Motto: many of us believe that wrongs aren't wrong if done by nice people like ourselves (author unknown – source: http://www.quotegarden.org/ )
Today I will take some distance from the general Human Rights frame of this roots series and come back to something wider and older than that – the Human Nature. I believe it is one of the most important roots of the current crisis.
Who created the mess we are in? Of course, the first reaction is: THEY (kind-of-conspiracy-theory). Politicians, business and financial community, ‘those wise guys (& girls – to be ‘politically’ correct!...)’.
But then I ask: and who are they? I believe ‘they’ are actually our close or distant family, our neighbors, our class mates, our boyfriends (or girlfriend), our competitors in a football game in school, our rivals, our enemies. They come from within our communities; they used to be a part of us. At a certain point in their lives, they have chosen to make some compromises, or they grabbed some opportunities, or they just worked hard to get where they are now. I bet with you that their close families still love them and take pride in the career they have built. For each of them there is someone out there who has wiped their noses and tears, held their hands and hugged them through difficult times, someone who knows their weaknesses and their deepest fears.
The world we live in today has various layers – individual, social, economic, politic, religious, military, and so on. For each of those, mankind has created some applicable rules - either official or purely informal and traditional (law and regulation, allowed and forbidden, custom and tradition etc.). We have created mechanisms, laws, rules, controls and punishments, defined the roles and actors. And in this process a lot of honest and decent people were involved, but also some opportunists and mal-intended ones.
Let’s go one step forward: it is well known that there are some basic principles for success in an organization. One of those is to know the informal structures, at least as well as the formal ones. Why? Because there is almost impossible to perfectly overlap in any organization those two structures. There will always be long-term employees that have certain recognition even if not promoted, while there will always be people promoted or directly employed as managers that do not immediately (or sometimes never) gain the recognition that should come with the position. For any new-comer in an organization the rule number one is to understand this balance of power and to choose a way to integrate, that would align with his/her morale, professional capacity but also future plans. I do not want to get into details now, what I want to take out of this part is: there will always be at least two distinct plans of each reality - the formal one and the informal one; and this applies to almost everything - structures, rules, controls and so on.
I would say there are actually even more than two realities, depending on the number of involved parties. There is a usual saying about couples after breaking up and that goes something like this “there are 3 sides of the story – her, his and the truth”. In social, economic and political life, when there are more parties involved, the truth can multiply sometimes even exponentially.
If we take again the example of the Human Rights (or we could take as well … accounting principles), we have some simple rules who have the aspiration to become common for many communities. And then there are numerous ways of applying them into day-to-day life, in each country, in each community. There are also various ways to judge whether they are breached.
So, keeping in mind that there are at least the two plans of reality described above, we still can conclude that we have designed our own world on both of those plans. We have also set some controls and designed some punishments for not abiding by the onset rules. And then we have chosen to believe that they are working. How? Well… I could say that each of us have chosen to believe that everything is working as we understand it should work. It is rather tricky, right?
While I was learning about fraud, one aspect got my attention. It was the correlation of triggering factors that must cumulate before someone actually decides to act in a fraudulent manner. There should be a perception of personal gain, which should outweigh the perception about existing controls and potential punishment. Many alternatives would fit this – either huge gain, or perception of low controls or negligible punishment.
In any case, I gave you this simplified definition, because I believe it could be easily extended. Fraud is rather a big word, and so is lie or deceit. But I am about to shock you, as I believe the same correlation could be extended as trigger to almost every personal action in our life, as well as in our society (on every level of reality). We could apply this to statistics, to forecasts, to consulting, to lawyers, to politicians, and of course to ourselves in our day-to-day social or personal life.
We usually weight everything (consciously or not) through the ‘loss vs. gain’ balance and we act based on that. And when I say “act” I really mean act, as an actor. We are little (or great) pretenders in our own lives. If I see my friend in the morning and he/she looks horrible, I would still smile while saying a nice ‘good morning’, instead of putting on a shocked face and spit out something like ‘OMG, you look so awful today!’. The personal gain is that I get a smile back, he/she may even get a good feeling about him(her)self. I would most probably not get caught with the lie and even if I get caught, the punishment will not be that hard…
The same applies when someone realizes he/she has made a mistake. As per applicable rules (formal or informal), they should immediately admit the mistake, assume the consequences (punishment) and correct (if possible) the outcome. Some actually do it. However, given the self-protective nature of each human being, usually some other instincts are triggered first, such as conservation and survival. Most of the people would probably look for various alternatives, based on those three dimensions above. In the day to day life, people frequently act in a way that would give them a personal gain, if they believe they can get away with it or the punishment is not that bad.
I can imagine now a lot of readers outraged by what I write here. Probably most people would like to believe that they live in a world of white knights and innocent ladies, but the truth is they are not. They (actually WE) live in a world of pretenders. Some are nice ones, some are pure frauds. And we have created basic mechanisms in our world that are also based on pretence. We have made laws that everybody pretends to follow. There is such a huge gap between the writer and the reader in any document that we can rely on only one fact: whatever can be interpreted will be, whatever can be misused will be – because we are dealing with human nature.
Last month I have been reading trough a number of Independent Business Reviews and advisory papers, from various international companies. I always focus my attention first on their disclaimers. This section can have from half a page to a number of pages, and is usually the most interesting part of the whole document. They put in there whatever cannot be included in the conclusions because of political reasons. The rest of the material is a perfect stage-up for the ‘right’ conclusions, but in the disclaimer they give some hints why they are most probably not. If you know how to read that part, you know also what questions you should ask and whether you should throw the whole paper back to them, or just accept it as it is. The funny thing is that most people believe this is a ‘standard’ part that consultants and lawyers use to cover their backs if something goes wrong. It is partially true (especially the last part), except… that it is not standard at all. It is carefully written for each case, for each document, so that an educated reader could take out of it the most important part of what they paid for.
Some of the greatest jokes in the communist era were connected to the idea of reporting and statistics. Everybody pretended that everything was all right, while the production was counted three times and reported as reality... After the fall of the Iron Curtain, there was a newly discovered freedom of speech and people started to be more honest and share more information. Still, the degree of pretence is huge at all levels - personal, in private and public companies and organizations, in politics, in law (especially in law enforcement) and everywhere. And sometimes I feel like the ex-communist countries are hurting themselves by a misconceived sense of freedom of media. They insist so much on the negative news, because for 50 years they were not allowed to do it, that they miss the good part almost entirely. It seems that, at a certain point, the Eastern bloc became more talkative and transparent than the West and this was not good for further integration and acceptance.
As I have written too much again, I will come back to the subject and get closer to today’s conclusion. We are pretending both as individuals and as social groups (culminating with nations). We are pretending both on formal and informal levels. We are trying to protect our personal gain no matter what and it has become a vicious spiral – the more we hide, the more we need to hide.
Some people have a sharp sense of rightfulness and moral standard, but that does not mean they do not also have a personal gain. It just means that personal gains are very different –sometimes they translate in non-material things. Instead of money and power, good people search recognition and justice. It does not mean that they pretend less often in search of their personal gain. It just means, like the motto says, that people in general will tend to use double standards for judging others. It is basically impossible to knowingly inflict bad things upon themselves, as the survival instinct is encoded within them; it is basic human nature. We can even accuse others of using double standards, but at a certain point we will also do the same. It is just a matter of context and time.
Could I think of any solution for this? Nothing drastic, I can tell you. If all people in this world would start telling the truth to each other starting tomorrow, I wonder what would happen. I guess we would face an even bigger chaos than now. First of all because we are not used anymore to hear the truth, we need those little white lies to enrich our lives. Second because we have lost somehow the ability to distinguish the truth and it may happen that nobody would believe the truth anyway. And third, I wonder … what truth should we say? Ours, theirs?...
Therefore, accepting that we are weak and human is a first step. Each of us should start improving him(her)self every day, observe themselves from the outside. Only then should look at their fellow (wo)men, and try to understand their moral profile and motivation. Gain trust gradually and reciprocally.
Then, just like in case of fraud prevention, we should work on the controls and punishment framework, or at least on the perception of that… On the long term I would also introduce in every elementary school a class about old popular proverbs, interpreted for kids, to learn from the wisdom of their ancestors – how to understand the human nature and how to live in this world. This would actually build up on the ‘prevention’ side, as our children should be more ready to recognize fraudsters, just like our grandparents were. It is a pity that we either lost those skills, or that we keep our perception to ourselves, for the sake of political correctness.
Until the next root posting, I sincerely wish you a nice time!