UK residents’ behaviour in the first phase of lockdown shows that clear leadership is key to social responsibility, according to a recent opinion column by Nicky Hawkins: director of impact at social science think tank FrameWorks Institute (The Guardian, 23 September 2020).
Hawkins notes that, amid the looming threat of a second wave of Covid-19, it’s worth remembering a crucial point: “For three months back in the spring,” she writes, “we – UK citizens – did what we needed to do. The government may have dozed at the wheel, but when it finally woke up, we acted collectively by staying at home to save lives. And with some notable exceptions, we stayed the course by locking down for longer and more willingly than some predicted.”
To support her case, Hawkins cites a piece of late-April research from the London School of Economics (LSE) indicating that, broadly, people complied with the initial lockdown requirements “by consent rather than compulsion”.
As the researchers wrote: “In short, our analysis suggests that making social distancing a legal requirement may have strengthened public compliance not through deterrence or legitimacy, but through signalling that the nation needs to take social distancing seriously, underlining what people should and should not be doing, and why.” (LSE politics and policy blog, 27 April 2020)
In that sense, the new laws served as a clarifying mechanism, cuing the public to take the initiative and run with it.
Or, as Hawkins puts it: “[The researchers] discovered that neither knowledge nor fear made much difference. What compelled us to act was our feelings of social responsibility and our perception of what others were doing – our sense of what was normal.”
She explains: “Even with a threat as immediate and serious as a deadly virus, fear for ourselves is not the primary driver of our actions. We act with and for each other, based on our sense of what’s right and what we think other people are doing.”
Hawkins adds: “Living through the most immediate challenge we’ve faced in generations tells us a lot about how we do – and don’t – solve big problems in society. We stuck to lockdown because we believed other people were sticking [to] it. Nine out of 10 of us in the UK are wearing face coverings. Doing the right thing by each other is very much the norm.”
What should leaders learn from this about how best to encourage staff to follow them?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s chief executive John Mark Williams says: “When we’re talking about the whole population, government is driven by consent rather than merely compliance. And what we’ve demonstrated in the UK is a culture of not just consent, but actually, an almost collectivist spirit: people have demonstrated that they care about each other as much as they care about themselves.”
Williams notes: “The big lesson here is that careful role modelling of the behaviours we want to see is a crucial function for leaders. Particularly when we’re talking about something on this scale, where public figures have a responsibility to role model the behaviours they want to see from the wider population. And one of the challenges we’ve seen – not just in the UK, but in other countries, too – is the extent to which public figures, particularly those in leadership roles, have been prepared to role model the behaviours that they’ve wanted to see in use among the rest of us.”
He adds: “At a national scale, consent and willing compliance are the only ways to encourage people to do things that will benefit the entire population – even, as we have seen, when they cause significant hardship to individuals. The same principle applies to how leaders should encourage followship within their organisations.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on assuming responsibility.