The Blog

Business as Usual: Bankers, MPs and the Culture of the Norm

When the history of 2010 is written, two apparently unconnected events will hog the headlines, bankers' bonuses and MPs' expenses.

When the history of 2010 is written, two apparently unconnected events will hog the headlines, bankers' bonuses and MPs' expenses.

What made both stories initially fascinating was the voyeuristic intimacy of their details - like amateur PIs we've been able to have a good old rummage around in the litter bins of the good and the great. And, of course, we were able to find some simple, die-cast bad guys to blame stuff on - it's all the fault of the bankers - and as suspected no politicians can be trusted; no wonder we're in trouble.

In both cases, the thing that turned big stories into monsters was not simply the scale of the revelations; surely everybody knew bankers got massive bonuses and most people that MPs have a very non-transparent, antediluvian allowances system. Rather, it was the reactions of those involved - and what it told us about the worlds they live in.

Both bankers and MPs weren't just defensive (that'd be okay, we kind of expect that), they were seemingly in denial. Even the most selfish MP surely realizes that their re-election is quite closely linked to the credibility of the parliamentary system. Yes, we all thought, this has been a bit of a mess, we're pretty angry, but at least it must now be obvious to all involved that we need to push CTRL-ALT-DEL, re-boot the system and find better ways to pay bankers and MPs. After-all, how everybody else gets paid is pretty straightforward.

Instead, it seemed what was obvious to the rest of us, wasn't obvious to bankers and MPs. Surely this can't be just down to narrow self interest and, in understanding it better, I believe we may learn a little more about how we all work.

Both, it transpires, live in analogous universes, ones which are relatively small, self-contained and carefully self-regulated. They have their own languages, traditions and both increasingly have little external experience, particularly in a professional sense. To mis-quote Rudyard Kipling, 'what should they know of banking, if only banking they know'.

I believe the reason is that both worlds are defined by norms which to those within them aren't just theories, they're facts. Things that are evidently nonsense to those on the outside are repeated with almost religious fervour by those within. For instance, to bankers, the banking regulators, the banking industry it is a non-negotiable fact that to hire and retain 'the most talented people' they have to pay massive bonuses, in, let's face it, pretty much the same way they always have. The industry doesn't repeat this parrot fashion because they're stupid, they really do believe it and they believe it because it is simply inconceivable to people whose life is defined by the norms of the banking industry that it could be any other way - like trying to make water without hydrogen.

Similarly, the norms for MPs were to 'flip' houses and generally become impressively adept at 'working the system'. It's obvious to everybody that if you depend on a popular vote for your job, it's best not to appear to be a crook - yet they continued to employ family members etc, etc, etc. And, like a headmaster peaking at porn on the school computer, they're not breaking the law, but if it appears on the PTA agenda, it's going to make hanging onto your job pretty tough.

The real irony is that the MPs' favourite villains, the bankers, are exactly like them. They both live in a universe whose norms define and justify behaviour that to those outside is at best indefensible and at worst down-right irresponsible. The real surprise however, is not that norms exist, but how strong, powerful and insidious these norms can be.

The next obvious question is where else can we find such norms? Well, the answer is everywhere. All of us live in universes defined by norms every-bit as strong as those of MPs, and who's to say that given the right set of circumstances, couldn't be discovered to be every-bit as ridiculous. It's therefore a very productive thought-experiment to try and hunt out some norms in our own businesses and imagine trying to justify them to those from the 'outside'. Many (most?) will make perfect sense, but I'd be astonished if you can't discover a few that wouldn't - we certainly found more than a few when we tried! Once you've found them, try and imagine changing that norm - how easy would it be and would it make your business better or worse to do so?

Understanding these norms and their power, and having the courage and conviction to challenge them isn't easy, but ignorance isn't an acceptable alternative.

That they exist is not new, their power and tenacity however is easy to under-estimate, and as social and community marketing explode into mainstream marketing thinking our ability to identify, interrogate and where necessary root them out will become of increasing importance.