How Covid-19 can illustrate the challenge of mapping the murky waters of guilt and innocence

The extraordinary incidents around the country of people disregarding the need for social distancing, taking risks and clearly provoking a second wave spike of Covid infections, presents an interesting backdrop to a discussion of collective and individual guilt. The news that security guards employed by the government to ensure returning citizens holed up in hotel quarantine isolation to prevent the introduction of new Covid-19 cases had been flouting the rules by socialising with return travellers has been greeted with widespread disbelief. Yet, for the security guards in question, individually and collectively, what were they thinking? Did they have a sense of innocence that they were doing nothing wrong, just being friendly, perhaps a complete absence of guilt in disregarding those guidelines. Or did they have a sense of guilt that they overrode with the desire to be sociable. Did they had some theory that meant it didn’t apply to them. Or was it the returned travellers, did they entice them? Where does the guilt and innocence lie?

To understand guilt and innocence we have to start with conscience, because, at a personal level, our conscience is determined by our moral set of values. So we have a code that we may have gained from our family or our profession, or from our industry or from our company, a kind of a code by which we live by. We will feel guilty when we breach that code, and we will feel innocent when we live by that code. We can get into judgements about other people if they live by a different code – even though they feel innocent because they’re living by their code – we judge them as guilty.
At a collective level, when we talk about a group of people, there may, of course, be lots of different codes at play, so we talk about an organizational code of conduct or an industry code of conduct. If we abide by that, we feel innocent, and if we breach it, we experience guilt. However, once again, we could have individual interpretations of that, and when we go to the collective conscience (and this comes from the systemic work specifically) we live according to our sense of guilt and innocence based on those personal codes.

For example, society has some expectations on how, say, responsible members of society ought to behave. This is where it gets interesting from a systemic point of view because people can be operating at their personal conscience levels (“I’m healthy” or “This has all been overblown”), and therefore feel innocent, but be in breach of the collective conscious expectations, and therefore be guilty from a collective perspective. We have seen this over the last few months, where people in their own minds thought what they were doing was fine, but from a collective perspective, it was not fine.

Another example of how innocence and guilt can intersect can be seen in a practical organizational context. Think about an organization which, as so many will now have to face, for the survival of the business, a leader might have to contract the staffing levels. Is that person willing to stand on the side of the collective and recognise inwardly “Okay, even though, personally, I might feel compromised and feel bad about letting people go because it affects their livelihood and their families, but for the benefit of the enterprise, I accept the feeling of guilt at a personal level?” Or perhaps you don’t feel guilt at all because you are so connected to your responsibility for the wellbeing of the enterprise. In that case you may disregard the sensitivity required at a personal level. Employees commonly experience the issues at the personal level and can have survival guilt if they stay unless the leaders appreciate both and manage both, acknowledging what it. Equally you can support employees leaving to find good opportunities. There are many things you can do to make sure those leaving leave in a good empowering way. Tis prevents the survivor guilt if they see their colleagues leave in a good way.

This is the interesting thing about guilt: what is the context? What we know from systemic intelligence is that if we can acknowledge the truth of the situation and understand what the merits are, we can feel innocence for the collective, even if we experience guilt at a personal level, and we can dignify that and carry it in the right way.

Early on Denmark gave us a beautiful example of higher order collective consciousness. Their response to the Covid-19 crisis was to take a larger systemic perspective. The Danish government told private companies hit by the effects of the pandemic that it would pay 75 percent of their employees’ salaries for three months to avoid mass layoffs. The philosophy is that the government wants companies to preserve their relationship with their workers. Their perspective is that it will be harder to have a strong recovery if companies have to spend time hiring back workers who have been fired. In other words, they have chosen to put whole economy into freeze mode because the government is afraid of the long-term damage that the alternative will do to the entire system. This was subsequently emulated by our own Australian government with the introduction of JobKeeper, albeit rather more sporadically.

Meanwhile, a narrow collective perspective was modelled by President Trump in seeking an exclusive vaccine deal with the German company which was taking a leading role is developing medication and vaccines for the coronavirus. He reportedly offered $1bn to Tübingen-based biopharmaceutical company CureVac to secure the vaccine “only for the United States”. A classic example of an individual displaying his own code of conduct, feeling innocent in securing the vaccine only for his citizens and no guilt about the implications of this for the rest of the world. In years to come it will be interesting to observe the systemic effects for both nations.

As we have seen, guilt and innocence is not always clean and clear; it’s not always something that you can simply look at and take a position on. It’s something that you may need to map systemically to reveal and understand what is actually at play. The beauty of systemic work is that when you can see the dynamics, you can change the way you recognize what’s going on. When you acknowledge something that is present that you hadn’t acknowledged before, you can actually see what is useful about the situation and what is limiting about the situation. Once you have acknowledged all the dynamics that arise – which may be complex and difficult and in a stuck pattern – something new is possible.

If you’d like to benefit from, or develop your understanding of systemic intelligence further, please contact Sarah at scornally@acumenglobalpartners.com. We look forward to hearing from you.

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