Throw out the stick!

This morning I woke up with one word on my mind: resilience.

It’s a quality that is fundamental to the human condition, to being able to survive the heady journey between birth and death. Yet resilience is not often spoken about in relation to leadership. In contrast it is most often spoken about in relation to survival. Someone who survives a traumatic experience (or several) is often described as being very resilient. Like a piece of wood that gets hammered over and over again yet refuses to split.

But here’s the thing, the wood doesn’t need to be hammered in order to prove it is resilient. It is resilient regardless. What if we recognised that resilience can and does exist independently of trauma? That resilience is an inate quality that we all – as human beings – are born with.

That’s not to say that we don’t recognise the relationship between trauma, resilience and survival – but it does suggest that we may want to rethink the rationale for some of the approaches we take to get the social and economic outcomes we want as a society.

In government this is seen most acutely through the way in which social development policies are conceptualised, designed and implemented. The National-led government has taken the ‘hit them with a stick’ punitive approach in their social development policy setting. The idea being that if they threaten or apply benefit sanctions people will get off the benefit quicker than they would otherwise. But getting off benefit does not necessarily or directly correlate with getting into meaningful, long-term, sustainable work.

And what happens to the people whose benefits are cancelled because of this sanction regime who don’t have any work? What is the real, net and cumulative cost to our society of cutting them (and their dependents – often children) off? Do the costs get picked up in our justice, health and education sectors – and if so who ends up picking up the tab? Is the short term saving to the taxpayer worth the long-term cost? I say it’s not.

I think it’s high time for us to go back and ask ourselves some fundamental questions in light of all of this. Starting with what does a modern, forward-looking, comprehensive  21st century social security system look like for NZ? And how can we make it work in a way that resilience is recognised as a strength we all have but also that at some stage in everyone’s life we are going to encounter some kind of hardship, crisis or struggle- and that having a security net provided by the State – is a core and important part of the compact between us as citizens and our government.

Thinking this way can be challenging as it forces us to consider what being a citizen means at a deeper level than we might otherwise be used to. But like anything in life, if we don’t take the time to think and challenge ourselves, we are just going to stay exactly where we are – applying the same solutions to the same ‘problems’ and then asking ourselves why things never change. I don’t know about you but I’m keen to get us out of this rabbit hole and start showing the rest of the world what NZ does best: how to innovate. But let’s do it with integrity, without the benefit-sanction ‘stick’.