Business & Leadership
David Rooney is Honorary Professor of Management and Organisation Studies at Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University. He has researched, taught and published widely in the areas of wisdom, leadership, the knowledge-based economy, and creative industries. He has authored numerous books and has published in major academic journals including The Leadership Quarterly, and Human Relations.
Transcription of the video
Yeah, I mean, that’s a really interesting question. And it’s one that’s caught my interest right from the start of the pandemic. And because I’m a business school prof, I’m really interested in what happens in the workplace and with social distancing, people working from home and working in virtual teams, or whatever it is. What I’m seeing here in Australia is that for a decade or more now, workplaces have been very reluctant to allow people not to work from home. But we’ve seen so many positives coming from it, that it seems like that natural resistance that managers have – to allowing people not to come into the office to work, has finally kind of worn down. And so, there’s much more openness about doing that. And I like it for a number of reasons. One is that we know that psychological outcomes in workplaces at the moment, around the world, are not very good. And we see anxiety, depression, mood disorders, generally, as really high-level characteristics of workplaces and the toxicity that we see in the workplace these days, which comes from hyper competitiveness, and neoliberal economic ideology, and so on. And so I think, in the long term, having kind of broken that, that umbilical cord that sees managers and business leaders wanting people to be stuck forever, and in the workplace at their desk, so that they can be controlled and observed, and all of that sort of stuff… is finally perhaps going to be a thing of the past. And that’s got to be a good outcome for people’s general mental health. But also, it helps people, you know. We all have busy lives, we’re dealing with, with career and family and our social life and having that additional flexibility so that we’re not spending, you know, let’s say up to four hours a day commuting, has got to be a good thing.
That’s a great question. And I think wisdom speaks very directly to this issue with managers and leaders. I think courage is one part of wisdom that we rarely ever talk about. And so I think managers and leaders need the courage to trust people to not be in the office all the time. And I think that’s going to be hard for a lot of people. All of us need some level of empathy, so that we can support these new ways of configuring teams and relationships in productive work. And, of course, empathy… I think most of us in this space would agree is an important part of being wise. And I guess, kind of a flip side to the first one about the courage to trust is humility. And so we need to see managers who have the humility, to not want to be control freaks, to not want to sit down and watch and measure every moment of everyone’s day.
I’m going to focus here on anxiety. And I think this is a big issue for us. Because we live in a world, we have lived in a world, where we have unlimited amounts of data, unlimited amounts of information, and our capacity of crave knowledge is unprecedented in human history. So we’re kind of used to knowing everything. We’re used to certainty. And we’ve become the kind of lazy and inexpert at coping with ambiguity. And so I think there are some real questions about anxiety. John F. Kennedy said, in the midst of the Cold War “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I think some of the negative behavior we’re seeing in relation to people dealing with COVID ultimately links back to: “Oh hell, you know, we’ve got this pandemic, we don’t really know how to deal with pandemics. We’re afraid. We don’t understand this virus, the science is not in on it yet. What the hell do we do? We’re not in control of this.” So there’s a big set of questions there about fear of fear itself for me. this extends beyond the workplace into our daily lives. And if I’m looking at some of the aberrant decision making that is going on in political leadership around the world, where we’re seeing prime ministers, presidents, who are just not grasping with the problems that are in front of us, I see a certain level of anxiety in those people as well. And that then leads to poor decision making, or unwise decision making as you and I might think about it. And I guess, if we scale that up to a social level, I think one of the problems we’re already seeing, but which I think is going to get worse as we progress, is the falling apart of social cohesion. And you know, we’re seeing that in the US in particular. And we’ve seen identity politics rise and whole ingroup outgroup dynamics rise. There are people now who are sort of pigeon-holing research knowledge as something that people on the left of politics believe in. And charismatic narcissism is something that conservative people believe in, and nothing good can come from that. This is an unwise society written very broadly in the sky, and I think it’s actually very dangerous. And we’ve seen an erosion of the fundamental democratic values. I do see that as very serious and you know, in the way it links to populist, charismatic narcissistic leaders, whose position in politics is really based in dividing people and, you know, what they call in politics “dog whistle politics,” where you inflame people’s fear of the unknown, or fear of the other, the fear of different groups in society that have different points of view. And I think it’s something that we just desperately have to acknowledge. And then get on with dealing with, so I think that that’s where I feel particularly worried, going forward, and where I feel particularly concerned that we need to change the conversation and say that wisdom is not just an individual level phenomenon, it’s also a group or a community or a society, a society-wide phenomenon.
Psychological distancing, I think is an important thing. but I want to go back a step further. And I hesitate to do this, because this is a complex idea that comes to us from Buddhist wisdom. And it’s the idea of “nonjudgmental acceptance.” So, in psychology terms, in therapeutic terms, we know about acceptance based therapy. And that comes from this very concept, and I think we, to make it a little bit easier. Let’s go back to Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth.” And he’s kind of speaking to this issue with that idea of an inconvenient truth. A pandemic is an inconvenient truth for all of us. We don’t want to give up our individual freedoms, the freedom to associate and not social distance, have a social life, and all of that sort of stuff that we’ve just taken for granted. But we actually don’t live in that world anymore. And so, a Buddhist wisdom perspective would say: “Okay, but the first step to be able to live in that world is to be able to say, well, whether I like it or not, and even if I want to wish this fact out of existence, I need to kind of psychologically distance myself from it, and sit and just non-judgmentally process the very idea of a pandemic, and the very ideas that that I’ve been talking about already about, the things that we need to change psychologically in the way we approach thinking about our workplace.
I would reiterate the nonjudgmental acceptance idea and perhaps learning the basic mindfulness skills that underpin them. But to say something new on something very quickly, it also tells me that we really need to think in interdisciplinary ways. And one of the things that if I look at it, all the advice that the epidemiologists are giving us about dealing with pandemics now and into the future. Wouldn’t it be great if people like you and me, were talking to the epidemiologists and saying: “”okay, so when you start building these policy level responses to changing people’s behavior, to help with the pandemic, what would be a wisdom approach to that? How would we deal with that?”” And I am thinking, so we saw in New Zealand, after 100 days of being COVID-free, they had a breakout. And just last week, here in Australia, in the city of Adelaide, they’ve gone 100 days COVID-free, and then all of a sudden, there’s a breakout. So, there’s something going on in people and people’s behavior, at around about that three-to four-month period, which is not a medical or a virus issue. It’s a human behavior and a human wisdom issue. And so, wouldn’t it be great, if we could see that kind of interdisciplinarity come into how we respond with this new world of high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity and, and the dangers that are attached to living in a pandemic world?