Corona thoughts – Consistency

Whenever working on a project with others, my biggest source of frustration has always been that silly game where people give themselves a fake deadline on purpose. ‘This must be done by the 20th’ meaning ‘by the 23st, or ‘by the 27th’ or who knows when. What I find more precisely irritating is the self-evident statements that often accompany late delivery, ‘well of course, the deadline was never realistic, it was just a way to get myself going.’ I find this inconsistent relationship to time and language not only confusing and frustrating, but also dangerous. Because it erodes trust – or predictability – and therefore increases the cognitive burden of getting anything done: attention needed to get the task done, and attention needed to figure out what is real and what is a  just a motivational decoy.

The same applies, I believe, to current self-isolation measures. When Australia first imposed a rule on gatherings, with a strict limit of two people, I was outraged. Surely, my partner and I meeting a friend in the park, sitting at a distance, or inviting them over for dinner, will not cause Corona-doomsday. But then I listened more, and started understanding things differently. It wasn’t about us. From one account, 99 of 400 people who were supposed to strictly quarantine had been found by the police out of home. From another account, people were planning to continue with their home-party plans, only maybe reduce the frequency, or the number of guests. From yet another account, the same self-evident statement came out directly: ‘Of course it’s excessive, but if you say 500, or 100, people don’t listen, so you have to be strict, and maybe people will start to do something.’ 

I perceive a direct correlation between the complacent impulse that leads to semi-consciously setting artificial deadlines, and the present erosion of civil liberties. In the Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu proposes that we can recognise the nature of a political regime from their dominant emotional driver. Aristocracy relies on a sense of honour, tyranny works on fear, Republics depends on virtue. Freedom and discipline always walk hand in hand. Now, I wonder if an added element may account for this: that a Republic is more complex than a tyranny. Republican freedom entails a large amount of personal variation, hence greater variation and complexity. Without self-regulation through virtue, without a commitment to simple consistency, the system might edge towards chaos. Fear then steps in, and lays the ground for tyranny. In other words, freedom demands attention. And so, not so much staying home to protect the weak among us, but ensuring consistency between language and action is a gift of freedom to those who surround us.

Values cards project – consistency

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: I wonder, how does the word ‘consistency’ translate into French? Is it ‘constance’ – the stability of a person over time – or ‘fiabilité’ – the fact a person can be trusted to do what they say they will do – or ‘coherence’ – an internal logic between actions and discourses?

B: Here’s how I would approach it. If we adopt a constructionist perspective, we’ll say that conversations create a new reality. But this can only happen if people believe that what is said in the conversation is true. Consistency, then, is about creating an impression of truth. If people believe that the conversations are lies, they develop alternative strategies.

All we do in business is based on a future that does not exist. Consistency creates confidence. It gives value to those conversations that shape a shared reality. If you don’t believe that what the person says will happen will, indeed, happen – then it’s hard to have an impact on the future.

So, consistency is about avoiding a mad organization, one where the different departments do not align.

A: Or is it about reducing the gap between promise and reality? Consistency increases our capacity to predict the future – which is a fundamental human need.

B: Well, psychometric assessments are about consistency: they predict how people will react. And here’s the thing. We like predictability for others, but we don’t like it for ourselves. That’s why there’s a mistrust towards psychometrics. It’s about the illusion of freedom. If we can predict things based on genes, then we might have a position in society that is based on our genome. And then what happens when a part of the population is considered good for nothing?

A: So is it that with consistency, racism is the most fundamental problem? Here’s a thing I’ve been saying for a while: that when dealing with China, or people from other parts of Asia, we – that’s, we westerners – just can’t imagine that they have the same level of complex subjectivity. So we go to cross-cultural trainings, and we learn about cultural traits and strategies, and that helps. To some extent. We can anticipate a few things.

But here’s the crux. One of the premises of cross-cultural understanding is still that everyone is fundamentally different. It’s impossible to reach predictability on the individual level. So we need shortcuts, like evaluation grids or other thing like that, artificially created. They give us an illusion that we’re getting closer to the individual – because we know that they come from a collective culture, and so they will be doing x, y, z. But in fact, this might just cement our prejudice.

B: OK, here’s another angle. At any moment, any situation can evolve in an infinite number of ways. We face an infinite number of possibilties. And so, consistency might be about reducing the risk that we’ll be overwhelmed by the burden of choice. So, consistency reduces freedom in a way – because it’s about letting the past shape the present – but it also reduces cognitive load, and that’s a form of freedom.

A: So what you’re saying is, consistency can fall on the side of prudence, or the side of sloth?

B: Yep. And that would mean consistency is morally neutral. it is not in itself a virtue, or a value.

A: OK, so then, consistency – is it a form of mediocrity, dumbness? Should we say that it obliterates our capacity to understand the world in its complexity, and have us behave the same in all situations, rather than adapt. That if we’re consistent, we lack the capacity to understand the unique originality of any situation? Or the willingness to do that? Then it would mean that our life is just the performance of a stereotype. And at worst, consistency is just the pure banality of evil?

B: I think it depends. In a leadership situation, what if a person makes different decisions but has consistency in their principles, a line, or a direction that they follow consistently? This creates predictability, not in the manner that the person adapts, but how the person adapts, but what remains important. And this can create trust. So here, consistency is capacity for a person to act with just one voice, in all different situations, rather than changing all the time. It’s the opposite of schizophrenia, or hypocrisy.

A: So then, if we were to push for greater consistency between the personal and the professional, that could lead to higher virtue – and a stop to the practice of acting as a sociopath in business, and a good citizen privately.