Referendum Reflections & Organisational Parallels


In a couple of days, Scotland will decide whether it remains as part of the UK or whether it becomes an Independent Country. One small sentence cannot capture the enormity of what is being discussed and decided. The implications – of Yes, or of No – will ripple for years, generations perhaps, to come.

It feels hard to write without falling into clichés and vapidities. So much has been written and said already – what more can be added? Should I even try?

I find myself censoring and cautious – I am fearful of backlash or condemnation if I am not careful with my words. In the past weeks I have re-realised the power of words – the wit and wisdom they can be used with – the weaponry and warfare they can evoke….

The binary discourse of Yes or No is so at odds with the complexity of running a Country or holding to a democracy that I can hardly credit these are our choices..…the behaviours this Yes/No polarity generates both fascinates and repels at times…. to walk a more neutral line runs the risk of ire from either, from both, from neither.
Such is life. Such is being within a system in transition… I see the parallels clearly between my country and my work.

And I still want to say things. Despite trepidation. Despite knowing that I may be misheard… because I also may be perfectly heard and in either scenario there is the possibility to give pause – for new ideas or thoughts… for action over inaction, for inaction over action.

I want to say things because of my fear. Because at the heart of fuchsiablue work is inviting people, individually or collectively, to articulate and express what they experience or want or need – even if that is at odds with what is accepted or “true”. This is change as conversation, as realisation – and to articulate or express what you think, what you believe, what you need or what you experience is risky as all hell, often.

So I can’t invite others to speak up and not speak myself. And I can’t ask for folk to pipe down if I’m in the business of expression for the sake of Change…. of course I face the same decisions as anyone who chooses to say anything: How? How forcefully, How truthfully, How provocatively do I wish to express myself? Do I back myself up with facts? Is my experience “enough”?

And so it is this, for me: At the core of the matter in hand is the very territory I and others choose to occupy as Change Agents, as People Practitioners – this is not geographical or physical territory (although that’s part of it) it is the territory of ideals and ideas. The territory where a story is powerful. The territory where fear can be doused through possibility and hope; where certainty is undermined in just the same way. Where folk who like facts are baffled by the flagrant ignoring of that which is nailed down, quantified and simple. Where those who dream are inconvenienced by facts.

An entire Nation is discussing the terms of change.

To be in that, and at the sides of it, living with it and around it is, at times delightful and powerful and at other times overwhelming. And some of what I have noticed is this:

You experience strange things during times of transition:

Some sort of déjà vu: Local negotiations are reportedly going badly.  Senior People are hurriedly deployed via plane to said Geography . Jackets off and gathering people together, these superheroes reiterate the message from the Centre. As in all organisations, the message from the Centre is interpreted in a number of ways. In the Scottish Referendum scenario there seemed to be a swooped-in leadership disinclined to hang around for too long to really grapple with the complexity of an emerging situation.. or their impact on that same situation… Was that out-of-touchness? Good advice? Bad Advice? Was it arrogance or naivety at play? As there seemed to be a dawning, an awakening of those in charge, of the complicated picture, the responses became curious to me as I watched:the appearance of certainty, the spreading of stories, the flattery….How may times have we seen this in our organisations, I wonder?

Then there are the questions: How will you vote? Have you decided? My non-Scottish counterparts asking: Why leave? What will you gain? Can you? Should You?
I have heard: Stay.
I have heard: You fools.
I have heard: You ungrateful wretches, leave now.
I have heard: I don’t blame you.

I have heard things about my identity I would wash from my ears. I have heard other things that make me ferociously proud that I hail from whence I do. I have heard arrogance, ignorance and bigotry that takes my breath away. I have heard calm careful voices speak with bravery and clarity. I have belly laughed at audacity and guid auld fashioned daftness. I have hung my head in shame at some of what I have read on social media.

I have heard “Head & Heart” metaphors used relentlessly – more binary language. Emotional knowing often seen as secondary to logical discourse – How well I recognise that old chestnut.

Ah.. but I was going to speak. This is not about the observer as recorder – I cannot be “out” of this particular scenario.

My choice is to express myself truthfully, without intending to provoke. My choice is not full disclosure, but I’m happy to talk on the subject with anyone who is up for listening. What I will say is this: I will vote in the Referendum on Thursday 18th September. I will vote because I live in a democracy, however imperfect that might be, and it matters. I will vote because I can and others can’t and I hope I never take that privilege for granted. I’m not going to bitch about my vote, how it counts or doesn’t – I have a vote that women (and men) campaigned and died for… I don’t take that lightly.

What I decide is my choice. I choose not to enter the fray on either side and add credence to either. The fence does, on occasion, cause splinters in unfortunate places, but from here I can hear both sides and, as the future of my Country is at stake, I really want to understand both sides – because this is as big as it gets.

It would go against who I am and how I am trained to be vehemently one way or another – for those who interpret this as indecisive or are exasperated with my lack of verve, be assured – I can get as exasperated with your tub thumping too…AND I suspect you will listen to me less than I to you… So please, respect me as I will you and let’s go about our business. You will not “change my mind”. My mind is mine and only I can change it. Your actions and how you conduct yourself – how you behave – are what will warm me to your point of view.

I think people should think. Really question what they are being presented with. All facts seem to be fair game here – with new “facts” coming out every day. Reading this last week from Paul Cairney helped me clarify how to pick through some of the stuff out there:

And let’s not talk about trust…

But just so we are clear on this (for those of you who are Engagement Junkies) an estimated 97% of the eligible voting population in Scotland have registered. I know there are issues about “eligible” – but the point is that we are dealing now with levels of interest, discussion and participation that most HR teams would fall over if they faced. So I would also say let’s learn from some of the lessons here – what it takes to involve people – how long it actually takes for people to pay attention and the extent to which leadership can influence what is happening at grassroots…. or vice versa.

At the heart of the matter, I’m watching the process (as much as participating in it) like the change geek that I am. These are my words, my thoughts and I share them readily for consideration or condemnation. I hope that, whatever our choices, Scotland prospers. I hope we make a good account of ourselves, as people and as a country, whatever the future.

To me, that would go a long way to success, post-referendum.

8 thoughts on “Referendum Reflections & Organisational Parallels

  1. Good luck Scotland on Thursday. I don’t think the place will ever be the same again and respect for your desire to hold true to your secret ballot. I’m disappointed you are holding back as I think there is an audience in social that respect the arguments and in linking a strong conviction for the necessary change is an important recipe I think you’ve ducked here when relating to organisational change. Perhaps the subject matter is too overwhelming and I respect that.

    • I hear you. I’m consciously not making political arguments, the aim was to raise a different perspective…
      There is no right way to deal with a binary choice. To say yes or no is to almost automatically alienate one set of ears…. To sit in a more balanced place is annoyingly circumspect & it is fair that it may be experienced as *ducking* but I’m into opening up middle ground for non-chest beating discussion if at all possible.
      Others have made good, strong arguments for & against… Some have made truly bloody awful arguments.
      The subject matter is too overwhelming? Perhaps. More for me that I want to say something and don’t particularly want to get embroiled in some of the less salubrious commentary I have experienced on social media.
      So yes. Here, I ducked. In an organisational context which is less emotive or polarising, I’d duck
      It’s a paradox. Speak up… But safely and on my terms.
      I think many of us have faced this in an organisational context.
      Posting this felt risky, I promise you.

      • Julie – this is your best piece of writing. An amazingly gritty and truthful personal insight into a very individual choice at an extraordinary moment in world history. It’s not about your binary choice it’s about the learning and the understanding that comes from listening and engaging with people from all perspectives. Some people are going to make their choices from fear, naivety or passion; you have made yours from deep consideration, respect and will be guided by your internal moral compass – your principles. Nothing else matters.

        From the outside world this has been an amazingly civil referendum in the context of the issues in places such as Iraq and Syria. Yes there have been marches and placards, but the whole affair has been done with respect – or at least that is the media view we are seeing.

        This is coming down to a unifying identity, versus the fear of separation and the loss of protectionism being a couple brings – this sounds like a divorce and all the anxiety this brings. Are em doing the right thing, are the children going to be ok, how will we survive???

        Nothing is ever black and white.

        No matter the outcome of tonight…Scotland will still have it’s proud heritage, it’s identity and it’s pride. It just will be different!


        • Richard – thank you for commenting, You know how much I respect your thinking and perspective, so your feedback is treasured.
          I wish I could argue sensibly with what you are saying – but in truth, I nodded as I read your words. Yes – we managed (have managed thus far, touch wood) to run a democratic process without bloodshed – my hope beyond hope is we can continue to use words & not weapons as the means to challenge status quo.
          Good to have your thoughts.

  2. Very interesting piece. Thanks for writing it.

    As an engagement professional, I feel a bit of a contradiction here: on the one hand, the binary question seems so inadequate to the task, to short-change the complexity of either route. On the other hand, the stark choice and the direct democracy which are both features of the referendum mechanism have – as you point out – led to an astonishing level of engagement.

    So here’s another yes / no question for us all: is a referendum a good way of engaging people?

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