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Is Trust in Trouble?

Will the pandemic edge society towards “vulnerable system syndrome”?

Challenging times often bring out the best in people, but they can also reduce us to our worst possible selves. Many have sacrificed to curb COVID infection and front-line workers perhaps most of all. However, as the pandemic extends the cracks are also appearing. Finger-pointing has started to proliferate in public life and trust seems to be in trouble. If this continues, goodwill will evaporate and, worst-case-scenario, we may develop a case of “vulnerable systems syndrome”. This article explores the syndromes’ causes, its symptoms and makes suggestions for how we can avoid this at a societal level -

What can ‘Golfgate’ teach us?

It seems obvious that bending the rules to go on a bender would attract widespread condemnation. However, this isn’t just because well-educated public servants should know better. Research on ‘organisational justice’ explains that we disapprove more of certain rule breaches than others. After all, attending funerals hasn’t attracted as strong a reaction even where numbers and settings were equivalent. This is because a ‘breach to gain’ (i.e. gathering to celebrate) is morally worse than a ‘breach to avoid’ (i.e. gathering to lessen pain of loved ones). Our moral judgements are often automatic and largely unreflective, yet each event is likely to present similar infection risk.

In a number of ways, fall-out from Golfgate suggests we’re not always consistent in how we judge others. For one thing, we expect more individual than collective accountability. With or without alcohol, collective IQ often falls below the sum of individual member averages. Polarisation is one common cause and this is threatening us presently. So too is converging prematurely around what we all know – or at least think we know. While pointing the finger at our rulers and even rule-makers is understandable, it may also be an early warning signal of this convergence. In addition, such a person-centric approach often elicits a “cover myself at all costs” response and amplifies risk by disincentivising those who lead.

A handful of resignations and a “few less rotten apples” approach won’t get to the root of our problem. Perhaps we have systemic cynicism in our political class, or not? What is certain is that the best of us are capable of making the worst mistakes both individually and collectively. A group where natural risk-takers are in the majority takes even greater risks in its decisions; in what is called “risky shift”. Those with more individuals who are conservative tend to over-estimate the downside and miss opportunities to gain during changing times. A middle ground is hard to achieve but we will need to balance social opinion carefully to do so. After all, slapping the wrists of a few won’t necessarily be in our long-term best interest. If the ultimate penalty (a resignation or sacking) is sought for ill-judged but not illegal activity, where do we go from there? Perhaps we’d better off with the Clifden partygoers still in their posts, if that is, they were working hard on our priorities i.e. safeguarding our health and that of the economy.

How can we build a safety culture?

Herd immunity takes a long time and doesn’t always work. Immunity to mistrust also takes time, isn’t achievable in absolute terms but it is still most certainly worth working for. This is because psychological safety goes a long way towards achieving a culture that promotes physical safety. We may need to progress in stages and there are three typically seen in organisational settings.

The first can be summarised as “Point the finger at mistake-makers”. This often results in a fear of making mistakes and produces bigger errors in an effort to avoid their detection. A second stage is one of “wag a finger at rule breakers” and this admonishment without actually understanding the facts including the human factors also poses difficulties. It’s easy to jump to conclusions based on scant information and trigger counterproductive effects. For example - we see four slightly tipsy lads, assume poor social distancing yet they’re father and sons letting off a little steam after locking down together. By correcting those actually following rules, or equally allow rules continue that no longer make sense, we erode confidence.

The third culture is the hardest to achieve yet is the most constructive. This is where we “point the finger first and foremost at ourselves”. It requires humility and taking personal responsibility including for risk that lies outside the scope of rules and may be latent in the system itself. We occasionally need to question the premise of guidelines and even institutions. This demands a different level of responsibility for the bigger picture but it serves us far better than any knee-jerk or overreaction to individual rules and/or their breaches.

What is ‘vulnerable system syndrome’?

When risk and safety are our main concern, what we need to guard most against is the temptation to play a blame-game. Unfortunately, this comes far more naturally to us than, for example, wearing face masks. Research shows that when presented with accident reports and asked which causal factors were most avoidable, test subjects jump to suggest ‘human error’. It seems that we are primed to expect faults in (and by) others much more than ourselves. In fact, neuroscience proves that we engage different networks in the brain to judge behaviours by others versus our own – including the very same behaviours. Self-denial protects us when we’re at fault yet it endangers trust if we fault others.

With ‘vulnerable system syndrome’, often the cause of error is attributed to individuals/groups of individuals and often those at the front-line. With the focus there, we may not inquire into root causes or systemic issue’s and hence problems just recur. Near-misses are also brushed under the carpet to avoid being in the firing line as a blame-denial cycle takes hold. This is self-sustaining whether in a hospital or in society at large. Because COVID is in the community, we are now all at the front-line in controlling risk. However, an eye on the wrong ball i.e. looking to find fault at the frontline simply wastes cognitive energy and national resources. Policing of pubs and homes are examples of this and most importantly are counter productive. So too is a “I won’t tell anyone” reaction when we hear someone is being tested. Assuming negative intent or outcome is equivalent to blaming and will discourage people from being tested and participating, for example, with tracing when and as needed. Let’s make sure the rules make sense, especially when we are changing them communicate this effectively.

In conclusion, for months now a vast majority of us have been highly responsible. Our mastering of hand-washing etiquette is still important, but attention needs to be focused on the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ of risk itself rather than on the ‘who’. Maintaining a certain social etiquette will become key as will clarifying what our core objectives are from a risk viewpoint. Let’s now share responsibility to resist shame or blame. This is a marathon and not a sprint. Rather than being hard on one another, we can be hard on risk by asking the right questions. If we do so, we safeguard the health of our economy and society and can emerge more united than ever.

Fiona Fennell is the Founder and an organisational behaviourist with Think4Purpose – She has a master’s degree in Business from the National Centre for Quality Management, University of Limerick. Fiona works with individuals and organisations to improve critical thinking and communication skills. She hosts an upcoming event for SME’s on behalf of the Shannon Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 22 :


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