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The failures are also ours

Published at: 04-01-2019

Posted on: January 4th, 2019 by RaduC No Comments

At the beginning of the `90s when I started my studies to transition from being an aircraft engineer to a management consultant, one of my English professors conducted a survey. As a specialist in organizational behavior, he wanted to assess how much the then Romanian CEOs were aware of the fact that the future of the companies they were running depended first and foremost on THEIR, and not others` ability to take correct and timely decisions, knowing that they had that authority.

In psychological jargon, the enquiry was meant to determine whether in the Romanian managers` perception, the locus of control was internal or external. The locus of control is a notion first developed by Julian B. Rotter, an influential American psychologist, in 1954. People with a strong internal locus of control believe that their live and performances are mainly a consequence of their actions. On the other hand, those with a strong external locus tend to see the events in their lives as a result of external factors beyond their control, such as fate, luck, the influence of centers of power and/or the belief that the world is too complicated to predict or control the way it changes.

As one would expect, the survey findings showed that managers in the early `90s tended to strongly believe that the locus of control resided externally. As the locus of control is considered to be a personality trait, we can assume that the personality of Romanian managers had been molded by the environment in which they were accustomed to operating in. That was a time when the inherited planned economy mindset was still pervasive: many companies were owed by the state and were run by a management with no experience in conducting business in a market economy. That was a management used to receiving production directives from the State Planning Council [Consiliul de Stat al Planificarii]. The reliance on “valuable instructions” was still widespread, and Romanian companies were still struggling to rebound from the shock of no Comecon [Council for Mutual Economic Assistance] and, implicitly, of traditional export markets. In the current setting, Romanian managers believed that there was not much they could do to take hold of their company and expected outside fate or luck to strike again.

Thirty years on, the local business environment and Romanian executives` attitudes dramatically changed which ties into having a dominant private sector and influential foreign capital. A new generation of high performing managers in many privately-owned companies, succeed more often than not to find their way in the competitive environment provided by the market economy. Moreover, many of them end up taking over regional or global offices based on their local performance.

Alas, things have mainly stayed the same within the political establishment. The external locus of control continued to be favored by those running Romania in the last decades. This was a result of either conviction or opportunism.

Talking about conviction, there are many people in the political realm who honestly believe that the country is at the mercy of foreign powers and that they were too defenceless to resist. I precisely remember the meeting over a decade ago with an honorable MP who in all earnest was adamant to convince me that the 1996 elections had been won again by Ion Iliescu, but the Americans stepped in to rig the vote and have Emil Constantinescu declared the winner.

I think that all these politicians, fixating over Romania`s weak position in relation to some of its foreign partners, should not forget the message conveyed by the famous Foreign Affairs Minister, Nicolae Titulescu: “Give me good home politics to conduct good foreign politics”. It all boils down to this: not creating vulnerabilities at home that places us in a poor bargaining position in relation to European and Atlantic partners.

The second reason for relying on an external locus of control is opportunism, when it becomes much more convenient to hide your incompetence or evade the political costs of some decisions by alleging that a foreign power was responsible for the problems Romania had to deal with at home. Until a few years back, the IMF was the culprit for all unpopular decisions. Cutting public spending was not explained by a lack of revenues and unsustainable budget deficits, but by the IMF saying so. There was no link made with having to reverse bad economic choices, but with the outrageous conditions imposed by the IMF which we were in no position to reject. It is funny (or sad?) to notice how the times during which we requested the IMF`s financial assistance alternated with times of viciously blaming the institution once out of the woods.

On each occasion the locus of control was conveniently shifted to external. More recently, a similar role has been assigned to multinationals or the EU: Romania`s failures are not the result of decisions taken in-house, since the locus of control lies beyond our reach and the local decision-makers were not allowed to properly run the country.

“The external enemy syndrome”, used mainly by authoritarian regimes, probably falls under the same category. Rulers in China, Russia, Venezuela, Turkey, Hungary, Poland often invoke an external enemy to get the public behind them in tricky political moments at home or when they see their power under threat. A European University Institute research shows that using an “external enemy” is a way for authoritarian regimes to prevent the public from challenging their authority, and it is one method of consolidating their power.

Referring to the authoritarian regimes of the 21st Century, the research noticed that: “Instead of inaugurating “new orders,” such regimes simulate democracy, holding elections that they make sure to win, bribing and censoring the private press rather than abolishing it, and replacing ideology with an amorphous anti-Western resentment. Their leaders often enjoy genuine popularity—albeit after eliminating plausible rivals—that is based on “performance legitimacy,” a perceived competence at securing prosperity and defending the nation against external or internal threats”. For this reason defending the “performance legitimacy” at any cost is paramount and any failure must be attributed to external changes which cannot threaten the leaders` perceived competence.

I think that explaining Romania`s failures over the past decades by our over-reliance on an external locus of control, however politically convenient at times, is a slow but sure road into the swamp of pessimism, fatalism, short-sightedness of the country`s genuine values and a chronic lack of vision. Getting the European countries and the multilateral organization on whose financial aid we count, to work on a par with us is not done by constantly throwing ungrounded accusations at them. Neither Poland, not Hungary is a role model for Romania, the more so that our country has 10 years of growth to catch up over these countries. 10 years of pro-European policies.

Taking responsibility for the good and bad decisions that the country has so far taken is the safest way to make sure that the mistakes of the past are avoided. Putting really competent people in office is the way to move forward and not stubbornly preaching an external locus of control.

Have a nice weekend!

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