Thursday, July 23, 2015

Choppergate and Power

Choppergate, featuring our arguably most partisan Speaker of the House of Reps in history, Bronwyn Bishop, has whipped up a frenzy, nay a a veritable typhoon of indignation, on social media. This, despite the fact that we have become highly desensitized in recent years to the disingenuous behavior of our politicians: their behaviour has certainly crossed the invisible integrity-lack of integrity line.

Desensitisation is a psychological technique used to treat people with anxiety and, notably, phobias. The idea is that graded exposure to the fear coupled with relaxation reduces the anxiety. It is, indeed, a very effective treatment. But we can become unwittingly desensitized to all sorts of other things too, such as the behavior of our politicians, our leaders. So, when the new LNP Government made a national sport of breaking election promises, the reaction was no more emphatic than a leaf crashing to the earth. Another example is the way the daily nonsense dished out by the media is taken for granted and we keep sucking it in without question, even though we know it is flawed. Makes you wonder what it will take for the majority, rather than excited minorities, to become sensitized again and say that ‘enough is enough’

Anyhow, that’s not the point I want to make in this little blog. It’s more about what it is about humans that has shown Lord Acton’s statement that, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’, to be something of a truism. Dan Ariely, a psychologist (see TED Talks) has done some really interesting work on dishonesty. It seems that most of us will be dishonest to a point. We’ll fudge a bit here and there, keep that extra little bit of change, tell the odd lie, exaggerate. Most of us break the law daily by speeding and then guiltily slow down when we see a police car or a speed gun.

But, for most of us, there is a line that we won’t cross. We’ll fudge so far but not too far. There is a part of our brain that kicks in and gives us a quick slap around the head when we are confronted with that line and seem about to move to the dark side. Psychopaths are an exception, however. It seems true too that when people move into positions of power, even minimal power, they will exploit their situation-adopting what is known as a sense of entitlement. And, yes, its most of us, not just psychopaths that do this. Ariely’s research uses good cross sections of normal people, not those with personality disorders. So, her’s talking about you and me.

Being an unreconstructed Darwinist, I have an easy explanation for all this. Its all about obtaining an advantage in terms of finding a mate and being able to ensure our offspring are ours and will survive. Dear Hortense, it is written in the genes.

So, Bronwyn couldn’t help herself? Well, yes and no. Yes, she is hard wired to seek advantage and stuff her snout in the trough. But, being civilized, being a leader, being a good citizen means having the capacity to overcome this urge, to recognize where the line is. Claiming the odd car hire or meal when on an overseas trip is one thing, within normal limits according to Ariely. Spending $88,000 in a fortnight and $1000 a day limo hires while in Europe is another.

But, this sense of entitlement is not restricted to political leaders. Any kind of power, and management is a common power source, will cause this breach of integrity at all sorts of levels not just the snout in the trough. And it can only lead to cynicism and disengagement on the part of employees.

We should expect more of our leaders-all of them. And we need to make more noise about our value expectations, if we have not become too desensitized.