I recently watched a brilliant film, called The Flaw which explored the global financial crisis and its causes.
Capitalism is a system which, through its invisible hand is able to benefit the many via the self interest of the few. By trying to maximise their own gains in a free market, individuals benefit society, even without setting out to do so.
Yet as we look around the world it is clear that capitalism has another invisible hand, which is rather less benevolent. This ‘flaw’ was identified by Alan Greenspan, who was making a relatively narrow point about economics and the self correcting power of free markets.
But I would argue that the flaw runs deeper than Greenspan thinks. Capitalism – at least in its current form – is flawed in terms of psychology. The way that work gets structured and organised tends to distance people from their values and sense of responsibility. A combination of behavioural reinforcement, mindlessness (due to workload?) and a short term, inward focus encourages a kind of collective myopia and disconnect from our own values.
I found this myself when, as a consultant, my objective rapidly went from helping the public sector to improve its efficiency, to selling consultancy services into the public sector.
At one point in The Flaw individual bankers, traders and derivatives experts were asked whether they felt any direct responsibility for the financial disaster. Most of them fell silent. Not, I think, because they felt guilty, but more because they genuinely did not know the answer. Such was the way their role had been structured they had lost contact with any kind of individual responsibility. Their role had distanced them from their individual values without them even really being aware that that had happened. No one was responsible.
It is this flaw which allows individual bankers to argue that they did nothing wrong, whilst millions cope with repossession, debts and unemployment. It is this flaw that allows senior managers to sell packages of derivatives that no one truly understands. It is this flaw that allows News International bosses to turn a blind eye to practices which were contrary to the ethics of their own profession. It is this flaw that allows nurses and care home workers to treat the elderly and sick with cruelty and contempt.
I don’t think anyone deliberately set out to do this. But we create our organisations, and then they create us.
What Can We Do to Address The Flaw?
Our organisations have created a version of us which too easily loses contact with individual accountability and values. Instead, management focus on implementing organisational values. The problem with this is that these are not really values – they are tracks and plys.
What then is the answer? Better economic regulation is key, as are changes to governance practices that promote longer term thinking, flexible perspective taking and individual accountability.
But we also need to understand how and why people lose contact with their values at an individual level. One of the major reasons is that staying in contact with our values is very difficult. It requires psychological skills that are not innate or obvious. It requires interventions that go far beyond merely promoting happiness or engagement.
It is interventions like ACT that have shown that people can be trained to deal with the psychological consequences of following their values. Whilst this is not easy, we cannot fix the flaw simply by trying to build happiness or engagement or by legislating for transparency or fairness. None of that addresses the reality of what it means to be a human. But if we can teach willingness to experience difficult thoughts and feelings in pursuit of values, then we have much more of a chance.
If ACT can help reconnect even those lost in depression and chronic pain to their values and make a real difference to their experience, it does not take much imagination to think that maybe there are things we can learn which apply directly to organisational culture change.
There is a flaw. We can fix it. But we must listen to the science.