“To see what’s in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle”. George Orwell
There is a lot going on in Europe, especially in the south. Crisis, unemployment, poverty and people committing suicide for these reasons. At the same time, lots of change as business logic is changing and mental models seem to shift. This raises the question how we decide to understand the world and on what basis we define policy, ideology or reality? As mental models are shifting and we, as I see it, do not really understand what’s going on, what understanding serves as basis for policy? Does ‘Brussels’ just impose a factfree system on us?
We need mental and physical reference points. As we are lacking reference points and understanding nowadays, as there is so much change, ideology substitutes reality in guiding our decisions.
We need physical reference points such as signposts to show us which way to go, for example to the airport or the hospital, and we also need reference points to show us where we are. Why? If you don’t know where you are, it’s quite a difficult job to find your way. So, landmarks and “lieux de memoire” play an important role in our lives. We need physical reference points like the ‘meter’ or ‘foot’ to be able to ‘feel’ distance, to be able to measure and to be able to communicate the results of such measurement. We also need emotional and mental reference points. If you see someone laughing it should be a safe conclusion for you to deduce that he is laughing/enjoying himself.
We need reference points like currency to pay our bills. This currency allows us to have a feeling of value. The step towards the euro may have caused economic benefits but also a lot of trouble as people have had to change their reference points with respect to ‘feeling value’. Although not always reluctant, some of us have needed many years to adopt to this new Euro reference point.
‘Culture’ can also be perceived as a set of reference points: how we behave, the way we define a social situation, good and bad, nice or ugly. Reference points may be formal or non-formal internal programs (also known in psychology as ‘cognitions’ or ‘frames’) and may take the form of rituals, e.g. the ritual that you don’t discuss business during holidays or that you don’t embark on a certain topic before the first cup of coffee. There are lots of reference points in social life. For example such things as your education, membership of Rotary-like clubs, concerts you visit or the newspaper you choose to read may be understood as a social code and establishing different social reference points of your social position.
We can’t function without them. My feeling is, even though I am not an anthropologist, that reference points shouldn’t change too often. A change of reference point or set of rituals is really very confusing and it takes time to adopt the new ones. That, for example, is the reason why avant-garde artists often have difficulty selling their art: they don’t sell art. What they are selling is, in fact, a worldview, albeit one based on very different reference points than those you and I probably have. That’s why the BAUHAUS[i], built almost a century ago, still looks ‘modern’.
What about reference points in your own life? Do you know them? Are you aware of them? Are you aware of what you believe in? Major events in a person’s life are usually reflected by a shift in reference points. A divorce, a serious illness, a sudden loss of a beloved. Winning the multimillion jackpot or a getting that very wanted job or promotion. All these events may be looked upon as a reset of various individual reference points.
I will not systematically survey what reference points we have or need in life, although I’m sure there are many in various aspects of life, even in its most intimate parts. My intention is simply to give you an outline of what a reference point is, describe how it serves you and explore our limitations when it comes to changing them.
We experience so many massive changes in numerous aspects of our lives nowadays that many of us face the experience of having no reference points. In the business realm, in politics with respect to the sociological viewpoint of society and even in day to day family life many of us really don’t really know where we are or what we see, with the consequence that we dare not derive conclusions from what we see. We get stuck. Paralysed. We don’t act and do not take decisions as we fear they may be wrong.
Where we lack reference points we lack understanding. As we are lacking reference points and understanding nowadays, as I see it, ideology substitutes reality in guiding decisions. And this is the very reason the European crisis hasn’t been solved yet. To quote George Orwell: “To see what’s in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle”. I feel European politicians are reluctant to see what is happening out there and are basically guided by ideology instead of reality. You know the result.
Context drives meaning
If many reference points change in a short period of time, there is no context to give meaning to facts. And without context there is no communication. And without communication and the feeling of being part of something, fear and uncertainty enter the picture and the feeling of personal significance is lost. With this fear, the ego enters the picture as well, being one of the human mechanisms to cope with fear, uncertainty and the sensation of being meaningless.
I give you one more example how changing reference points affect communication. Communication depends on established reference points: if I don’t know whether you are a friend intending to help me or an enemy focused on damaging me there will be not much exchange of thoughts, you will not leave your comfort zone and we will not enter a real relationship or connection.
But in this comparison, what about politicians, what about banks, what about visiting China looking for new business? Business has to do with interrelating, where all types of reference points are at stake. To give you one concrete, practical example of this: the reason video conferencing usually works fine when we know each other: established relationships need clear reference points.
We need a set of fixed points
Fixed points may be very concrete and very abstract, for example the definition of the ‘physical meter’ is fixed. What also should also be fixed, to give a few examples, is the administration of property, the municipal individual records and the rule that we drive at one side of the road (whether to the left or right I don’t mind). Each society needs a set of these rules and our political convictions as well as practical considerations determine how broad and extensive this set is.
Sometimes one may use quirks of national character to shape effective solutions. I give you the Chinese example on how they have organized tax paying. Like in other countries people in China don’t like to pay taxes. So, there is a tendency to avoid them. How did Chinese leadership solve the problem? If you ask for a formal invoice, the Chinese salesman has to glue a receipt stamp on your bill reflecting the tax amount being paid. However, this stamp also serves as an instant lottery ticket. So, one is able to encourage the payment of tax by making use of the enthusiasm for gambling of many Chinese: each correct invoice is a gamble and a promise for a huge amount of money. This is an example of how reference points and rituals may shape and serve formal policy.
Ideology substitutes Reality?
Our mental models of reality change. This creates a lot of uncertainty. One of the big questions, as I see it, is whether we accept the new reality or whether we hide in ideology and escape from how thing are. E.g. the belief that healthy banks foster healthy economics is just what it is, a belief. The belief that annual public deficit should be below 3% of national income is just what it is, a belief, an ideology.
I’m convinced this struggle between reality and ideology is one of the current big issues in a lot of domains, e.g. politics, business, marketing, science, education, food, energy, banking, the sustainability agenda to mention a few examples. Politics based on how we like to think about reality are not effective and may be destructive. Nowadays they really are. Look around! I consider policies that kill people as a consequence, as some of us see suicide as the only way out, or policies leading to starving kids, even in the Netherlands, and creating poverty (“fostering dynamic behaviour on the labour market”) as criminal.
Other examples? It seems that even ‘McKinsey’ and ‘Harvard‘ and (other) consultancy firms have discovered the valuable role of human beings in business again after having advocated spreadsheets and cost-cutting for a long period of time, thereby reducing humans to ‘resources’ and ‘nuts and bolts’. Very good news, these companies and academic institutions seem to stop acting and reseaching from this destructive cost-cutting ideology now.
Please think about this. Questions? Why do some people and companies prefer ideology as their guide for action? Opportunism? Stupidity? Insecurity? Preferring the comfort zone? I think we need critics, science and policies based on knowledge, not as a substitute for knowledge. What drives ‘Brussels’, European politics, nowadays, ideology or reality? What is your answer? Fact-free ‘ideology based’ politics won’t solve the European crisis.
What about you?