We must buy into the bank culture debate for sustained return

London Canary Wharf

By Professor Sir Cary Cooper, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health, Lancaster University and Founder, Robertson Cooper.

In modern business, being reactive is something akin to failure. Where was your future-focused strategy, people will ask. Have you learned nothing from those TED talks?.. To say that the global banking industry is engaged in reactive problem solving is perhaps something of an understatement. Nobody saw the financial crash coming but it’s likely that everyone will be touched by the efforts to make sure it doesn’t happen again – the challenge now is to make sure that, in the intensity of those efforts, we don’t overlook the complexity of culture change in the sector.

Last week’s comments from the HSBC Chairman Douglas Flint served as a reminder that regulation and governance isn’t a panacea for banks. Citing “growing fatigue” across the bank’s operations he pointed to the need for employees to work weekends to implement the system changes required by new regulation, saying “there are only 52 weekends in a year”. There’s a clear risk here, that we’re challenging the banks to make massive organizational changes in a very short time frame – and the intense pressure that brings can damage as well as disenfranchise bank workers.

The media cliché would be that there’s little sympathy amongst the public for high workloads to put the situation right, but if we want to see a sustainable, healthy (and yes, happy) sector it will take time and a sense of ownership from banks themselves – not simply being whipped into line.

It’s easy to say, but the history of management and our modern organisations backs that up. And the scale of crisis doesn’t mean we should forget what we’ve learned about culture change. Right back to the 1950s, we’ve understood the impact to individual performance of identity, wellbeing, social interaction, conformity, belonging…the list goes on. Understanding those elements in the financial sector, and considering how to grow or change them, is part of a sustainable approach to reform. Yes, we need a more robust sector, but it isn’t just about structural change – banks need to align themselves with what society wants, finding their own approach that they can build long-term.

Of course, much of this has already been recognised in setting up the Banking Standards Review with Richard Lambert at the helm. It’s about high standards of competence and behavior being led by banks themselves. One of the high profile proposals considered has been an oath for bankers, similar to the Hippocratic oath. Where this has met with cynicism, it’s perhaps strangely easy for some to forget that banks have a vested interested in coming up with sustainable, wide-reaching strategies themselves. It’s not about negotiating the easiest, most public penitence. The role of banks is changing, competition is increasing, and the motivation is to stay competitive and remain vital contributors to communities.

It’s key that we give this debate the consideration it needs, rather than falling for the knee-jerk and reactionary. As part of that mission, professionals from the financial industries will be meeting at City Hall on 16th September to debate culture change and employee well-being. If you’d like to attend the event, ‘The Bank on your People Forum’ run by Bank Workers Charity and Robertson Cooper, you can find out more here.

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