Punishing the good!

A suicide attempt on a building terrace. A couple of teenagers making out on another terrace. Or was it a security guard and someone’s domestic help? A few kids caught drinking beer. Three stray incidents across thirty 3-storied buildings over a span of some 29 years in the residential complex I live in. Enough to impose a lock down of all the terraces and deprive the residents of a small piece of sky rarely seen amongst all the high rises crowding in. This is in the city of Mumbai in India, supposedly the bastion of courage, spirit and hard work.

Question is by creating rules to prevent abuse, do we end up punishing the good? Driven by fear for our security, the larger question is do we even realise we are creating a society characterised by an increasingly widening trust deficit?

Corporations are an integral part of society. In an earlier blog, Redefining Corporate Social Responsibility , I talked about how corporates necessarily have to play a big role in setting the right note in social values and behaviour. That blog was about incentivising good behaviour. The same thought process, however, also holds true for creating a society based on trust. Indeed, incentivising and rewarding good behaviour goes hand in hand with building a society based on trust.

Sadly, though, organisational systems are mostly designed to prevent fraud and, as a result, end up signalling mistrust. I guess this is based on the age old adage of where there is money to be made, there is crime.

But does it have to be that way? In Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner posit that Paul Feldman’s bagel business model, based on a honours system commerce scheme, is proof positive that mostly people can be trusted. Delivering 8400 bagels and a cash basket to 140 companies and scoring a 95% collection rate is impressive by any measure. And obviously, Feldman is a trusting soul because he attributes even the 5% shortfall to oversight rather than malfeasance.

Perhaps that’s the learning here. You have to give trust to get it! Feldman, for instance, didn’t give up on his trust-based business model even when collections dipped to 87% as his business grew. Interestingly, a deep dive into Feldman’s data revealed that the shortfall in the bagel collection basket was mostly coming from the top management floors! A polite and more forgiving explanation for this phenomenon was that perhaps top executives develop a sense of entitlement. The authors are less forgiving with a suggestion that perhaps that’s how those folks climbed to the top!

Be that as it may, Feldman’s honours system commerce scheme is still food for thought (forgive the unintentional pun). People can mostly be trusted to do the right thing. Yet, we live in a world which constantly signals mistrust because we choose to let the exception rule. Thankfully, Feldman didn’t allow the exception to rule and change his business model!

The result is stifling bureaucracy and endless paperwork. Auditors demand competitive quotes. Purchase departments are set up creating one more layer to go through to even commission a job. Anyone give a thought to the negative impact on productivity? Not to mention the morale of employees who are committed to delivering a quality job on time and yet, are constantly being told, “You can’t be trusted.” Never mind that the employee has repeatedly proved that she or he is trustworthy!

I understand that corporations, like larger social structures, need systems to create checks and balances. It may not always be a question of preventing fraud but serve as a simple safety check that employees are doing their due diligence before spending company money. But what’s the point of systems which can easily be scammed? Like competitive quotes to satisfy auditors? That’s just a waste of everyone’s time and a source of frustration for employees who just want to deliver a quality job on deadline. Why? Because quotes can be generated to satisfy the system. It’s paperwork…nothing more! It doesn’t prove that the system is meeting its objective of ensuring company money is getting spent wisely. What’s the alternative? That’s a question I will leave for company regulators to ponder over. And hope they come up with better ideas to protect the organisation without widening the trust deficit.

It’s not just corporations that constantly signal mistrust. We are increasingly creating a world where we teach fear and paranoia in the name of safety. By doing so, I fear (pun intended) future generations will suffer from many a psychological ailment.

We have a 4-year little boy in the family who is being taught ‘good touch’, ‘bad touch in school. As a result, our little boy is now self-conscious about how he is being cuddled. I accept that we are living today in a world where human trafficking and child abuse seems to be on the rise. There is a need for caution. But we need to be careful about how we are conditioning the minds of our little ones. Or, run the risk of seeing a whole new generation growing up riddled with paranoia and suspicious of anyone and everyone.

To date, in India, passers-by will stop and help a crying child. That’s changing. Soon, we will worry more about being accused of accosting the child. At least in America, the fear of police complaints and endless litigation prevents kindly people from extending a hand in help. Here, we are just picking up on the media hysteria and American influence and blindly following a road that can only lead to people with more and more walls between them and their neighbours. No doubt, this is good news for social networks such as Facebook where loneliness can be assuaged under a safe cloak of anonymity. It also probably harbingers well for the profession of psychiatry with hordes of people needing a substitute for close friends.

A steep price to pay for being brought up in a world with a trust deficit. And one that is moving towards a constant state of lock-down.

Do we even realise that by letting fear rule us, we are letting the miscreants terrorize and conquer us? So much for freedom and democracy.

We need to pause. And we need to think about creating an environment based on trust. So that, we can feel free. At the least, we need to find ways to narrow the trust deficit.

Featured Image Credit: Halo in London by Ian Muir – Flickr.com under Creative Commons License

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