My first reaction was to wonder how it can be that 7 years after the fateful summer of 2008, this is still a topic of curiosity? A more frightening question is how it is possible that even in 2017, incomprehension as to its cultural roots persists. What starts as a quest to understand the inner workings of bankers and banking culture in the City, ends with the worrying conclusion that it is human to fail, and that failing in an industry that boasts a heady mix of creativity and the equivalent of financial high explosive, is – at some point – likely to happen: again.
As an experience banker who has worked in half-a-dozen banks in numerous functions, and latterly and through the financial crisis as an executive compliance officer, I approached the book with some scepticism. What could a book written by an anthropological journalist with no previous financial knowledge teach me about the world of banking? I read the book, and as I closed it I was impressed with how this journalist had managed to understand much of the workings of the banking world, and of the psychology of many of those working within it. I would, I decided, recommend it highly to any non-bankers who want to understand more about why, as Joris describes it, there seems to be no-one in the cockpit – no-one responsible for the financial crash. It may also be useful for some partners of bankers to understand the long hours worked by their banker spouse?
Then it struck me. Joris Luydendijk has used his anthropological perspective to dissect the tribal nature of banking, and to explore the bonds that bind bankers together, or ties them addictively to a master that dominates their lives, and blinds them to the dangerous and potentially toxic tools of their trade. To any student of organisational behaviour and workplace psychology, by design or not, this book is an important contribution to the discussion on what organisational culture is, and how it might be managed, or not. When we discuss corporate culture, the focus tends to be on what constitutes a “good” culture. In organisational behaviour, we consider how cultures influence behaviours, and how behaviours serve outcomes depending on the nature of the product or service in question. We explore personality traits, the impact of diversity, and how our self-perception influences our motivation to pursue our objectives. We even speak of how “bad” cultures have a dysfunctional effect on business conduct and harms individual and corporate performance, especially over time. When we consider how to change behaviours, we concentrate on barriers to change, how the social infrastructures, values and norms of group behaviours obstruct our efforts. Often we pretend that by adjusting the corporate debate and communications strategy, we can realise change. However, when we consider the effort and the investments spent on consultancy fees trying to change culture and render organisations more aware of their social impact and responsibility, we see more examples of failure than success. Swimming with Sharks offers a hint as to why.
Governance and management people, such as myself, believe that leadership and discipline offer the path to salvation. However, a path remains no more than a path along which humans may tread. Joris focuses our attention on the many-varied concerns and complex psychologies of our fellow workers; each being individuals with individual concerns. As organisational leaders we must provide leadership, evoke corporate purpose and a dedication to the values that we wish for our corporate members to apply and have dictate their behaviour. As any coach or psychoanalyst will no doubt explain, the human psychology is far too complex for such a simplistic solution. We must not only offer leadership and point the way for others to follow, we must also understand the nature of the problems and fears facing our followers and provide them with the necessary support and comfort to allay those fears. To do this we need to understand them better. Joris defines six distinct, but sometimes overlapping characters, each of whom are trying to make sense of, and are having to adopt coping tactics to live with a constant conflict between personal beliefs and corporate objectives. Intended or not, his final message is that leadership is not only about leading, it is also about understanding the situation facing our followers – something business leaders often take for granted.
In this brief blog, I do not intend to expand upon each of these six categories. Suffice to say, I recognised each and every one of them. I could also espy elements of each that have influenced my own psychology at different phases in my career where I have sought to rationalise differences between “my” way of doing business and that of “others” within the same organisation or industry. I have never felt as conflicted or trapped as a number of the 200 City interviewees who opened up their thoughts to Joris as (i) I have been lucky in my choice of employers who appear to have had a greater sense of corporate responsibility than some, and (ii) I have been fortunate in finding the exit door leading to alternative activities if personal versus organisational objectives have been too wide. Admittedly, I am also of a different generation from the bankers interviewed by Joris – it is easier to cope with some types of conflict when in a position of seniority and executive power.
This book emphasises that changing the mindset of an organisation is a greater challenge than most leaders are willing to accept. It takes time, and a lot of effort. This is perhaps the Achilles heel of the positive psychology movement that believes that superior performance can be achieved by releasing the creative abilities of individuals. We have to acknowledge that perhaps a body of individuals does not a collective make? Was this what lay behind the thoughts of Robert H. Schuller when he wrote “Anyone can count the seeds in an apple, but only God can count the number of apples in a seed.”