Brexit and culture: What if the EU were a company?

Carolyn Taylor
I’m fascinated by the behaviours of people. What we can learn from observing them–especially in organisations.

And so I found myself wondering, in the midst of one the most historic votes in Europe’s history: 'What if the EU were an organisation and Britain one of its business units? What advice would I be giving them?'

How to be a better team leader

From this perspective, I see many common patterns of behaviour and thinking that would be very familiar to our consultants as they work with clients on culture.

Now I know that there are some fundamental structural differences between the EU and a normal organisation. But one thing they do have in common is that they’re both populated by people, and people’s responses can be remarkably similar.

Head office vs. the field

It’s common to hear the belief that 'Head Office' (read: Brussels) is the root of all problems experienced by the field (Britain). The field usually believe that they can do things better than head office. Most people see the leaders as the source of problems, a perspective that can be held by both head office staff and business units. For their part, leaders at head office are often less transparent than they need to be and will often under communicate with the field.

It’s much easier to be a team leader than a team member.

People trust those close to them more than they trust those who are more remote. Why? Because relationship is at the heart of trust and, as we know, long distance relationships can be hard to maintain. People will more readily accept a decision taken locally because of the stronger relationship with their local leaders, which then leads to a stronger belief that decisions are taken in their best interests. A head office that needs to sell solutions which are good for the whole, but not always the best for an individual unit, must work hard to communicate the vision and reasons behind the decision to all business units.

We have observed that the easiest and most attractive thing to do when there is conflict in an organisation is to turn away and avoid conflict. In such times of change and upheaval, people tend to focus on what they’ll loose rather than what they will gain. They're also more likely to see outsiders as a threat—to jobs and status.

When is a best for a business to split?

Is there ever a point when a business becomes so big or disparate that they should split into smaller units? We would argue that under good governance there are always benefits to be had from unity.

If disparate units can be successfully merged under one umbrella with good collaboration and appropriate loose/tight authority levels, the overall unit is stronger than the sum of the individual parts and more able to successfully face external threats. The role of those thinking for the whole is to consider the longer term good and try to ensure that this ultimately works for the good of most of the units, most of the time. It can be hard for individual units to see this. They will need to work to develop a longer term and more altruistic view themselves, whilst head office works harder to communicate.  

On both sides, the skill of empathy is needed to really understand the perspective of the other party and to work solutions which will serve both. These skills are often lacking in otherwise very competent people. However, when present in an organisation, such skills can make all the difference.

What would we advise?

As with all organisations, successes come from the best behaviours, mindsets and great communication. And difficulties arise when we see defensiveness, fear and egos on the rampage. A key difference is that Britain, unlike a business unit, is now in a position to choose to leave the organisation.

If we at Walking the Talk were offering consulting advice to a hypothetical EU Inc. and business unit Britain, here are some of the suggestions we would make:

For the British team.

• Exploration around the willingness to stay in the arena and work things out, along with developing the skills and the attitudes to do so.
• Mindset work around a belief that they  are better than others at doing everything.
• Work on building their identity as Europeans, and the advantages which may come with that.
• The appeal of boundary-lessness. Something which is becoming more and more of a reality for the young and the internet savvy.
• Generosity for those who are less fortunate than themselves, and the belief that in the end this will pay off.

For the leaders at EU ‘Head Office’

• Greater transparency and more communication.
• More respect and understanding of the needs of the individual business units.
• Work on employee engagement continually, not just when the scores get really low and it looks like you are going to loose good people.
• More work on building alignment to the core principles and values on which your organisation is based. This work needs to be done over years, and works well when focussed especially on those who are most open to change. For example, younger people and those who could benefit from moving around your organisation.

Whether Britain leaves or remains there are some truths that will need to be addressed.

• The basic habit of blaming government for everything will not go away if Britain leaves. In a business unit, this could be shifted through work on building deeper Achievement values through Behaviours, Symbols and Systems.
• Be wary of relying on former glories. What value can Britain add to whichever community it decides to align itself with today? And how can it position the country to deliver this?
• Partnering will be an even more important competence. Whether it is about building stronger and more transparent relationships in Europe, or finding new global partners, good competency here will be vital to success.
• The vote is so close, and whichever way it goes, about half the country will be dismayed. Good to dedicate resources to conflict resolution, building generosity, achievement and connectivity with our partners.


What we know and share in organisations can be applied in so many ways to running a country, or an alliance of countries. I am keen to find ways to help this to happen.

And as a citizen of any country, let’s each think about applying what we learn in organisations to our role in our broader community.


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