Psychology in the city

Growing pains.

In these times of global financial crisis and banking scandals, some understanding and solutions may come from the science previously frowned upon: psychology.

Since 2008 the financial world and banks in particular have been in crisis. The reaction in the public has been fierce, angry and accusing. Bankers are now shamelessly being called all sorts of names, even in the quality press. The man in the street feels dissociated with people in banking as they perceive them. That uncomfortable feeling of dissociation is a normal coping strategy where understanding fails. “These people aren’t like us,” most seem to feel. A lot of people are now looking at psychology to help them understand.

The question of what was going on and what the people in banking are like is a very valid one, but one that will take a long time to answer. The answer will evolve with time and perspective. Right now, arrows are pointing at a few individuals: the big bosses with big bonuses. They came under scrutiny in the first round of this on-going crisis and it seems that many didn’t understand the prevailing mood building up against them. That led to speculations of many of them being psychopaths. There is in fact quite a bit of scientific research to support that thesis. Several scientists have found similarities in personality traits between psychopaths in hospitals and prisons and top executives. Some personality disorders were found to be even more common in managers than in criminally or psychiatrically monitored psychopaths: histrionic PD (using superficial charm, being insincere, egocentric and manipulative), narcissism and compulsive PD (being perfectionist, rigid, stubborn and dictatorial). That makes nice headlines and always draws in lots of comments, but it is worth looking into it deeper. The scientist Hare has developed a questionnaire for measuring psypathology and found 1 per cent of the average population to show psychopathic tendencies. In executives it was 4 per cent. He presumes it might be a lot more in the financial world, but he has no data to back that up. He made a guess of 10 per cent.

It makes you wonder if only 4 to 10 per cent of a population can make such a difference. They can, with a majority of people being of a more neurotic disposition and therefore enjoying being shown the way. We have few leaders; but leaders have many followers. It is just how it is; it has always worked like that. Outspoken leaders, decision makers, trendsetters, psychopaths: they show a doubting crowd how things should be done and they have an impact. In a corporate world they set the tone for culture and competition. If 20 colleagues fight for one promotion, and one of the colleagues gets the knifes out, the others are likely to follow. However, having worked as a coach and employee wellbeing professional for nearly two decades it is my observation that such corporate culture is still strongly dictated from above. The knife-fighters make promotions more easily; the corporate arena has been moulded around ruthless fighting. The competition between companies was and is a hard-fought and ruthless one; that favours ruthless personalities inside the company.

Top-bankers have been called all possible insults, but we do need to take a step back. This hard-paced competitive world of banking did manage to get the absolute most out of people. With their locomotive pulling power they did manage to keep economies thriving. Progress and developments have been made in the financial world. Moreover, it is not unusual to find surprising and frightening character traits in groups of perfectly integrated and non-criminal people. Typically surgeons and butchers could find in their jobs outlets for a deeper rooted aggression. Extreme personality traits can therefore be applied perfectly functional and acceptable. In psychology we call it sublimation. No one less than Friedrich Nietzsche came up with the term first; Freud and Jung developed the concept further.

Our financial world is certainly driven by success. It feels however like things have gone too far and that shouldn’t surprise. Success breeds the desire for more success. Neuroscience teaches us how success heightens the release of testosterone in brain, which in turn hightens the release of dopamine. Dopamine triggers the reward centre in the brain. No wonder they now call it casino banking: people on a winning streak in the casino turn into strange creatures as well, just like some of your relatives do when playing certain board games. In the past I have raised the argument for having both a reward and punishment system for our top executives. One does not work without the other, major psychologists like Pavlov and Skinner teach us. It seems there are too many rewards for the top guys, and not enough punishments foreseen in their contracts. A reward-only system will breed greed, and I believe that is exactly what people perceive in bankers right now.

In the very competitive lower echelons of financial institutions and certainly on the trading floor, employees are approved of on the basis of how much money they bring in rather than how they behave. Such lack of control invites border-crossing behaviours. People are a lot more likely to do the wrong thing or eat the sugary bun when they think or know nobody is watching. And when they are ordered to hurt others, many are likely to obey that order, we know from the very famous Milgram experiments. We now know that orders were giving by executives operating in a psychopath-dominated environment. The ones that got hurt, I guess, are the customers and even whole national economies. I feel absence of supervision works a silent approval of behaviours that are potentially damaging to others.

Companies are money-making machines; talent is their fuel. They have learned over the years to use the ultimate strategies to get the talent in and to get most out of talents. Up until recently they gambled massively on satisfaction. It was a game of seduction, lust and gratification. The carrot on the stick was the Ferrari-and-champagne-lifestyle, the ultimate almost mystical goal the boardroom. Since the crisis, I see in more and more companies how that strategy has made way for one of fear. Many people have been sacked and anyone can be the next one at any time. As such, our companies play on what Freud found to be the two main drives of humans: libido and fear of death, Eros and Thanatos. Cunningly they play on insecurities and family-relationships as they lure highly talented people at the end of university time and offering them a chance to show mum and dad they can stand on their own two feet. Parents are constantly worried about how their kids will survive after they are gone; they are seeking proof that their kids will be all right. Our big financial centres offer that. That the reality for these young people often turns out quite differently is a message that can difficulty be disclosed to anyone, let alone the home-front.

No crisis is endless, and we will get out of this complicated cluster of crises too. And as with every crisis, we will come out damaged but stronger, better, smarter and more mature. We will not have a revolution; I don’t feel we are ready for that nor need that. Revolutions are too often sign of immaturity. Through all the criticism the British and global financial world have been bestowed upon The City in the past few weeks, it is all too easy to lose track of the fact that the financial heart of London has been a trendsetter in corporate culture for decades. Through the avalanche of criticism, that is made to sound like a bad thing. It isn’t. Through the competition driven evolutions of the past decades, also technical ones, we have developed a banking sector that has been propelled forward in complexity but also ability. Our financial sector and corporate world are now advanced and outstanding; it will take us some time to learn to manage and control it efficiently. The desire to just get rid of the existing system is a kneejerk reaction, a flight reaction. We are going to make do with the one economic system we’ve got and the millions of bright, talented and righteous people working in it. We will have to learn and live with it, even though right now many of us have lost sight of how excellent it all is. It is through the basic psychological drives upon which our economy has played so cunningly that a more mature personality develops. It is probably that more mature personality our corporate world is searching for now.

Our professional sectors will come out changed; I feel it will all be less extreme, a bit more boring. There will be more morals and less champagne, more mainstream and less party. The economy is a long winding road. Going too fast, we seem to have run off the road –again. On a very bendy road, even with a Ferrari, it is better to slow down and stay in the middle of the road as much as you can. It takes you to through the curves and to your destination much faster and much safer.  As with all evolving sectors in our day and age, the economy will find inspiration for growth in non-economic fields like philosophy, psychology, mathematics, physics, biology, electronics provided they accept those sciences for what they are. As a psychologist, I feel the corporate world has not always wanted to understand and correctly implemented my beloved science. They seem sometimes to have opportunistically tamed psychology and created a processed version, foregoing many potential benefits of such rich and innovative science. Incorporating insights from non-economic fields in an open and accepting way will reconnect the financial and hard corporate world with a wider socio-economic and global reality, sense of which appeared to have been lost.

The fact that the pimple burst so publicly in London could prove to be the best news for London in the end. It may not look good right now, but London will hopefully see itself forced to become the most ethical and trustworthy financial centre in the world. The others will be lagging behind. If London gets this exercise right, it will remain the most important financial centre in the world for decades to come. But the exercise might hurt a lot: growing pains.

City workers in london. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter Sioen is a career & management coach and psychologist working for Mvantage Ltd in London; and international TV, radio & news media commentator with a self-coaching book in preparation. Blogging on http://petersioen.tumblr.com/

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.