When a “policy” is resisted, the term itself can become a byword for institutional ineffectiveness that damages trust and causes reputational harm. Learn how leaders can clarify a policy position and take stakeholders with them.

If policies are your business you might understand, perhaps more than those around you, how the origin of policy is to provide certainty through well-intended guidance. In the modern organisation, this is in the form of guidance on ways of working and interacting around an issue, so that people, communities and organisations can feel safe, function well and have a clear and unambiguous path towards a common goal. From this viewpoint, what’s not to like?

And yet .. many of us will have heard phrases like “policy wonk”, “nanny state”, “health and safety gone mad” bubble up in response to a policy position that has, for whatever reason, been received in a negative way by those it was intended to help. As harmless (and as humorous even) as such reactions can be, they are also a cautionary sign that possible resentment and resistance lie somewhere ahead.

In an increasingly complex world, where largescale organisations and departments have an increasing number of policies, passive resistance can harm the best efforts of policy leaders and place an organisation’s people and business goals at risk. This blog invites us to pause and reflect on the nature and value of policy and how best to reset or refresh a policy position in a way that brings everyone along.

Understanding policy

A policy is fundamentally a statement or set of statements established by an organization or government to guide decision-making, actions, and behaviours in a specific context or area. Policies aim to provide a structured approach to decision-making that helps ensure consistency, fairness, and accountability in a range of areas related to a how an organisation gets things done or how a government lays out its vision and plans for stakeholders.

Consistency provides a degree of predictability which is incredibly important for all concerned, because our human need for certainty in life is an evolutionary instinct that influences the way our limbic system (the biological system that regulates our emotions) allows us to think, function and interact well with others in complex, demanding settings. Recognising how our core emotions respond to the threat that change and inconsistency imply, is an integral first step towards how leaders planning to clarify or upgrade a policy position can achieve this in a way that takes their stakeholders with them.

Navigating a policy renegotiation

Navigating complexity is an inherent leadership role and the more complex the working environment, the greater the number of policies and mediating factors that need to be considered, including: conflicting interests; legal and regulatory frameworks; budgetary constraints; cultural, ethical and political considerations; implementation, informatics and evaluation challenges. A high profile recent example of complexity around a change in policy was the UK government’s late September 2023 decision to push back its Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener policy commitments, including moving the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars back by five years, from 2030 to 2035.

Whilst the decision has outlined important economic benefits to one important stakeholder (UK voters), another important stakeholder (the automotive industry) has arguably been left reeling. Ford UK’s brief official response hints at the potential harm that can be caused when stakeholders feel left behind. Firstly, it reinforces my point about the critical importance of providing certainty. It then references ‘further funding planned for the 2030 timeframe’, which – I would argue – implies that investment may be a risk, given the 2030 timeframe itself has been shelved. For an organisation like Ford and its many partners, this policy shift has implications for the operational and financial planning and assumptions they believed they had in place, for what must have felt to them a secure, government mandated timeframe. For a largescale organisation, that has already invested £430m this sudden introduction of volatility, uncertainty, additional complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) into the workplace will be unwelcome and carry risks that will need to be quickly understood and mitigated.

Using Ford UK’s situation here as an illustrative case, here are 8 dimensions through which policy leaders can consider practical steps and actions to best lead their organisations, internally and externally, through a policy change negotiation:

Context –The unique operating context for a company like Ford, is that they have been operationally planning their investment, their manufacturing, their staff, their capacity, their capability on the basis of electric vehicles coming into play in 2030. With the UK government pushing that back, and possibly without a great deal of notice, that suddenly destabilises those operational and financial plans and assumptions creating new uncertainty and levels of risk that may not have been anticipated.

Curious Inquiry – In the knowledge that Ford as an albeit large and influential, but ultimately standalone company cannot reverse government decision making, a process of curious inquiry will allow them to take stock and examine their immediate and future bargaining position in order to best understand how to re-establish the best possible policy decision: where does the company stand to lose out most? is the company’s economic role and presence in a particular region a strength? Are there manufacturing and/ or recruitment plans that can be reprioritised to strengthen a negotiating position?

Self – Where Ford are changing their own internal policy, they will want to consider the dynamics within and between the different departments and the people leading those departments, to identify where people are and are not able to flourish and be their best self in the workplace. Identifying executive and operational leaders who can role model a positive culture of sustainable high performance supports a strategic behavioural change approach to implementing a change to an internal policy.

In response to government, the focus for Ford will be on their key spokespeople, the chief executive and senior executives tasked with communicating around this change. How they present to both internal and external stakeholders at a time of change is crucial. Demonstrating strength, confidence and reassurance must also be done with compassion and humility in order to create and convey a psychologically safe environment that is proven to unlock greater satisfaction and performance.

Human – As discussed earlier, an unanticipated major policy shift can create VUCA within affected businesses that robust evidence has shown can lead to stress and burnout for the individuals and teams involved. If you work inside Ford and your job has been about building capability for cars the government mandated for sale in 2030 and this has now been pushed back, you may now be experiencing VUCA and a resulting increased fear and anxiety about the threat of losing your job. Internally, leaders who can connect with their people in a human way and with humility are role modelling a psychologically safe organisation where vulnerability can be a gateway for taking greater interpersonal risks around sharing of ideas, innovation and challenging convention. This may be as simple as the Chief Executive’s ability to communicate ‘these things are outside of our control and I don’t have all the answers, but what I can promise you, is that we are going to work through all the options and communicate them to you well’.

Externally, the human aspect will be about how best to cultivate a relationship with key stakeholders, in this case the UK prime minister Rishi Sunak and relevant members of his team with whom the Chief Executive of Ford is now going to have to negotiate a new reality. Understanding the motivating factors of those individuals, and the factors influencing them will require a human dimension and connection above and beyond detailed policy knowledge.

Create Safe Spaces – Internally, leaders need to ensure that they have in place or are able to create systems and processes that allow their people to share their concerns and frustrations in a way that makes them feel systematically supported, when they don’t know what a policy decision is going to mean for them and their colleagues operationally or financially. Externally, it’s about creating a space that is safe for different perspectives to be shared without the kind of conflict or judgement that can only lead to poor dialogue. For example, the Ford leadership might want to consider working on a negotiated statement that demonstrates joint accountability  protecting and providing optimism for the automotive industry, whilst at the same time allowing for the latitude the government needs around some of the environmental targets it has felt compelled to revise.

Action-Oriented strategies can help bind negotiating parties together in a constructive and mutually accountable way for the next steps in a policy process. Internally, in addition to creating a positive feedback look that allows people to feel protected and make a valid contribution, Ford leaders might scenario plan a number of models that demonstrate how staff can feel secure in future, irrespective of what direction the government takes. Externally, similar proof of concept modelling can help Ford enter a potentially tough renegotiation from a supportive stand-point, for example with real-world data that demonstrates the implications for Ford’s UK tax revenues, as a result of adapting manufacturing capacity to meet new government targets and timeframes.

Accountability – Internally, what people programmes and support can you tap into, so that everyone feels fully enabled to bring their best selves in terms of playing their part in owning the change process. Externally, consider what kind of joint media/ press activity you might organise so that a public commitment is made, that demonstrates a level of clear joint accountability with the government or the policy maker.

Sustainability – For policy to be put into effective practice and enable healthy high performance, be that organisational, commercial, or governmental, it is vital that there are the appropriate series of gateways and checkpoints to determine progress and success, but also identify failure and course correction when required.

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