Books: A bank under siege

The story of how a failing institution retreated into itself has important messages for management, says Bryan Sanderson.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Unpopular Culture; By John Weeks; University of Chicago Press £13.50; MT price £11.50 (see panel)

John Weeks is an American academic who, a few years ago, was employed as consultant to a large British retail bank - NatWest - thinly disguised here as British Armstrong. Asked to examine the culture, Weeks uncovers an institution with a long history and deeply ingrained practices riddled with class prejudice and inappropriate hierarchical behaviours.

Most of the bank's staff are in a state of denial about the technological and societal changes that had transformed the working environment by the 1990s. They resort to tribal practices and game-playing to escape the realities of the encroaching outside world.

For any Brit, the description of what is essentially a culture of under-achievement and insensitive arrogance is an all too familiar part of all our yesterdays. Why didn't we all emigrate? Because an open society and a far-sighted leader, Margaret Thatcher, forced the UK to face up to external challenge and modify its institutions and its behaviour. It is British Armstrong's misfortune that no such leadership was provided and, unlike some of its competitors, it was unable to adapt and prosper.

A key insight is the explanation of how the institutionalised pro-cesses for feedback and complaint can become so formalised and mistrusted in large, upward-looking organisations that they no longer provide an outlet for challenge and complaint, but become part of the corporate culture of grudging acquiescence.

The bank's regular 'start the week' Monday morning staff meetings are one such example. The entire bank starts an hour late on Mondays to fit in these sessions at the expense of customer service. Managers detest them and the employees view them with cynicism.

Everything becomes negative - even outstandingly good results are a matter for apology. The staff come to relish wallowing in their corporate mire of mistrust and low-to-zero expectations for improvement and success.

Any show of ambition or optimism is ridiculed. However, this is a strong culture and the negative attitudes bond employees together against outsiders.

External criticism is not welcome. Most of the staff see themselves as fortunate to have a secure job in a bank that allows them to muddle through.

Recruitment and training policies over the years have much to answer for.

Another weakness is the failure to identify the importance of media management.

Banks are not naturally popular institutions; they provide a customer service that is seen as necessary but not attractive. Furthermore, they are often associated with the discomfort of seeking financial support.

This impacts not only on customers and shareholders, but also on employees, who have to face up to both in their day-to-day lives. The bank's siege culture is reinforced by damning media headlines after results announcements.

Any British CEO will tell you that one of life's greatest challenges is to get a good headline from both the Sun and the FT. Yet it is essential to try, whatever the difficulty, and to properly understand the impact of news items on a variety of stakeholders, not least employees. British Armstrong's response fluctuated between abdication and masochism; the effect on the employees and the culture of the bank was devastating. No culture can emerge unscathed when its members are ashamed to be identified as part of it.

Weeks uses his academic skills in an attempt to define 'business culture'.

He examines how the phrase is used in the Wall Street Journal and the Economist, and finds that the meaning is usually dictated by circumstance.

Successful and praiseworthy companies are universally supported by strong cultures, but if the company fails, then the 'culture' is almost automatically described as unhelpful and, worst of all, bureaucratic. Fortunately for journalists, they are rarely held accountable for failed trenchant views as long as they are elegantly expressed at the time.

The book is worth a read, but sometimes suffers from confusion about its target audience. Quotes from authorities as diverse as Wittgenstein and Tony Giddens will appeal to the academic more than the businessman, as some of it makes for heavy reading. But there are messages: most important, don't rely on self-help measures to change cultures that depend on threatened middle managers for their implementation.

What happened to British Armstrong? It was taken over, and a good thing too.

Bryan Sanderson CBE is chairman of Standard Chartered and BUPA.

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