early warning for any threats either real or perceived to our safety. The brain is a prediction making machine continuously weighing up the odds of survival and responding with a simple binary ‘toward or away’ decision when confronted with uncertainty.

And when it comes to safety our brains vote with emotion not logic. This suggests the majority voted to LEAVE the EU because of their fear of losing control of their country. They wanted to control our ability to make our own laws and control our own borders, to address the fear of immigration getting out of control and the cultural make-up of the country with it. This was an emotional response. The LEAVE campaign was based on emotion and fear.

The REMAIN argument that people were going to be worse off economically outside the EU was based on logic and greed.

On June 23rd the day of the referendum more people voted for psychological safety than for keeping money in their pocket. It should be said that most young people voted to REMAIN as emotionally they wanted to feel connected to the wider world of youth.

“Vote leave and take back control” resonated more with the voters than “Vote remain or you will be £4,300 a year worse off”.

The burning issue was immigration not the economy according to Matthew Elliott the Chief Executive of Vote Leave. This was acknowledged by Lord Cooper of Windrush Conservative Peer and main pollster for the Britain Stronger in Europe Campaign:

“The people who are very, very concerned about immigration, what they wanted was purely and simply for the UK to be able to have total control of its borders and total control of the flow of people into the country. And we didn’t have an argument that could remotely compete with that”.

Even David Cameron the UK Prime Minister explained to the shocked German Chancellor Angela Merkel that immigration was the main reason behind the vote to leave.

So let’s look at how the brain deals with change and how it tries to make change SAFE.


We feel safer in social groups. And we feel safer in our chosen social groups if we have status and that status is clearly recognised by the other members of the group.

Status gives us more power and, therefore, more control over the resources we need to survive. Status makes us feel safe.

And our status within our wider national group was being threatened by the influx of an unknown influx of immigrants.

When the Government announced the May figure for immigration failed to meet its target the top issue in people’s minds was now immigration.

The UKIP poster showing a dole queue, although disowned by the vote leave team, hit an emotional raw nerve. The Nigel Farage rhetoric that “the real issue was taking back control of our borders” was ringing in many peoples’ ears. And four million UKIP voters in the last General Election who because of the first past the post voting system felt disenfranchised now had a chance to be heard and make their vote count.

Our very identity was at stake. And identity is important to the brain. Where we come from is central to who we are and what sets us apart from other groups, to our very sense of collective self. Shared values mean we can predict the behaviours of our fellow social group members. We can trust them to act in the common interests of the wider group.


People inherently are nervous of perceived threats and so are wary of change and uncertainty. But we tolerate our changing environment and adapt to fit into our new circumstances. Our primitive basal ganglia, the brain’s control centre, soon works out the new routines that restore equilibrium. This automatic pilot system in the brain saves us using the prefrontal cortex thinking brain in the neocortex which is extremely energy hungry. Our brain resets its cruise control and off we go again.

But despite a reluctant acceptance of change our brain doesn’t like to be changed by other people. We want to be in control over our own destiny, not in the power of others. We want to retain our autonomy.

So when we were bombarded with statistics from the Treasury and the Bank of England we treated the figures with scepticism or even cynicism. The majority of the UK public did not believe vote Remain’s figure that they would be £4,300 worse off annually if we left the EU, and it also seemed a limited amount to reclaim autonomy.

People resented what they saw as scare-mongering tactics. This was forcing rather than allowing control and assessment.


We all want to be treated fairly. Ever been in a queue and someone pushes in front of you? How did that make you feel? I expect you or someone else probably said something like “Can’t you see there’s a queue here?” Or perhaps “You should queue just like everyone else.” Fairness is important to your brain.

The unfairness of immigrants taking British workers jobs by accepting lower wages was felt strongly by many, whether or not it was factually accurate. Immigrants claiming unemployment benefits was felt by many as deeply unfair. And the unfairness of immigrants increasing the NHS waiting lists was also acutely felt by many. The NHS was already at crisis point with insufficient resources – arguably it has been for many years – and now there was a threat that uncontrolled immigration could provide the tipping point. This is why the Leave campaign claimed the disputed UK £350 million a day EU contribution could save our precious NHS, even if again the actual sums that any future government may direct to the NHS may not resolve the fundamental issues.


People want to be engaged. They want to be shown empathy. They want their politicians to demonstrate that they care about ordinary people’s lives. Relatedness is important to the social brain and trust is the core issue.

The tone of the communication is critically important. It’s not what you say it’s how you say it that matters. Boris Johnson’s boundless optimism drowned out the warnings of the dour George Osbourne and the out of touch David Cameron.

The hearts of people have to be won before you can capture their minds.  This is where many corporate vision statements fall down – they provide people with little real motive, and motive is the root of motivation.

Learning for Leaders of Change

So what can leaders of change learn from the BREXIT referendum campaigns?

Three things:

  1. Psychological safety is the foundation of the “Hierarchy of Needs”.
  2. Change is personal. People focus on how change affects them not their country or the leader’s strategic perspective on their business.
  3. You have to earn trust by being open, honest and transparent.

Europe is in transition. How will Europe’s ageing population, relatively high levels of unemployment and the worst refugee crisis it has ever faced impact on the rise of Eurosceptic anti-immigration movements across the continent?  Will Scotland and Northern Ireland, who voted to stay in Europe, exit the UK?  Will the European project lose momentum? Or will the EU reform itself and stem the anti-Europe sentiment? Only time will tell.

What we can say with some certainty is that people’s hearts rule their heads when it comes to their psychological safety. Emotion is more powerful than logic.

Maybe the politicians will learn this lesson when we next have a referendum.

In the meantime, use the SAFE framework to help yourself and your businesses deal with uncertainty and undertake change with a greater chance of success.


Nick Marson

©2016 The Parallel Mind Ltd