“The ‘Great Reset’ after the pandemic asks us to face uncertainty and discomfort bravely, instead of giving in to escape phantasies to alleviate our anxiety. Only if we are ready to welcome reality and take time to reflect can we remake the world,” says Smaranda Boros, Professor of Intercultural Management and Organisational Behaviour at Vlerick Business School.
Source: Management Scope (17/02/2021); Interview: Jurgen van Weegen | Author: Marike van Zanten
A global citizen, she calls herself. Romanian by descent, Smaranda Boros worked in Romania, Italy and the Netherlands (Tilburg University) before choosing Vlerick Business School to continue her scientific and academic career. A ‘passionate vocational psychologist’ at heart, she thoroughly enjoys combining research and teaching with the practice of management coaching and leadership development. Furthermore, her volunteering work takes her all over the world, supporting local students and collaborating with institutions for social science in Suriname and South Africa, and being involved in projects in India and Ethiopia. She sees the global community as her home now.
Since the Covid crisis, this global community is necessarily a virtual one. Many people resent being forced to attend online meetings all day, but Boros personally thrives on it and sees advantages and new opportunities, as she will explain during this interview. The pandemic provides us humans with a chance to remake the world, Boros asserts – which also happened to be this year’s theme for the World Economic Forum in Davos: The Great Reset. She sees the crisis as an opportunity for systemic transformation, to reinvent ourselves and restore our relation to the world as one ecosystem. Other people have stated that, but Boros delves deeper, putting mankind on the couch and warning that we first have to face our inner demons and the discomfort of the current external turmoil before being able to drive change. Interviewed by Kearney Partner Jurgen van Weegen, she peppers her discourse with scientific research on human emotion, dips freely into other disciplines like cultural history and philosophy, and uses storytelling to make her message even more compelling, now and then accompanied by an infectious laugh.
Remaking the world: that’s an ambition of titanic proportions…
“It is. Last spring, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of hope. Covid would give us the chance for a Great Reset from an existential perspective, just like the Middle Ages paved the way for the Enlightenment and the Spanish Flu led to the introduction of social benefits. Because of the lockdown, people suddenly reached out to one another. I got calls and mails from people I had not seen in years! There was also hope that the pandemic would help bridge inequality. My survey in the very beginning of the lockdown showed that the women I interviewed hoped that working from home would shift gender roles. But only three weeks later, gender inequality was even exacerbated, even in the elite, highly educated groups in my survey. The pandemic has also widened the divide between developed, privileged countries and struggling, developing countries. Take the imbalanced global distribution of Covid vaccines, which the World Health Organization itself has labelled as a ‘moral failure’. So, the high hopes for worldwide transformation in the beginning of the pandemic soon imploded and only mirrored and magnified our existing societal problems. The discourse of the Great Reset very quickly switched to Covid fatigue and a hankering for ‘going back to normal’. So we got instead A Great Reveal.”
As a psychologist, what is your explanation for that?
“Our current struggle with global issues is mirrored and maintained by our individual struggle as humans. The pandemic confronts us with fear and uncertainty, which triggers huge levels of anxiety. The news and social media are dominated by negative words and messages. The anxiety this provokes is coupled with the fact that lockdown confronts us with our inner demons and crumbling relations. Look at the soaring divorce rate during this crisis. When people do not deal with these emotions, they resort to escape phantasies, like: ‘The vaccine will give us our old world back!’, or: ‘2021 will be better!’. We try to cope with the pandemic by giving in to mechanisms to suppress fear. We are hiding from reality, rather than facing it and allowing ourselves time for reflection and work on positive change.”
“My experience is that, during the crisis, business, like the professional services sector, learned to overcome uncertainty, adjust and unleash structural change – although this isn’t the case for all companies.”
“We must not forget how privileged we are in this part of the world, belonging to the white, economically advantaged elite. It’s quite a different story in developing countries. Yet, in the western world, some companies are also struggling more than others. This distinction is not only caused by the sector they are in and how hard that has been hit by the Covid measures – surviving or not as a company also depends on its mindset. Some companies become paralysed and flee into wishful thinking, the ostrich attitude, and deal with reality by increasing control: they try to monitor their employees out of the fear that they might not work as hard from home as in the office. However, most companies complain of less cohesion, of the disintegration of social relations within. And, within the limits of all of us struggling socially, I just wonder how healthy these relations were before going online (we know from research that online communication tends to exacerbate existing problems). Other companies say: Okay, this is our new reality, let’s face it. Once you accept and embrace uncertainty and discomfort, instead of hanging on to old routines, you have the option to reimagine ways of organising, of doing business, of working in the larger ecosystem and adapting to its realities.”
The pandemic puts even more pressure on the increasing polarisation in society. How can companies contribute to more global cohesion?
“As humans, as business leaders and as western societies, we need to address our (unconscious) feelings of guilt for the privilege we have. This unacknowledged guilt, and our defence mechanisms activated by it, often dictate the relations we have within our own community and with other parts of the world. Brené Brown puts this wonderfully in her book Braving the Wilderness. Because we don’t like this feeling and the reality it signals, we block our guilt, do nothing and become ever more reactionary, varying between blaming The Other for their own condition (ignoring all historical privilege, sometimes gotten through less than admirable actions – colonisation, slavery, exploitation of natural resources in unethical ways, active marginalisation of different social groups within our own societies) and exploding with: ‘So what do you want me to do, donate all my money to make up for my privilege?’
To break this polarising spiral, we need a new paradigm and we need to change the way we make judgements, by expanding the dimensions of the self in respect to both space and time. In a spatial sense, we have to expand our inner circle, our conception of us. As they develop economically, societies become more and more individualistic. I would say we have now reached a stage of ‘extremist’ individualism, which has replaced the cult of ancestors with the Cult of the Self (often played out on the stage of social media). The spatial circle of the self has narrowed down from tribe/community to family to individual. This also puts tremendous pressure on an individual performing and relying on him/herself – which is not unrelated to the increased rates of stress, burnout and depression we see around us, starting at ever younger ages. Industrialisation removed us from nature; we now live disconnected from The Other and from Nature – like small airtight capsules floating in space. Us vs. Them thinking is automatic – and when we don’t actively reflect and choose otherwise, it becomes a baseline. But when the us is a very narrowly defined I, all relations become more difficult to manage ethically, because the I eventually needs its share of the pie.”
What about changing our dimension of time?
“We also need to expand our current narrow notion of time. Philosopher Roman Krzanich explains in his book The Good Ancestor how to think long-term in a short-term world, as the sub-title aptly reads. In order to make the world more sustainable, we have to think more like hunter-gatherer societies, Krzanich states. In pre-Colombian Peru, for instance, ancestral mummies were literally present at the decision table, at the same time representing future generations. Each decision was made with respect for the past and by taking into account its effects up to the 7th future generation. So people in these societies placed themselves in a broader community and on a timeline from past to future, a continuum. While, in the 21st century, we are only focused on the present and a narrowing circle of immediate friends and family. We have to break through these self-imposed boundaries and broaden our way of thinking in time and space. Again: we have to suppress our discomfort, our guilt and fear of societal divide and climate change. We can only change our systems if we are willing to change ourselves and our place in the larger system, in order to reconnect with other people and nature and remake the world. And this starts with a single step. One step at a time, do the next best thing you can.”
Which role do you see for business in this respect?
“Companies have to use their power to forge change by swopping short-term for long-term thinking and their focus on shareholders for stakeholders. They can still make money, but in a more responsible, sustainable and morally conscious way. Look at history: during the Renaissance, merchant families played an important role in society as patrons of the arts. Leonardo da Vinci wouldn’t have had the means of existence without the Medici family. Business in the 21st century can take inspiration from that and take it a step further by becoming an integral part of the community, with an open eye for the people who live in it and heartfelt moral responsibility for their well-being.”
How can we reconnect with and within communities, now that we have to distance ourselves physically because of the pandemic and separate bubbles in social media divide rather than unite?
“I challenge you on that last point! The definition of a community used to be spatial: people who lived in the same forest or village. But online communities are not defined by physical space anymore – they’re united by the same interests, shared values and a common destiny, which transcend age and class. The world has become a virtual space. Being forced to swap physical interaction with online interaction has drawbacks of course – but it also creates new opportunities to interact, and chances for those who felt like outcasts in their original communities to find ‘places of belonging’.
I absolutely love teaching and coaching online, because I have more in-depth conversations than I would ever have offline. People feel more secure about sharing highly personal, emotional and existential issues from the safety of their own home. (With a twinkle in her eye) If only online communication would allow us to install an automatic mute button for CEOs or dominant speakers during meetings... (Serious again) As a society, we also have a level of consciousness we didn’t have before the pandemic. Hopefully, we can retain those gains in the future, post-Covid.”
I’m optimistic about our ability to turn this crisis into positive change. Are you?
(Smiling) “Managers and consultants are by nature optimistic and always think in possibilities and future value creation. But the current exhaustion and depression we’re experiencing because of the pandemic should not be rushed over in our longing to start with a clean sheet. That’s just another escape phantasy: the illusion of changing the world overnight. There are no clean sheets, just new choices every day, and the chance to do better than before. But for that we have to take time to face the ugly truth and reflect: what aspects of the old world do we want to leave in the past? What do we want to bury before we can grow a new and better world? In nature, everything dies during winter in order to gather strength to bloom again in the spring. Let’s reconnect with this seasonal cycle, let’s reconnect with people in our global society, by reaching out more and learning to listen to, and understand, each other. Only then will we be able to give our world a Real Reset.”