Simon Terry

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Sharks and Suckers

We need to invest in our civil society. One simple way we can start this work is to stop venerating and rewarding those who seek to benefit by bending or even breaking the rules (For want of term let’s call these folks ‘the sharks’). Those who abide by society’s social rules aren’t suckers. They have a richer, more values-based and more relational view of community.

We Venerate The Sharks

We have a lot of terms for the sharks: sharp operators, smooth movers, power players, the 1%, regulatory disruptors, teflon, Sharp elbowed, queue jumpers, and more. Sharks are those folks who see a rule as no barrier to their personal advantage.

Sharks free ride on the general rule abiding nature of society. They see everyone else’s good nature and rule following as an opportunity for advantage. Sharks benefit from all the good society brings but they duck their share of the effort to create a civil society in the interests of their own personal advantage.

Worse still sharks see themselves as special. The advantages they gain reinforce to the cleverness of their stance. When the costs of their actions are widely spread on others, there are few negative consequences. Acting like a shark can seem the only smart way to act and those who follow the rules must be suckers. The role of sharks is to take advantages of suckers in as many transactions and interactions as possible to maximise personal gain.

The Sharks are Proliferating

A civil society requires constant maintenance. Civil society is based on shared relationships, shared values and shared norms.

Sharks eat civil society. They reject the norms and relationships on which it is based. They expect its protections but reject its burdens. Too many sharks and civil society breaks down, because the culture shifts from community interest to self-interest. Once sharks are seen as the smart way, more people become sharks.

My favourite measure of sharkness is not business. There have always been too many sharks in our commercial world. We encourage sharks in that context.

I measure sharkness by behaviour in social contexts: traffic, queues, crowds & government. We have laws and rules that apply in these contexts. However, in the instant of an interaction the consequences of laws and rules are often quite remote. For these contexts to function, we rely on suckers to follow the rules and keep everyone safe.

Having spent time in countries where there are few of any social restrictions on behaviour in these contexts I hope the number of sharks doesn’t keep growing. It’s a subtle shift from some edge freeriding to a complete breakdown of the system and the lack of social safety that follows. Re-establishing social rules in the face of endemic cheating is incredibly challenging because of the lack of social trust and the pernicious effect on the institutions of enforcement.

Turning the Tide

There will always be sharks. Sharks seek short term advantage in transactional interactions. Provided there are benefits to trust and relationships, sharks lose in the long run, even without direct consequences of cheating. As a wise senior executive once put to me ‘the people in the white hats win in the second half of the movie’.

We need to invest in our relationships, norms and our institutions. Civil society depends on the community-minded actions of proud suckers investing in relationships and social outcomes over time.

There is a reason fish school. The united actions of a school of fish can confuse and frustrate the shark. A community of suckers can use their norms and relationships to similar effect. Sharks don’t really understand civil society.

Sharks will be sharks. The suckers win by creating a society of shared purpose, shared norms and mutual advantage. Let the sharks enjoy their own company.


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