Brexit, Business Schools, and the Search for Empathy

By Laurie Cohen, Professor, Nottingham University Business School
January 24, 2017

Brexit, Business Schools, and the Search for Empathy The political events of 2016 represented a major wake-up call for business schools everywhere. I say this as an expat American professor at a British business school; I say it as someone whose longstanding, cozy conceptions about business schools’ wider role and responsibilities have been seriously shaken; and, just as importantly, I say it as a migrant.

Every business school rightly champions the cause of diversity and inclusion, but do they really understand what it means at the most fundamental level? I ask this because the uncomfortable truth, as exposed by the U.K.’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s ascent to the U.S. presidency, is that large parts of the electorate across the Western world—foremost among them the many millions whom recent economic policies have failed to benefit—still regard themselves as hopelessly marginalized.

Few people in any walk of life could seriously claim to have been blissfully unaware of the disillusionment that had been building up for years and that ultimately underpinned the success of Britain’s “Leave” campaign and Trump’s extraordinary rise. And yet, it wasn’t something to which business schools ever saw fit to devote too much energy.

To put it bluntly: business schools never sought the answers because they never asked the questions in the first place. And now this enduring blind spot in their thinking—their disinclination to account in any significant way for those whose lives haven’t been conspicuously enriched by globalization and capitalism—has at last been laid bare.

It’s essential to acknowledge and move on from this blinkeredness, not least because, as an earlier article on this topic points out, the “revenge of the disenfranchised” is liable to continue. Evidence of recalcitrant and vaguely isolationist sentiment is increasingly apparent in myriad narratives that feed off the resentment of those who believe the status quo has somehow left them on the outside, looking in. The changing face of Europe's political landscape in particular has clearly reflected this trend over the course of the past two or three years.

History shows that the sort of void in which such a corrosive philosophy tends to flourish is too often eventually filled by intolerance and extremism. Both world wars grew out of an environment in which mounting anger over social inequalities ultimately propelled the disenfranchised toward maverick, firebrand politicians preaching nationalist policies. This is a sobering thought—one that underlines the need for business schools to expand their perspectives and so make a genuine contribution toward shaping economies and communities that are both more robust and more equitable.

Of course, cynics could be forgiven for suspecting business schools will never change their ways, that their focus will always be in the main selective and elitist, and that even the most monumental events won’t prove sufficient to stir them from their stupor. It’s easy enough to envisage the observing of a suitable period of hand-wringing before heads are stuck back in the sand in the hope that the problem will go away again. Old habits die hard, and let’s be absolutely honest: business schools have generally done pretty well in overlooking sizeable swathes of society.

But I think a meaningful reaction is more likely this time, even if only because one of the ironies of the Brexit and Trump sagas is that they’ve left many of us tasting disenfranchisement for ourselves. Suddenly, finally, we know the misery of exclusion. We feel we may not belong. Let me try to explain by briefly outlining my own experience and those of other business school academics who I know have been riding much the same emotional rollercoaster.

I left the U.S. nearly 35 years ago, since when I’ve been weaving a narrative about why I chose Britain, why I’ve stayed, and what the point of it all has been. Now that narrative—which for so long seemed completely natural and linear—has unraveled. If someone were to ask me today why I opted for the U.K.—and I’m still asked once or twice a week—the explanation I’ve provided for almost three and a half decades would ring decidedly hollow.

Why? First and foremost, especially for those of us who migrated to Britain, the prospect of Brexit signals a seismic step back from our ideals of integration. We all know that business schools, even by the cosmopolitan standards of academia, have long been truly international in nature, which is why the broader population’s apparent desire for separatism has dealt such a heavy blow to morale.

Then there’s the notion of citizenship, which in this context revolves around the relentless push and pull between the country a migrant leaves behind and the country he or she adopts. Every “international” person I know is acquainted with this dynamic, which is in constant flux and at the permanent mercy of the tiniest disturbance. It’s why some expats exhibit the zeal of a convert in striving to attain social legitimacy; and it’s why the idea of Brexit has rocked so many of us back on our heels.

Relationships also play a role. Family and friends invariably exert some degree of pressure on anyone, but for migrants the effect can be particularly strong. The ties we once elected to loosen go on tugging at us, and misgivings and regrets accumulate at pace in the face of any happening that disputes the wisdom of our decision to relocate.

These are just some of the issues that I’ve realized have been central to my own crisis of belonging. There are no doubt many more that might be relevant in my case and in the cases of other academics—whether in the U.K., the U.S., or elsewhere—who feel something precious, something intangible has been lost amid the xenophobic tub-thumping and jingoistic rhetoric of the past few months.

Yet business schools risk missing the bigger picture once again if they concentrate solely on the sudden woes of their own employees, because it’s not about us. It’s about the people we’ve never really considered. Perhaps the most valuable and wholly inescapable lesson we should be learning right now, as the “revenge of the disenfranchised” takes hold, is how painful it is, whatever the cause, to feel excluded.

We’ve spent a long time concentrating almost exclusively on those who have prospered from globalization and capitalism. Now that the “losers” have managed to make their voices heard—and now that some of us have at last found grounds for empathy—maybe we’ll accord more thought to life outside the winners’ circle. We need to shake up our research programs, redefine our own measures of success and revise our attitude toward stakeholder engagement—working more not just with policymakers, whose myopia has matched our own, but with those whose sense of abandonment and betrayal has so spectacularly exploded into view. In short, we need a rethink.

It won’t be easy, because in many ways we’ll be starting from scratch. Academia and reorientation traditionally make for unhappy bedfellows. We protect our “paradigms” fiercely. Our metrics and criteria are all but set in stone. To return to a word I used earlier, we like to feel “cozy” in what we do. But the fast-emerging reality, however jarring it might be, is that we won’t get away with it forever. We’ve been operating in a bubble, and we have to burst it.


Laurie CohenLaurie Cohen is a professor of work and organization at Nottingham University Business School and the author of Imagining Women's Careers.