Bankers behaving badly: breaking the cycle of aggressive conformity
It’s early 2007 and I walk into a small meeting room in a large bank.
It’s a routine terms negotiation for a contract renewal.
Or at least, that is what it was meant to be.
Until I walked in and closed the door behind me and turned to face a man who looked deeply uncomfortable at my presence. Where are the guys? He said. Cutting code, I said. It’s just me big boy.
Obviously I didn’t call him that. But the rest is pretty much verbatim.
We proceeded to have the meeting. The contract was renewed. A couple of points that needed raising were raised. We signed. We even shook hands.
But the next day I was asked, by profoundly amused colleagues of above mentioned man (let’s call him Skippy), “what did you do to Skippy? He said you were one tough cookie”. More giggling.
I never did find out, what I had done to Skippy, that was simultaneously so funny and so traumatic.
This cookie thing, though, has been a recurring theme.
For years, with every promotion, any new project, any high-stakes meeting, someone would look at me and go, after a moment’s pause, “ah you’ll be alright, you are a tough cookie”.
Aren’t you a bit young for this job? I hope you are a tough cookie.
This is a hard gig, you’ve got. For your sake, you’d better be a tough cookie.
You are his boss? Ah, you must be a tough cookie.
Oh you got a promotion? Well, you are a tough cookie.
Innovation? In this place? You better be a tough cookie.
You worked in the Middle East? What a tough cookie.
And my absolutely favourite: a woman! How novel, but you are a tough cookie. You will be fine.
I ain’t no cookie
What do these phrases even mean?
Cookies are by definition soft. A tough cookie is a terrible cookie. So what exactly are we telling someone, when we tell them they are a tough cookie? That they will make it through a situation that is expected to be hard for them by dint of being unexpectedly not what it says on their tin? Surviving by not being true to their soft cookie nature?
For many years, as the only woman in the room, I braced my shoulders and dealt with it with the distaste and attention it deserved. Both short-lived and limited.
I assumed, for a long time, that it was a phrase people wheeled out to every woman they saw doing what they perceived to be a man’s job and doing it well enough to be uncomfortable. For every person promoted before their hair went grey. For everyone championing new ideas and advocating change
I believed, for years, that it is meant to be insulting. It is meant to be demeaning. It is meant to make you feel like a circus freak.
Yet the truth was I didn’t care.
There are few people’s whose opinion truly matters to me and they all have deep affection for baked goods. The rest can say what they like.
But as I get older, I am beginning to think there is something insidious about this kind of language.
Why do I need to be tough? Why might I not be fine?
What does all this say about our industry?
What we don’t say in the second before we call someone a tough cookie
Banking is an aggressive industry.
And it can be a mean industry.
There are no prizes for playing nice, there are no prizes for nurturing others and offering constructive feedback and no-strings-attached cooperation. Although in recent years, concerted efforts are being made to engineer an alternative industry-wide professional ethos, the road ahead is long and success to date is patchy to say the least.
So when we look at someone who is about to go forth into a meeting, into a new role, into a highly competitive setting what we are really doing is scanning them for vulnerabilities.
Your youth is a weakness.
Your skin colour, your height, your face, your gender, your accent, the pitch of your voice. We scan for the things that may become targets, the things that may get the bloodhounds sniffing. We assess the size of the possible attack – some direct artillery fire, some stealth ambush and undercover tactics – and the ability of the warrior we are sending forth to withstand it.
And decide that it will suck, but they will be fine. They are stronger than the nonsense that will be thrown at them.
Or maybe we are surprised, that they are after all stronger than the nonsense, despite the ‘handicap’ of not being middle aged and already there. Or whatever the baseline is.
So we learn to brace our shoulders. And we teach others to do the same.
We know that being tough is required. Even more significantly, we learn that being tough is valued. So we learn to toughen up. We learn to sniff out the nonsense and deal with it swiftly and decisively. We learn to move forward despite it all.
But that is a terrible lesson to learn. Because it perpetuates the nonsense.
And being tough becomes a laudatory remark. It becomes a badge of honour.
You resigned! Why? I thought you were a tough cookie.
You didn’t find that meeting constructive? Why, aren’t you a tough cookie?
You really want to kick up a fuss over that? I had you down as a tough cookie.
It is very easy to lose sight of what is important. The reasons why the new employer was a better proposition; the ways in which colleague interactions could he improved; areas of organisational culture, operational efficiency and performance management that could be re-thought. Surviving in a hostile environment becoming its own reward, is the surest way of perpetuating said environment. If being a tough cookie is so important the nonsense is left unchallenged. Doesn’t it help you be a tough cookie and demonstrate said tough cookie-ness, after all?
Try bringing innovation into this environment.
Try thinking out loud.
Try being different.
Try being young.
Find the price you are not willing to pay. And don’t pay it.
The answer is not the same for all of us as individuals.
The playground bully is happy in this context. But surely that’s not our moral beacon of choice.
Many of us find our way, despite thinking it’s all a little counter productive. A little destructive. But many don’t feel it is worth it. Many don’t feel being a tough cookie is its own reward at all. Many exit. Not because they can’t hack it. But because they don’t want to, because to them the price tag is not worth it.
So off they go to do something else and we are left thinking them unworthy cookies. And nothing changes. And we lose talent and diversity and empathy because hey this is what it takes to survive in the industry. As if somehow the ridiculous cultural tropes were intrinsically linked to innate abilities in mathematics or engineering.
For me, the price I didn’t think worth paying was becoming as hard as some of the people around me. Sure, be tough. Take no shit. Take no prisoners. Just, whatever you do, don’t harden. That’s the price truly not worth paying. For me as an individual.
But for the organisations we are in? For the body corporate? The price not worth paying, surely should be the exact price we are currently paying: ensuring that we beat empathy out of our new recruits, ensuring we teach them to treat every encounter as a cockfight. Teaching them that, until you are part of the furniture, you need to fight for your right to be here, you need to earn your stripes, by being tough. And the more different you or the thing you are trying to do is, the tougher you need to be.
And while you are toughening up over there, we will sit over here and try to understand why all these soft cookies out there keep getting user centric design and human centric service right while we suck at it. Paying the highest price of all in the hard currency of lost competitiveness.
It’s time to break the cycle of nonsense. Put all this acquired toughness to good use.
Your results are good, I was told once by a boss, but your team look too happy (true story). You need to control them more tightly. You need to toughen them up.
Of course the truth is, I didn’t need to do any of that. He wanted me to, sure. He wanted and expected more tough cookies in his image. He wanted to see their shoulders braced. Like true bankers.
But that was a price I was not prepared to pay.
And when it came to the nonsense ahead, he found I was one tough cookie. I knew it had to be good for something in the end.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
Leda is a lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem, inhabiting both start-ups and banks over the years. She is a roaming banker and all-weather geek.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!