Look at the bigger picture

On Wednesday May 8 this year South Africans head to the polls again. Will they even vote? If they do, will they even think before they make their mark in anger? Will you? It’s a very real question; there’s a lot to be enraged about with th

The Star, 4th May 2019

ON Wednesday May 8 this year South Africans head to the polls again. Will they even vote? If they do, will they even think before they make their mark in anger? Will you?

It’s a very real question; there’s a lot to be enraged about with the tsunami of revelations pouring from the various commissions of inquiry to probe state capture in general and malfeasance at the South African Revenue Service and the Public Investment corporation in particular.

The headlines we see every day, more often than not, only serve to underline this, while the politicians – on all sides – spin what they can and play on emotions because none of them really want you to think too deeply on how you vote or who you vote for, they would prefer if you did it viscerally, emotionally.

Emotions are a tricky thing; not enough and our lives are listless, too much and we can’t see the wood for the trees – ask sports psychologists, it’s their stock in trade. We’ve found the same in business management. There are documented studies that show teaching people classical entrepreneurial skills when they are starting out with their businesses is counter-intuitive – and counter-productive, if you want them to succeed you teach them psychological resilience, which has a far more positive effect on their business.

It’s something we’ve taken to heart in our MBA and related executive education programmes, incorporating emotional mastery into the curriculum, because when you become het up your peripheral vision narrows, literally, until you only focus on what’s in front of you. You lose your situational awareness. The dangers are two-fold, you don’t see the imminent threats, but you are also blinded from seeing the opportunities. We can see how this would be potentially catastrophic in business or in sport, but we can’t seem to see the same consequences in personal relationships and
certainly not in politics.

The reason is because we have become enslaved by dramatic thinking, we veer between thinking everything’s brilliant to everything’s a disaster almost in the space of time it took you to read this, which explains how we can revere our politicians as heroes one day and damn them as villains the next. This emotional intellectualism doesn’t just effectively render us bipolar; it makes us very susceptible to the diet of fake news that we are fed. It also makes it very difficult to break this spiral because of the cognitive dissonance that steps in, that naturally prevents us from accepting anything
that flies against what we consider to be true.

The brilliant theorist Hans Rosling speaks about this in his book Factfulness, using the example of poverty. The world is better off than it was a century ago; the percentage of people living in absolute poverty has declined immensely – that’s a statistical fact. But because people’s lived reality doesn’t reflect this, they dismiss it out of hand. Mark Feitelberg, my friend and former colleague at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, is a clinical psychologist and executive coach. He says: “in the absence of information, fantasy reigns”.

We all do it – unless we are trained not to – because our minds desperately try to make meaning out of everything and because our factory setting as humans is fear. As part of our natural survival instinct, we default to the evil other, which we understand, and come up with conspiracy theories based on prejudice and stereotypes to rationalise that which we don’t understand. The antidote to this is systemic thinking, the ability to look beyond the issue to the phenomenon and its causality. That way we break our addiction to personalities – and our inevitable disappointment and disillusion – and concentrate on what happened. When we do that, we will be able to see what caused it – and how we can prevent it from happening again.

Systemic thinking is important far beyond May 8, because we can’t just leave it to the politicians to fix the social catastrophe that is our Gini co-efficient, the yawning chasm between the haves and the have-nots, we all have to help. Can we break the cycle of poverty by replacing dramatic thinking with systemic thinking? Is there a correlation between emotional thinking, the ability to be easily distracted by fake news and the inability to defer gratification? We need to address the lack of meaning and the lack of emotional awareness. To do this we need a better flow of information – and more information – but we also need to learn to look at the bigger picture, which is immensely difficult, to be able to think rationally, rather than viscerally, by developing our peripheral vision, literally and figuratively.

We can start by stopping our fetishization of our political leaders and dropping our expectations of them, but never stop holding them to account. We need to re-engage with society, overcoming the overwhelming sense of cynicism that seems to have infected all of us as we emerge from a decade of state capture aided and abetted by corporate collusion. The first phase of that process is May 8. Who you vote for and whether you vote or not is actually irrelevant; what is critical is that you think about what you are doing, why you are doing it and who you are doing it for – and then owning the consequences of your actions, calmly and rationally.

If you don’t vote, you’ve allowed others to exercise your choice for you. If you do vote, you’ve taken part in the system. But it doesn’t stop there, it can’t. The problems this country faces are far too great to be resolved by you doing your civic duty once every five years and then going back into your shell. The moment you realise that is the moment you are able to commit to being part of the solution – which, irrespective of its political hue or direction, can only be one that addresses the inequalities in this country, both structural and self-inflicted, for the benefit of all of us and those
who come afterwards in a sustainable and equitable way.

Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa and co-founder of the
#InformedDemocracy project.

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