Why national flags don’t change

How does a nation-state build loyalty among its citizens? What can human resources professionals in various organizations learn from this?

Photo: Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times
Photo: Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times

All nation-states have armed forces which consist of individuals who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the country. How many corporations in the world, with all their management systems and resources, have managed to create employees with such dedication? This was a question I had raised in my last article. The question that follows is: How does a nation-state build loyalty among its citizens? What can human resources professionals in various organizations learn from this?

All strong nations have enemies they have fought multiple wars with. This column had earlier referred to the creation of out-groups to effectively consolidate the members of an in-group. Starting a war does a far more effective job of binding the nation together than the creation of an out-group. The famous historian Ian Morris, in his book War! What Is It good For? : Conflict And The Progress Of Civilization From Primates To Robots, has pointed out that, throughout history, by fighting wars, people have created larger, more organized societies that have gone on to be richer.

Creation of conflict is integral to all great human movements too. Communism is not about peaceful coexistence of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie but a conflict between them. Organized religions know that the concepts of God and heaven are strong only when there is an equally strong concept of devil and hell as part of their belief systems.

Most organizations have a vision of what they aspire to be. But very few have defined what they don’t want to be, the enemy they are at war with. Steve Jobs, in the “1984” launch commercial, made it clear that his organization was not interested in peaceful coexistence with other existing technology giants. At the outset he declared a war on technology that was not human friendly (read IBM and Microsoft). That belief is reflected even today in the design of Apple products. This also explains why Jobs and the brand he created continue to have a mass following of dedicated, aggressive fans.

From the many wars that nation-states fight, heroes emerge. All strong nations have their national heroes—those who fought for its people, laid down their lives for the flag. Even after their death, nations ensure that these heroes are remembered. The history of nations is filled with stories of their valour. These stories help preserve the memories of the past for many generations of its citizens to come.

How many organizations have a well thought out strategy to identify and project their heroes? Is there a process to collect their stories? Is there a mechanism to disseminate the inspiring stories, not just through formal training programmes, but also through water-cooler conversations?

Why have nations not redesigned their flags or remixed their national anthems?

Management experts who profess that “change is the only constant” forget the scientific fact—the human brain loves status quo. As Stephen Fleming of University College London says, whether it’s moving house or changing a TV channel, there is a considerable tendency for the human brain to stick with the current situation and choose not to act anew. When any action is repeated, the corresponding neural connections become stronger and over a point of time the brain gets to perform that action without even consciously thinking. The comfort of not thinking too much is disturbed by new stimuli. Political parties, organized religion and even god-men who manage to build strong loyalty with their followers have understood this brain fact.

No political party or organized religion changes their symbols. Some of these symbols are thousands of years old. All godmen make sure that not just their attire, even their hairstyles remain constant over decades. And, organized religions have not allowed anyone to change even a comma in their holy books.

But many organizations change their logos and other physical expressions at the drop of a hat. Such rebranding exercises are short cuts used by organizational leaders to show that they are making “visible” changes. Design agencies whose business thrives with every logo change will continue to give plausible arguments to prove that the new font and colours are far superior to the previous ones!

Very few professional organizations have exploited the powers of consistency. To do that, organizational leaders should begin with a strong vision that has depth and width. They should know what expressions of that vision are permanent and what facets of that vision could change with the times. From its economic policies to global status to the demographic profile of its citizens, India has changed a lot. But the design of the national flag and the tune of its national anthem has always remained constant. Great nations understand the power of consistency.

Nation-states do not try to build strong bonds with their citizens through financial incentives. The bond between all nations and their citizens is emotional. Political leaders know the power of emotional rewards over monetary rewards. And these emotional rewards are amplified through rituals. All nations have several rituals: standing up when the national anthem is sung, hoisting a flag, republic day parades—all add to strengthening the emotional bond between the nation and its citizen.

An intuitive understanding of the core concepts of human behaviour has been used by nation leaders to build strong loyalty among its citizens. What prevents organizations from learning from these national leaders?

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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