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The changing nature of relationships

The voices of persuasion, of collaboration and of collegiality are starting to shine through the dust of disruption

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on our views of ourselves, let alone our views of other people. Discovering the whole range of internet communications, including our ability to WhatsApp anyone we felt like talking to, was exciting even in the midst of a deadly disease. Further learning the limitations of these media with their hard edges, their need for speed and their prison-like separation from those we would have hugged, or at least shaken hands with, we are coming to the conclusion that a smile is better when it is nearby and a laugh needs to be felt as well as seen.

The joy of contact

Of all the business difficulties imposed by lockdown, those needing a judgment of another's integrity must be the hardest. Whether buyer or seller, boss or subordinate, mentor or mentee, we have learnt to read body language in a particular way which involves the breath of another person. To miss that link, to juggle camera and screen - and maybe handwritten notes too, to feel the exhaustion of an hour's webinar, these are all new sensations we have had to acclimatise to. Small wonder that the joy of contact soon became, for many, the dread of too little news, too few views.

The whole experience has shown the need to adapt. As a race, we humans have survived because of our adaptability. We have faced wars, climate upheaval, social revolutions and technology to scare even the bravest, and we have survived and coped with it all.

Now we are asked to make one of the most difficult of all the decisions a social animal can be faced with. How will our relationships deal with the difficulty of an overcrowded planet? 'Social' we are but 'herd' we are less sure. Even as the scientists try to unravel the practicality of herd immunity, each of us is struggling with herd dispersal, not just for a pandemic but for subsequent relationships in the midst of economic and technological pressures.

The challenge of adapting

Where we had learnt to mix social and business in a comfortable and efficient way, we must now reappraise every call we make and, very shortly, every journey we undertake. Lots of people have said they will never return to the old, time-consuming ways of travelling in uncertain traffic and weather to a meeting they cannot switch off for a purpose that is 90 per cent ritual. The facility of virtual witness has yet to be fully explored. It will need quintuple security and integrated virtual relationships of a sort we have yet to invent. But we will invent them and they will become part of our new business order.

The personal relationships will be the hardest to adapt to. Imagine a situation where someone has two bosses - one for pay and rations, the other for technical growth. In an urgent situation which is going wrong, she is called to meet both of them together but one is online, the other across the desk. There is a not uncommon tension between the two bosses. One sees procedure to be fulfilled, order and SOP to be observed, the other, invention, discovery, breakthrough to be achieved. The dynamics are that a-desk-away is what we know best, an on-off-on-again internet connection is one that still makes amateurs of the best techies. No bookie would have a problem assessing those odds.

Power play

What of the change in the power wielded by a presence that cannot be denied versus a click away from oblivion? Authority is losing its clout as it has been doing for a long time. Dispersion has accelerated the process, isolation exacerbated the need for collective voice, as the world protests over the treatment of blacks by militant police forces has shown. Curfews have been ignored notwithstanding the risks of new coronavirus outbreaks. Law and order has often broken down in spite of - perhaps because of - threats of military intervention. "United we stand" hasn't needed to be uttered. "United we stood" has already worked.

If ever there was a time to say "the old order changeth" it is now. And the pun on the word 'order' is intended. Try issuing an order today compared with six months ago. In many places it will be ignored. Or the subordinate will simply ask "why?" when s/he doesn't want to comply. The question will not be rhetorical. In fact, the receiver of the order will soon be asking more questions than the giver. What will that do for cohesion in a factory, for collaboration in a laboratory, for obedience in an army, for compliance in an autocracy? The very process of behaviour as taught to the young is in a state of change. The need for regime and process will, in many places, have increased. The ability to enforce it will have done the opposite.

A turning point

Reason may not have been recovered in the middle of these emotional times but apparent reason is emerging as the new officialdom. Sense may not be the dominant driver yet but it is getting the better of nonsense, in spite of some glaring examples to the contrary. In time to come, today will be seen to have been a turning point in thinking about relationships. Its conclusions may not yet be crystal clear, and the causes of violence may still be very powerful, but the voices of persuasion, of collaboration and of collegiality are starting to shine through the dust of disruption.

To bring together the demands of safety, of personal needs, of economic survival and of emotional traumas pressing on virtually every human being will be a feat of incredible compromise whether between China and the USA or between boss and bossed. It will demand clear thought and kind intentions, not things that appear a natural consequence of where we currently are.

The threats of population overload, of climate catastrophe and of social isolation may be enough to make the common interest predominate.

The alternative is too frightening to contemplate.

  • The writer is founder mentor, Terrific Mentors International

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