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Stockpiling? Who’s stockpiling?!

“Men are moved by two levers only: fear and self interest”

Napoleon Bonaparte

Mutual interest or self interest?

Human nature has been laid bare in the UK over the past few weeks.  This, of course, may be the case for the rest of the world gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic, but I’ll confine my thoughts to the UK, after all it’s where I live.

There has been much talk of ‘Dunkirk spirit’ and communities pulling together, yet the reality that has been witnessed in Supermarkets and elsewhere has been far from any form of collective struggle.  On the contrary, if community spirit was measured in loo rolls then we know full well how well we might do.  

This idea of mutual or self interest action is complex.  I think it is quite possible that one can act in both ways simultaneously and, forgive my cynicism, for some people an act of mutual interest might justify an act self-interest – you buy 10 packs loo rolls from Tesco (you need only 2), but you give (sell) a pack to your housebound 86 year old neighbour – surely that makes your act of self interest OK? 

Interestingly no one will ever admit to acting in self-interest, indeed they may not see their actions as such.  Back to an interview with a member of the public, this time on the way out of a supermarket, their trolley rammed with tea bags and loo roll.  When asked by the BBC Midlands reporter why they were stockpiling their response was crystal clear:

“I’m not stockpiling, I’m just making sure that I’ve got enough to see me through”

In the commercial world, much depends on power.  It is power that can have an enormous impact on the outcome of any interaction.  Put simply, the greater the power an organisation or individual possesses, the greater their options.  If you have a great deal of power  (you’re at the front of the queue for the supermarket), you can choose to operate in your own self-interest (buying 10 packs of loo roll – if the supermarket permits).  If you’re at the rear of the queue or housebound, then you have very little power and will rely on those with the greater amount of power operating in your interest.

I always think that runs on the banking system provide an excellent example of human nature in a crisis, perceived or otherwise.  One of the initial UK casualties of the sub-prime crisis of 2008 was an institution known as Northern Rock.  It was a building society rather than a bank, but none the less it suffered a run from its investors.  I remember vividly an interview conducted with a member of the public who was queueing to remove their savings.  The reporter suggested to them that their actions would bring about a run on the bank, to which the interviewee responded:

“I’m not causing the run, this lot are, I just don’t want to lose my money!”

Well before the spread of Coronavirus we were all exposed to a great change of interest in the retail world in the UK.

Many of you will all be aware that until relatively recently the majority of the supermarkets acted in self-interest when it came to purchasing milk.  The fact that they were paying the farmers less than the cost of production for a litre of milk was well chronicled.  In this situation the supermarkets had all of the power and therefore pursued a self-interest policy.  As an aside I would imagine their share-holders were happy with this approach.  

Following public pressure and a campaign mounted by The Daily Mail newspaper, the supermarkets changed their approach to one of mutual interest.  They began to pay the farmers more for their product, which in turn allowed the newspapers to sing their praises and thus turned the supermarkets into the ‘good guys’.  Of course as time has gone on the supermarkets have done a sterling job in passing on the increase in purchase price to you and me – I think it is now branded ‘Farmers’ Milk’ and costs a little more than ‘normal’ milk!  That aside, mutual interest appears to have been served in the case of the milk market.

I would suggest that power still plays a part in what we are seeing currently in the UK.  Take the recent issue of people decamping to their holiday homes.  They have a greater number of options than most, which is a product of their power; most of us do not have a second or third home to move to in a time of crisis.  They can choose to move out of the city and quarantine in the less densely populated areas of the UK.  On the surface this may seem like a selfless act.  Moving to a less densely populated area could be seen as a way of reducing pressure on the medical facilities based in the city (selfless – perhaps).  Of course, a rural area is less likely to have a large number of infections (selfish).  Further, when one considers that medical provision in rural areas is geared for less people, all of a sudden the holiday home owner should have stayed put in the city and should not have acted in their own self-interest.  

So perspective and context matter. 

I was reassured when I discovered how many people had volunteered to assist the NHS.  Having asked for 250k volunteers, the NHS received 170k in less than 24 hours and over 500k in 48 hours.  Members of the public prepared to put themselves in harms way for their fellow citizens.  That is surely mutual interest, isn’t it?  In the vast majority of cases, of course it is, however I was shocked to hear a story of a number of individuals volunteering as they were under the impression that they would receive some form of NHS identity document that would allow them to get to the front of the queue for the supermarket…perhaps that’s self interest after all.

You may feel that it is impossible to make the ‘right’ decision; everything is either self-interest or mutual interest.  Indeed the cynic in me always thinks that people will act only in self interest and will help others if ultimately they stand to benefit.  

I think there is a way of looking at things slightly differently.  Rather than your actions being based on a binary decision, perhaps there is some other guidance you could refer to.  When faced with decisions of this sort I always remind myself of some advice I was given a long time ago.  My father always guided me with the simple phrase:

“do what you ought to do, not what you want to do”

If you think of it in those terms then how you should act becomes very clear.  

“Trust is an illusion…all that matters in the end is mutual interest”

Sandeep Reddy

change, cognitive, coronavirus, influencing, leadership, management