The Power of Clapping

As the nation steels itself for the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 crisis, millions are taking a moment to express their gratitude and assert the message that we are “in this together”. When I join my neighbors in the UK in standing at our doorsteps and balconies to applaud the doctors and nurses of the National Health Service, the collective goodwill is tangible.

The gesture is not unique to the UK. Indeed, there have been similar events in the Netherlands and my home country of Belgium. But it is perhaps significant that the health service should be the primary focus here, where the NHS has a unifying force that I’d venture exceeds even other iconic British symbols, such as its much-loved monarchy. The goodwill shown towards the NHS as an institution is stronger than any commercial brand, any political party; at times, any objective reasoning.

In the present moment, to comment on the unfolding crisis risks the possibility of gross imprecision, of events unfolding in ways that we cannot foresee. Over a matter of days the policies of governments across the globe have turned on a dime; at times, a sort of ‘hysteria in small increments’, only to arrive at where we should first have started. Thankfully, there is now consensus in Europe, if not the US, that containment of the virus is best achieved by a temporary lockdown of personal movement – and that this is the only acceptable way forward.

But as we face into the lengthy privations this involves, it will take more than legislation to see us through. Liberal democracies do not draw their strength from the strict imposition or literal interpretation of emergency laws, however necessary or democratically legitimate they may be. Rather, they thrive on the communal values and unity of purpose that was so effectively demonstrated last Thursday night.

The power of collective sentiment is well known – you need only to look only at the stock market to see the impact it can have. Politicians nurture it, brands thrive on it; the ‘goodwill’ on company balance sheets is effectively much the same thing. Over recent years, the use of ‘nudge theory’ has sought to identify small prompts that stimulate positive behavior in areas where legislation would be complex or difficult to police. The charging of a nominal sum for single use shopping bags has become a case study in how to influence good choices – as, on a lighter note, is the painting of a fly on public urinals to improve the aim!

For now, it seems we are at least agreed – and have found a collective goodwill – on the need for containment. The question, therefore, which most interests me most, is whether we can also stand together in support of the ‘exit strategy’ that, in time, we will surely need? At present, this may appear of secondary importance, but its relevance to our future should not be underestimated.

In a recent piece in the Financial Times, the historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari noted the decisions we take will shape the world for years to come. At a policy level we will need changes to healthcare, to travel, to emergency procedures; we may all of us – though I hope with real caution – need to be more accepting of restrictions to our liberty.

But what of the public sentiment which will underlie and legitimize these choices? Will we retreat to the false security of a more closed world, or have faith in a future that’s based on greater cooperation and knowledge sharing? Can we muster the altruism and trust to coordinate an economic recovery – or will we emerge from the wreckage in a way that resembles the panic-buying and squabbles we’ve seen in our supermarkets?

These decisions will be determined not so much by our governments and institutions, as by each and every one of us. For, as the recent policy pirouettes have shown, it is our collective actions and attitudes that will most influence those who act in our name. Across the world, economic rescue packages are being put in place, that would have been unthinkable were it not for the public mood that we must stand in unison and shoulder the short-term costs.

As we emerge from the crisis, I wonder if we, as individuals will exhibit the same generosity? Among those thousands who’ve had flights cancelled, how many of us will accept a credit voucher rather than demanding a refund? When commerce returns and our customers need more time to pay, how swiftly will we, as business leaders, move to foreclose? And as shareholders, can we refrain from punishing those companies that are far-sighted enough to support their partners over the restoration of dividends?

The economic and social exit we achieve will be the accumulation of the answers we give to these – and countless more – specific questions. I hope we can sustain our goodwill – for as with most aspects of life, we will reap what we sow. Our governments can nudge us, our banks can support us (no doubt with gritted teeth) but ultimately, to come through this crisis stronger, we must sustain the collective sentiment that required no words, but was so clearly heard, in our standing and clapping together.

This article was originally published in CEOWorld.biz – The Power of Clapping (2020)

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