Smaranda Boros on How to Prepare for The Great Reset

Smaranda Boros on How to Prepare for The Great Reset
The ‘Great Reset’ after the pandemic asks for bravely facing uncertainty and discomfort, instead of giving in to escape phantasies to alleviate our anxiety. Only if we are ready to welcome reality and take time to reflect, can we remake the world, says Smaranda Boros, Associate Professor of Intercultural Management and Organisational Behaviour at Vlerick Business School.  

A global citizen, she calls herself. Romanian by descent (she does the Teams-interview from her native country), Smaranda Boros worked in Romania, Italy and the Netherlands (Tilburg University), before choosing Vlerick Business School in Belgium to continue her scientific career, as Associate Professor of Intercultural Management and Organisational Behaviour. As ‘a passionate and vocational psychologist’ at heart,  she thoroughly enjoys combining research and teaching with the practice of management coaching and leadership development. Furthermore, her volunteering work brings her all over the world, supporting local students and collaborating with institutions for social science in Suriname and South Africa, and being involved in projects in India and Ethiopia. She sees the global community as her home now.

Since the corona crisis, this global community is necessarily exclusively a virtual one. Most people resent being forced to attend online meetings all day, but Boros personally thrives on it and sees advantages and new opportunities, as she will explain during the interview. The pandemic provides us humans with a chance for remaking the world, asserts Boros, which happened to be also this year’s theme for the World Economic Forum in Davos: The Great Reset. She sees the corona crisis as an opportunity for systemic transformation, to reinvent ourselves and restore our relation to the world as one ecosystem. More people have stated that, but Boros delves deeper, puts mankind on the sofa and warns we first have to face our inner demons and the discomfort of the current external turmoil before being able to drive change. Interviewed by Kearney-partner Jurgen van Weegen, she peppers her discourse with scientific research on human emotion, dips freely in other disciplines like (cultural) history and philosophy and uses storytelling to make her message even more compelling, now and then accompanied by an infectious laugh.    

Remaking the world: that’s an ambition of titanic proportions…
‘It is. Last spring, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of hope. Corona would give us the chance for a Great Reset from an existential perspective, just like the Middle Ages paved the way for Enlightenment and the Spanish Flu led to the introduction of social benefits. Because of the lockdown people suddenly reached out to one another. I got calls and mails from people I had not seen in years! There was also hope that the pandemic would help bridging inequality. My survey in the very beginning of lockdown showed the women I interviewed hoped working from home would shift gender roles. But only three weeks later gender inequality was even exacerbated, even in the elite, highly educated groups in my survey. The pandemic has also widened the divide between developed, privileged countries and struggling, developing countries. Take the imbalanced global distribution of corona vaccines, which the World Health Organization itself has labelled as a ‘moral failure’. So the high hopes for worldwide transformation in the beginning of the pandemic soon imploded and only mirrored and magnified our existing societal problems. The discourse of the Great Reset very quickly switched to corona fatigue and a hankering for going back to normal.’ So we got instead A Great Reveal.

What is your explanation for this, as a psychologist?
‘Our current struggle with global issues is mirrored and maintained by our individual struggle as humans. The pandemic confronts us with fear and uncertainty, which triggers huge levels of anxiety. The news and social media are dominated by negative words. The anxiety this provokes is coupled with the fact that lockdown confronts us with our inner demons and crumbling relations. Look at the soaring divorce rate during this crisis. When people do not deal with these emotions, they resort to escape phantasies, like: ‘The vaccine will give us our old world back!, or: ‘2021 will be better!’. We try to cope with the pandemic by giving in to mechanisms to suppress fear. We are hiding from reality, rather than facing it, allowing ourselves time for reflection and work on positive change.’

My experience is that business, like the professional services sector, during the crisis learnt to overcome uncertainty, adjust and unleash structural change, although that this isn’t the case for all companies.’
‘We must not forget how privileged we are in this part of the world, belonging to the white, economically advantaged elite. In developing countries it is quite a different story. Yet, in the western world some companies also struggle more than others. This distinction is not only caused by the sector they are in and how hard this is hit by corona measures. Surviving as a company or not, is also depending on its mindset. Some companies become paralysed and flee in wishful thinking, ostrich attitude and deal with reality by exacerbating  control: they try to monitor  their employees  out of fear they night not work as hard from home as in the office. Most companies though complain of less cohesion, of the disintegration of social relations within. And, within the limits of all of us struggling socially, I just wonder how healthy these relations were before going online (we know from research that online communication tends to exacerbate existing ones). Other companies say: Okay, this is our new reality, let’s face it. Once you accept and embrace uncertainty and discomfort, instead of hanging on to old routines, you have the option to reimagine ways of organizing, of doing business, of existing in the larger ecosystem, and adapting to its realities..’

The pandemic puts even more pressure on the increasing polarization in society. How can companies contribute to more global cohesion? 
‘As humans, as business leaders and as western societies, we need to address our (unconscious) feelings of guilt for the privilege we have. This unacknowledged guilt and our defense mechanisms activated by it often dictate the relations we have within our own community and with other parts of the world  Brené Brown puts this wonderfully in her book Braving the Wilderness. Because we don’t like this feeling and the reality it signals,, we block our guilt, do nothing and become ever more reactionary, varying between blaming The Other for their own condition (and ignoring all historical privilege, sometimes gotten through less than admirable actions – see colonisation, slavery, exploitation of natural resources in unethical ways, active marginalisation of different social categories within our own societies) and exploding with: ‘What do you want me to do then, donate all my money to make up for my privilege?’
To break this polarizing spiral, we need a new paradigm and change the way  we make judgements, by expanding the  dimensions of the self in respect to both space and time. In a spatial sense we have to stretch our inner circle, our conception of us. As they develop economically, societies become more and more individualistic. I would say we have reached now a stage of ‘extremist’ individualism, which replaced the cult of ancestors with the Cult of the Self (often played out on the stage of social media). The spatial circle of the self has narrowed down from tribe/community to family to individual. This also puts tremendous pressure on an individual performing and relying on themselves – which is not unrelated with the increased rates of stress, burnout and depression we see around us, starting at ever younger ages. Industrialisation also removed us from nature. We now live disconnected from The Other and from Nature – like small airtight capsule floating in space. Us vs. them thinking is automatic, when we don’t actively reflect and choose otherwise it is a baseline. But when the us is a very narrowly defined I, all relations become more difficult to manage ethically (because the I eventually needs its share of the pie).

What about changing our dimension of time? 
‘We also need to expand our current narrow notion of time. Philosopher Roman Krzanich explains in his book The Good Ancestor how to think long term in a short-term world, as its subtitle aptly reads. In order to make the world more sustainable, we have to think more like hunter-gatherer societies, Krzanich states. In pre-Colombian Peru for instance, ancestral mummies were literally present at the decision table, at the same time representing future generations. Each decision was made with respect for the past and by taking into account its effects up till the seventh future generation. So people in these societies placed themselves in a broader community and on a timeline from past to future, a continuum. While in the 21st century we are only focused on the present and a narrowing circle of immediate friends and family. We have to break through these self-imposed boundaries and broaden our way of thinking in time and space. Again: we have to suppress our discomfort, our guilt and fear of societal divide and climate change. We can only change our systems if we are willing to change ourselves and our place in these larger system, in order to reconnect with other people and nature and remake the world. And this starts with a single step. One step at a time, do the next best thing you can.’  

Which role do you see for business in this respect?
‘Companies have to use their power to forge change, by swopping short-term for long-term thinking and their focus on shareholders for stakeholders. They can still make money, but in a more responsible, sustainable and morally conscious way. Look at history: during the Renaissance trading families played an important role in society as patron of the arts. Leonarda da Vinci wouldn’t have had means of existence without De Medici family. Business in the 21st century can take inspiration of that and take this a step further by becoming an integral part of the community, with an open eye for the people who live in it and heartfelt moral responsibility for their well-being.’

How can we reconnect with and within communities, now we have to distance physically because of the pandemic and separate bubbles in social media divide rather than unite?
‘I challenge you on that last point! The definition of a community used to be spatial: people who lived in the same forest or village. But online communities are not defined by physical space anymore, they are united by the same interests, shared values and a common destiny, transcending age and class. The world has become a virtual space. Being forced to swap physical interaction with online interaction has drawbacks of course, but it also creates new opportunities to interact, and chances for those who felt outcasts in their original communities to find ‘places of belonging’.
I absolutely love teaching and coaching online, because I have more in-depth conversations than I would ever have offline. People feel more secure to share highly personal, emotional and existential issues from the safety of their own home.’ With a twinkle in her eye: ‘If only online communication would allow us to install an automatic mute button for ceo’s or dominant speakers during meetings...’ Serious again: ‘As a society, we also have a level of consciousness we didn’t have before the pandemic. Hopefully we can retain those gains in the future, after corona.’

I am optimistic about our ability to turn this crisis into positive change. Are you?            
Smiling: ‘Managers and consultants are by nature optimistic and always think in possibilities and future value creation. But the current exhaustion and depression we experience because of the pandemic, should not be rushed over in our longing to start a clean sheet. That is just another escape phantasy: the illusion of changing the world overnight. There are no clean sheets, just new choices every day, and the chance to do better than before. But for that, we have to take time to face the ugly truth and reflect: what aspects of the old world do we want to leave in the past? What do we want to bury, before we can grow a new and better world? In nature everything dies during winter, in order to assemble strength to bloom again in spring. Let’s reconnect with this seasonal cycle, let’s reconnect with people in our global society, by reaching out more, learn to listen and understand each other. Only then we will be able to give our world a Real Reset.’

This interview was published in Management Scope 02 2021.

This article was last changed on 31-08-2021