The Psychology of Fear and Blame

Our leaders, whether political or public sector are surrounded by a myriad of people who assert that, if they were in leadership positions, they would have managed the pandemic so much better.

There are groups of people who would strengthen or weaken alert levels restrictions, reject the traffic lights, toughen or loosen MIQ, open borders, close borders, allow vaccine passports or reject them - each group seems certain they are right.

Another country appears to be doing well and we say, why didn’t we do that? (Until that country appears not to be doing so well, and then we fall silent).

These views are sometimes expressed with an extraordinary level of vitriol, personally devastating criticism of individuals, and at times imagined or inaccurate description of motivations.

Our democracy and political system means that people opposed to the government will take opportunities to challenge Ministers responsible for these decisions. Of course. This has sometimes spread to leaders in the public service who are also under pressure. It is fairness to these leaders and public sector staff that IPANZ wants.

Anger and blame like this often come from a base of fear and insecurity. When we feel a threat that we do not fully understand we seek somebody to take responsibility, we want to apportion blame. When we feel uncertain or frightened, we want someone to reassure us, give us certainty again; particularly from leaders.

It is likely that leaders yearn to give this reassuring certainty. But there are simply no tried and trusted solutions to “solve” the problem of this pandemic. It is dynamic, much is unpredictable, answers that work one day do not work the next, experts have different views, no easy or simple formulas, trade-offs must be made, ambiguous and often painful. There are mistakes, delays, and misjudgements. Hindsight often sheds light on what could or should have been done, and there is a continual balancing act of risks for one group against risks for another group.

In grappling with complex problems such as the pandemic, resilience and adaptability matter as much as foresight. This is for the public sector as well as communities. We just cannot anticipate and plan for every single eventuality. There is no risk-free path, no leader who can make decisions that will assure security. We have to learn, show humility, innovate, explore, forgive and accept uncertainty; public service and community together.

Communities, whānau, businesses have so often demonstrated extraordinary resilience, generosity, and fortitude. Maybe all these voices can quieten the clamour of fear and blame.