I used to be somewhat bemused when people would divide the whole of society into good vs bad. ‘Good people like me’ and ‘bad people like them’, or ‘smart people like me’ and ‘dumb people like them’. I saw it as lazy, but not overly harmful.

The more I contemplated it, the less funny it became. It is actually very unfunny, and much worse than lazy, it is robbing us of empathy and compassion and understanding. Structuring our societal debates into one-dimensional tribal warfare – leaving us screaming at each other from our well-dug trenches. And right now, we need to do better.

My guess is that there’s 1% really bad (and heavens knows there may well be reasons for that) and 1% really, really good (and there’s probably reasons for that too), but the rest of us sit in the middle 98% – mostly good, but we have our bad days, or at least days when we behave badly. We try hard to do and say the right things, but depending on the people around us, the conflicting pressures of life any given day, and sometimes just the weather, we sometimes make choices that aren’t great.

I thought I’d jot down some examples that bring it to life.

The Tech Person and Their Bonus

Here’s a real dilemma, with Tech as the example, but by no means alone on an island.

The Head of Technology has their (and their team’s) annual bonus based on the impact of technology on the business. They’ve worked hard to recruit a good team. Young. Ambitious. Hard working. Clever. The team is finally settled and doing well. Bonuses matter, as the company pays on the low side of the market benchmark.

They get the longest list of proposals and ‘bids’ for their time. All have neat business cases attached – financial impact, long term impact on customers, short term costs, and a host of other complexities around risk.  Choosing 23 of the 26 proposals they lock them into their plans and budgets. The three that miss out are all low cost, low impact, administrative proposals – tidying up the files and the backends of small parts of the business.

The tech team goes well. Nails every commitment they made. Achieves their bonus. Win a few Awards from the Chair. Have a great talent approach them to join the team.

The Detail

Down in the smallest division, is a leader who put forward one of the three missing proposals. They thought it was a modest ask, and it was so needed for customer data that would allow their team to work well. It would have ensured all the old records for long term customers were accessible as the tech team will no doubt keep evolving. Without the records, the team was flying blind. The expectations around productivity meant that getting the records manually was too hard. They start making decisions that hurt the longest standing customers, the ones where most of their records are not included in the technology – retirees, older people, relying on that division to look after them. To understand them, to care, to raise issues and look after their concerns.

Fast forward a few months and the leader of the small team is on the front of the newspaper – behaving unconscionably towards retirees. Stage left we see a photo of the tech leader, in jeans, shaking hands as they hand over a giant philanthropic cheque to a start-up who’s working in the disability space.

Who’s good and who’s bad? Good vs Bad. That answer is not binary.

The next arises in a range of industries, particularly where there’s an impact on the environment or climate. Here is just one to illustrate.

Mining for Coal, or minding my family?

Coal is bad. To be received at Christmas time if you’ve been naughty, not nice. Climate change is here, renewables are the future, we should all care.

So people who work extracting coal, or within the coal industry must be bad.

But are they?

The young apprentice getting a start in a trade in a mine. Third or fourth generation coal-miner, in a town that only knows mining. A couple plotting a life together, dreaming of a modest home, perhaps a family.

Working hard, contributing to our economy, paying tax and supporting a regional area. Saving hard for their dreams and to do the best they can by their family, and the right thing by the country.

They’re open to other jobs, but what are they? Politicians offer ‘clean’ jobs in other states and the cities.

Good vs Bad. Who’s good and who’s bad?

To change tact and round it out, let’s walk on the side of big companies for just a moment.

Big companies and lost jobs

Irrespective of industry, you are stuck in a competitive world, surrounded by disruptors, trying to navigate the best way forward to protect the investors, who you know are largely the Super Funds, holding the savings of a million retirees. That’s just in Australia.

To stay competitive,  in line with industry, you decide to reduce staff. The numbers are big. The seismic shift in the labour market that you’re part of, needs to be discussed, so people can plan. So the Government can plan.  If you state the actual numbers, the media and their listeners will hang you. Don’t mention it and your individual staff will have no chance to prepare or be thoughtful.  Your role is making a profit, returning that to many hardworking Australians who’ve invested in your company, and you do that ethically and within the law. You are not our social saviour. Until we make space to be more thoughtful and create different measurements and ways of expecting businesses to behave, you actually have no real enforced role in creating a good society. Although, often times, you’re not that bad really.

Can we handle the truth?

(yes, a shameless reference to ‘A Few Good Men’)

Or do we need it chocolate covered and with flowers?

If we can handle the truth, we can talk.

But outrage gets the media and the response. 

Let’s calm the outrage

I see the need for us to calm the outrage – and I am really confident it can be done. I am a determined optimist, but irrespective of me – we are not stuck in a system. We are the system. It is not simply good vs bad. There is pressure from all sides. And with that pressure, we must remember the 98% (well 99% really) that are absolutely trying to do their best. To do well for themselves, their families, their communities, in a great way.

To calm the outrage we must:

  1. Reset our mindsets. This is about moving away from the polarity of the 2%, and holding the mindset of those who are mostly good. Of the majority, of the 98%.
  2. Listen for all the perspectives? Hear them. Broadly, clearly, with empathy and compassion
  3. Understand. With listening, to more than an isolated view, we create an understanding that’s deeper than the spin
  4. Make space. This may be most important of all. Find conversations that people can confidently join. Help create space for them. Let people speak their truth. Create possibilities together. You might even find solutions that aren’t all your way.

The Whole Story

When you work with people who are thoughtful about culture – about the whole system that makes us who we are and act how we act, the pressures and the guard rails – you don’t find polarising judgment, outrage, and delusions of perfection. You find thoughtfulness about walking in someone else’s shoes, resetting the guard rails, relieving pressure points. Those who don’t just read the headline – in all its fury and rage – they read the whole story. They remember what’s important, and are not thrown by the uncomfortable truths and contradictions.

They see multiple versions of the whole story  – from every angle – and ask ‘why’ and ‘what are our options’ long before they grab the hangman’s noose for ‘them’. It’s more complex than good vs bad. It’s being open to finding and navigating new ways that work for more than just ‘people like me’.