War raised thoughts on misconceptions in society and organizations: one thing leads to another


Last time I was in Moscow in April 2014. I was a guest lecturer at Moscow Higher School of Economics, and it coincided with the occupation of Crimea. All city was flooded with billboards praising “getting back Crimea”, stating slogans like “Крым наш”. This was very frightening as my immediate thought was that in a year or two Russia will announce that the Baltics belongs to them.

During that trip to Moscow, I visited our family friends. My dad was doing his PhD in microbiology in the late 1970ies and since then he had a very close friend living in Moscow, who is an internationally recognized professor in microbiology, he was visiting scholar in the best universities in the US and Europe, author of several articles published in Nature Reviews Microbiology and Cell Host and Microbe (top nudge scientific journals in his field). His wife is Spanish but was brought up in USSR as her father was fighting against Franco. He was killed and she escaped to USSR at the age of three together with her mom where they settled in the refugee camps located in Crimea.

Talking to both during the dinner I revealed my shock about the Crimea occupation, and I was sure that they would share my views as I knew that they were opposing Putin. However, what they told me was astonishing. They said that Crimea indeed belongs to Russia, that there are almost no Ukrainians living there and the territory was by mistake gifted by Nikita Khrushchev. Although I kind of knew the history, for me the fact that this occupation is a strong violation of international order and laws was above any other arguments. I guess all small nations, and especially those who once were part of the USSR are very sensitive to imperialist logic that may be applied to the Eastern territories of Latvia as there is a big amount of Russian speakers and some history of belonging to the Russian empire.

But what was even more striking that evening, was that our family friends told me that even though they do not support Putin and he is for sure not a good guy, they kind of respect him, because the West was always humiliating Russia, and he was the only one who could fight back a bit. This was a very surprising and terrifying testimony for me because this was an opinion of highly educated people who were exposed to the West, traveled, and lived abroad. This really made me think that there is a big gap between our values some opinions are not possible to reconcile.

However, no one (including me) reacted after the Crimea invasion and the world took it for granted. Now as we see one thing led to another and we are witnessing unbelievable elimination and assassination of civilians, destruction of cities, hospitals, schools, and murders of innocent people and children. Recent atrocities and war crimes of the Russian army in Ukraine are insane and heartbreaking. Most of the Russian population supports the war and no information can change their beliefs and misconceptions about the real situation. Unfortunately, even some part of the Latvian inhabitants took the Russian position.

What I am still preoccupied is trying to understand why our family friend felt humiliated by West. Of course, in capitalistic societies, wealth is a measure of power. Russia was not able to build a wealthy society after the collapse of the USSR and world power in politics always leans toward the rich. While Asia and the Middle East were strengthening their economies (by the way most often not with democratic means), Russia was slowly but surely falling behind, because Mr. Putin does not understand economics, but he has a very strong track record in KGB methods of propaganda, building up the military, police structures, and surveillance state. In the meanwhile, public opinion was fed with nationalistic and patriotic propaganda, with narratives that opposed the West and created the notion of “West against Russia”. This was not a hard task, because Russia never felt like part of the West, for many centuries their identity was formed through miseries, poverty, centralized, authoritarian decision making, and fierce competition with others. Moreover, during the Soviet times, wealth started to have a negative connotation. Business and entrepreneurship were associated with crime and being poor was an honorable thing. Capitalists were greedy and evil, but virtuous life should not be overwhelmed with consumerism. For decades this formed a special mentality, which is not understood by Westerners, thus rational analysis of what is happening in Russia proves to be unsuccessful. Huge bitterness and resentfulness form a snowball effect which brings us back to the sentiments of Nazis (Z sign reminds that as well). Therefore, sanctions will not have the effect anticipated by the countries imposing them. Suffering is an honorary act in Russia and suffering from a virtuous purpose (as they see it now) – to oppose the evil West is even more appealing.

Animal instincts are part of human nature. Scarcity and extreme hardships usually have the power to bring up the worst parts of humans. Still the most surprising is not the war per se (as political claims of Russia were clear years before), but the reaction and misconceptions of the Russian population. Competition and drawing the lines between “us and them” is a part of human nature. But it is important to recognize when it becomes unhealthy and when collaboration mode should be switched on. Collaboration also is part of human nature by the way.

Unfortunately, wrong perceptions about the world are guiding many people not only in Russia and much beyond their political beliefs. I am talking about our everyday lives. What is dangerous is that misconceptions have effects of self-fulfilling prophecies. If you feel humiliated, you start to behave like a victim, and this leads to conflicts and provokes real humiliation. In my daily work, interviewing executives, I sometimes see very capable people with wrong attitudes – they always fight and search for enemies. And guess what? They find them. Then their career advancement stops at some point, and they get frustrated, not understanding why this happened. The worst-case scenario is adopting a victim mentality and starting to blame others – headquarters, who do not recognize their talent, turbulent environment, or fierce competition.

On the other hand, there always are some people who seem to succeed in any circumstances. Are they having a much higher IQ or some special skills? Most often not at all, this is just a matter of mindset and the way how they see reality. Those people usually are not spending time blaming others but find solutions to problems instead and learn from every drawback. Mindset frames behaviors and in the long run, those who focus on the right things acquire more competencies and pile up various experiences and skills that result in success.

Another parallel that can be drawn from the Russian war crimes with organizations is that bad behavior must be punished and can not be ignored. Ignoring Crimea led to the disaster. The current inability to act and cowardly of the US, EU, and NATO will lead to more genocide in Ukraine. Of course, politicians think only about themselves. Thus public opinion highly matters. One of the most common mistakes mentioned by executives analyzing their previous experience is acting too late when they saw misbehavior in organizations. Taking time to act and hoping that the bad person will change for good never proves to be the right choice. If you see that someone had to be fired, it is better to do that sooner than later. Mr. Putin will not change, neither his numerous supporters.

To enable comments sign up for a Disqus account and enter your Disqus shortname in the Articulate node settings.