While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought some appalling consequences one unexpected impact has been our reappraisal and revaluing of the importance of our social world. Stephen Brookfield called them ‘disruptions’ and said that all real critical thinking comes from such disruptions. As a nation, as a society, as individuals, we have been forced to think beyond the economic. We are slowly beginning to recognise that it is not self-interest that makes for social progress; instead, it is a higher calling of which we are all capable. The sacrifices being made daily emergency workers who respond to this higher calling are a poignant daily reminder. Protecting human life and reducing harm has become the most critical accountability of those who call themselves leaders.
Civil society has never shone more brightly. We have witnessed inspiring, spontaneous grass-root actions such as the national #virtual kindness movement, neighbourhoods of people singing from balconies and streets clapping to thank emergency workers. For nations stuck indoors, social media has become the outlet to show support for each other with singers and artists reaching out to their fans and performing requests from their lounge rooms. A flurry of innovative home videos, podcasts and improvising being released daily, highlighting the creativity of ordinary folk and a universal need to feel connected to humankind. This spontaneous global movement demonstrates our social interdependence and reliance on each other to feel safe, sane, and hopeful. Our need for belonging and for social inclusion is the zeitgeist of the moment. In our defining moment, we can readily recognise that it is our fellow citizens, and not the marketplace, that gives us purpose, inspires us to loftier ideals and makes living worthwhile.
What is also now in stark relief is that our social natures, needs and desires, are too often silenced in workplaces. We have succumbed to the prevailing political culture of ‘economic self-interest’ as the only natural order.
Science, however, affirms it is because we are social by nature that we are predisposed to acting cooperatively or prosocially . Prosocial behaviours are those actions intended to help other people. They are characterised by a concern for the rights, feelings, and welfare of other people and demonstrated by sharing, helping, volunteering, and co-operating – the very behaviours we see dominating our COVID 19 social world. As social beings, we are motivated by altruism, empathy, and a sense of purpose, as much as by extrinsic rewards.
Behaviour science shows us that the way societies behave is a consequence of the how they are designed. We can choose to learn from COVID-19 and redesign our society to serve our social needs better. Already, at the individual level, the crisis is challenging each of us to rethink our sense of self, our values priorities, our technological skills, our employability, our need for ongoing development to meet the demands of a new normal.
To rethink at a societal level, we will need the sort of leaders who can call on our higher natures to enable us to flourish. One that can tap into our prosocial dispositions and gain our commitment to sharing the economic pain that will inevitably follow this crisis. We know such cooperation is possible. “JobKeeper” was the result of such collaboration, let us encourage similar partnerships between political parties.
Covid-19 has given us the opportunity to hit the pause button on what was our daily routines and underlying assumptions. As we have seen employees embrace working remotely, we have also seen that micro-management is unnecessary and a barrier to good work. Many employees are flourishing amidst the opportunity to be self-directed challenging managers to rethink assumptions about employee capabilities.
We will also need to recognise, as so many Nordic countries have already done, that the marketplace is a social invention. It, too, can be better designed to distribute rewards and recognition to benefit the common good. Instead of self-interest being the driving force, cooperation can be purpose-built into the design of all our systems. Aspirations for “the common good” rather than “small government” needs to be debated more broadly to enable a more inclusive society to emerge. There is no invisible hand that guides the marketplace; it is a social fiction that needs to be re-tuned to our social needs.
We can build a better society post-Covid-19 by drawing on scientific insights into how best humans flourish and by purposely designing the economy to serve society’s collective needs better. All we need to do is seize the moment!
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