To change the banks, we must first change the business schools

Get'em when they're young.

The Libor scandal which has dominated the headlines for the past few weeks is just the latest in a long line of bad press for the banks since the financial crash. While policy makers and commentators have focused on the need for reform of the sector, little attention has been paid to the role of education.  But if we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, business leaders of the future need to develop skills in responsible management and a real awareness of the world around them.

Depending on who you listen to, the answer to the problems caused by the financial system is more regulation, less regulation, renationalisation of the banks or sweeping EU powers, to name just a few. These ideas may be different, but at their heart they have one thing in common – the focus on reforming the structure of the banking system.

Although measures like splitting high street banks from their investment counterparts would go some way to protecting the public from reckless banking behaviour, it does nothing to address that behaviour itself. How can we expect to change the greedy, self-interested culture of banking and prevent further scandals if we do not change the bankers who run the system? More importantly, how can we expect to tackle bigger problems that this culture leads to, such as business activities which have a damaging environmental, social and human rights impact?

Building a more stable, ethical and responsible capitalism requires addressing the rotten foundations on which the upper echelons of the business world are run – management and business education. This requires a massive fundamental mind-shift in the lecture halls of our universities and business schools.

For too long these institutions have remained an undiagnosed part of the problem. Consider business school rankings, used by the business leaders of tomorrow to choose where to study for an MBA - the main factor in the most prominent rankings is how much a graduate from that school earns. Not the quality of teaching. Or the grades students achieve. Greed and the pursuit of profit, regardless of the negative impact a business’s activities might have, are built into the system from the very start.

Since 2008 the UN Principles of Responsible Management Education initiative has aimed to inspire and champion responsible management education, research and thought leadership. Aston University, one of the earliest signatories to these principles, has been embedding ethics, responsibility and sustainability issues into the curriculum and aims to ensure that all students will be social responsibility and sustainability literate by the time they graduate. This includes setting up a range of courses in this area and requiring all students going on placements in business to question how companies are addressing these issues. Since then more and more business schools in the UK and worldwide have been adopting the principles.  Almost half of the UK’s business schools have now signed-up.  Further progress was made at the recent Rio+20 conference. Importantly, the major accreditation bodies made commitments to change their requirements in ethics, social responsibility & sustainability and there is a new initiative setting out additional benchmarks for management education.

But there is still a long way to go. We must ensure all of our business leaders are educated to consider the economic, social and environmental impact of what they do and integrate these issues into their business’ core activities. Business should aim to be not the best in the world, but the best for the world. Only then can we avert future business scandals like those of the last few weeks, and more importantly, future financial crises like the one we have been suffering over the last few years.

Carole Parkes is co-director of Social Responsibility & Sustainability at Aston University.

Photograph: Getty Images

Carole Parkes is co-director of Social Responsibility & Sustainability at Aston University.

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I am special and I am worthless: inside the mind of a narcissist

There's been a lot of discussion about narcissists this week. But what does the term actually mean?

Since the rise of Donald Trump, the term “narcissistic” has been cropping up with great regularity in certain sections of the media, including the pages of this journal. I wouldn’t want to comment about an individual I’ve never met, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the troubling psychological health problem of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People with NPD (which is estimated to affect about 1 per cent of the population) have a characteristic set of personality traits. First, they have a deeply held sense of specialness and entitlement. Male NPD sufferers frequently present as highly egotistical, with an unshakeable sense of their superiority and importance; female sufferers commonly present as eternal victims on whom the world repeatedly inflicts terrible injustices. In both cases, the affected person believes he or she is deserving of privileged treatment, and expects it as a right from those around them.

Second, NPD sufferers have little or no capacity for empathy, and usually relate to other people as objects (as opposed to thinking, feeling beings) whose sole function is to meet the narcissist’s need for special treatment and admiration – known as “supply”. In order to recruit supply, NPD sufferers become highly skilled at manipulating people’s perceptions of them, acting out what is called a “false self” – the glittering high achiever, the indefatigable do-gooder, the pitiable victim.

The third characteristic is termed “splitting”, where the world is experienced in terms of two rigid categories – either Good or Bad – with no areas of grey. As long as others are meeting the narcissist’s need for supply, they are Good, and they find themselves idealised and showered with reciprocal positive affirmation – a process called “love-bombing”. However, if someone criticises or questions the narcissist’s false self, that person becomes Bad, and is subjected to implacable hostility.

It is not known for certain what triggers the disorder. There is likely to be a genetic component, but in many cases early life experiences are the primary cause. Narcissism is a natural phase of child development (as the parents of many teenagers will testify) and its persistence as adult NPD frequently reflects chronic trauma during childhood. Paradoxically for a condition that often manifests as apparent egotism, all NPD sufferers have virtually non-existent self-esteem. This may arise from ongoing emotional neglect on the part of parents or caregivers, or from sustained psychological or sexual abuse.

The common factor is a failure in the development of a healthy sense of self-worth. It is likely that narcissism becomes entrenched as a defence against the deep-seated shame associated with these experiences of being unworthy and valueless.

When surrounded by supply, the NPD sufferer can anaesthetise this horrible sense of shame with the waves of positive regard washing over them. Equally, when another person destabilises that supply (by criticising or questioning the narcissist’s false self) this is highly threatening, and the NPD sufferer will go to practically any lengths to prevent a destabiliser adversely influencing other people’s perceptions of the narcissist.

One of the many tragic aspects of NPD is the invariable lack of insight. A narcissist’s experience of the world is essentially: “I am special; some people love me for this, and are Good; some people hate me for it, and are Bad.” If people with NPD do present to health services, it is usually because of the negative impacts Bad people are having on their life, rather than because they are able to recognise that they have a psychological health problem.

Far more commonly, health professionals end up helping those who have had the misfortune to enter into a supply relationship with an NPD sufferer. Narcissism is one of the most frequent factors in intimate partner and child abuse, as well as workplace bullying. The narcissist depends on the positive affirmation of others to neutralise their own sense of unworthiness. They use others to shore themselves up, and lash out at those who threaten this precarious balance. And they leave a trail of damaged people in their wake. 

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times