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Staring at our own reflection

Staring at our own reflection

This week has seen developments in two major corporate scandals, one on each side of the Atlantic. Last Thursday US bank Wells Fargo was fined $185m for creating more than two million unauthorised bank and credit card accounts for customers, and moving funds from customers’ existing accounts into these newly-created ones without their knowledge or consent in order to incur substantial charges. The bank admitted to firing 5,300 employees for this illegal and unethical activity, which had become systemic. On Monday the executive responsible for the unit which carried out these abuses, Carrie Tolstedt, left the bank with a payoff of $124.6m.

In London the former managing director, finance director and commercial director of supermarket chain Tesco were charged with fraud by abuse of position and with false accounting by the Serious Fraud Office. In 2014 Tesco allegedly overstated its profits by more than £263m.

Sadly, such betrayals of trust – by organisations that are household names – have now become commonplace. False accounting, mis-selling, fraud, bribery and exploitation have affected every sector. There is something rotten in the state of our corporate cultures. In the boardroom, it manifests as entitlement and a sense of being above the law. Further down in organisations, it stems from relentless pressure to meet targets and the resort to illegal practices as a survival strategy.

What marketing has contributed to this situation is a layer of ‘brandwash’ which tries to make black white by emphasising values that are in marked contrast to what is actually valued. For instance Wells Fargo promote ‘five primary values that are based on our vision and provide the foundation for everything we do: people as a competitive advantage, ethics, what’s right for customers, diversity and inclusion and leadership.’ Tesco’s values include ‘trusting and respecting each other’ and ‘making a positive contribution to the communities where we operate’. These words say the right things, but they have been so devalued by contrary behaviour – much of it sanctioned from the very top – that they have little more than junk status. Indeed they begin to meet the description of Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’. If we tell ourselves we value ethics, then what we do must be ethical (except this isn’t 1984, and it doesn’t work).

The limitations of communications

Why is it so difficult these days for organisations to live according to their beliefs? There are really two answers to this. The first is that, contrary to expectation, we don’t usually act according to our beliefs. Instead, we use beliefs to explain and justify our actions; beliefs are part of a process of post-rationalisation. As social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Jonathan Haidt, puts it in his book The Righteous Mind: “We lie, cheat, and cut ethical corners quite often when we think we can get away with it, and then we use our moral thinking to manage our reputations and justify ourselves to others.” Formulations of values don’t change our behaviour; what they change is how we talk about our behaviour. And we can’t make a person ethical by talking about ethics, as Wells Fargo clearly shows. Indeed, as Haidt points out “A dog’s tail wags to communicate [that it is happy]. You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail.”

The second answer, is that – individually, within our organisations, and societally – we’re putting more and more emphasis on image at the expense of reality. That’s what a brand is, after all: an organisation’s image. It’s how we want to be seen, and perceived. And there is now very little correlation between the desire to be seen in a positive light and the willingness to behave in an admirable way. Reality and image have split.

A person of integrity will always act with integrity. But it’s much easier to adopt ‘integrity’ as a brand value and tell everybody how much of it we have. This gets around the fact that we don’t seem to know how to cultivate integrity in a person any more, and certainly not within an HR framework. Thus we see Seumas Milne carefully promoting Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘integrity’, to the extent of stage-managing him sitting on the floor of a train in which there were plenty of empty seats.

The difficulty with this approach is that there’s only so much goodwill the public is willing to extend to communicators. If someone tells us something, we tend to take it on trust. That’s human nature. But if someone lies to us repeatedly, we will be suspicious even when they are telling the truth. With our organisations, that’s the point we are rapidly reaching. In a large-scale study carried out earlier this year, New York based communications agency Cohn & Wolfe “found a huge ‘authenticity gap’ between brands and consumers, with 75 percent of nearly 12,000 consumers surveyed across 14 markets indicating that brands and companies have a credibility problem”.

Obsessed with image

What has made us so preoccupied with image that we’re unable to see the widening gulf between our actions and our beliefs? Many of the reasons usually advanced to explain our image obsession concern the impact of the media on our daily lives. However the media is really a secondary phenomenon here. If we look closely at the ways we relate to media, we can see that the media is responding to an appetite we already have, rather than doing the driving.

A much more compelling explanation comes from the investigations of psychologists like Hans Kohut and Alexander Lowen into the psychopathology of narcissism. But for this we need to look at something that goes wrong in child development, and which has been going wrong for an increasing number of people over the last six or seven decades.

Healthy psychological development depends upon the way that a child’s sense of self-worth is mirrored by its primary caregiver(s). The child who senses she or he is unconditionally accepted – who feels ‘worthy and welcome’ simply for being themselves – develops a positive core around which their personality can develop. Such a child can grow into an adult who is able to recognise the inherent worth of others, and treat them with appropriate respect and kindness. And the ‘good enough parenting’ necessary to give a child this core – demonstrated through attention and care, rather than just words – distinguishes between the unconditional acceptability of the child and the unacceptability of some of the child’s behaviour.

In the formation of the narcissistic personality there is a dissonance children pick up in the caregiver’s attitudes. They feel rejected for who they are, but discover they can be accepted conditionally for showing themselves to be clever, charming, good-looking, or displaying other laudable attributes. These are the children who are told they are ‘special’, but are rarely given undivided attention — giving the lie to the idea that they are really valued. For such children the dissociation of words and actions is normal. And they have to perform for attention. Approval comes from being what others want them to be, rather than from being themselves, and they learn to play-up in this way (often with considerable precocity). In performance lies power: the power of manipulating others’ feelings. Here there is a reversal of ‘good enough parenting’ — the child is identified with its behaviour, but its real sense of self is left stunted and undeveloped.

The narcissist is a person who is wholly invested in their image, who is obsessed with how others see them. However their preoccupation with image masks an abject and undeveloped sense of self, often marked by deep self-loathing. This can be very hard to see, because the appearance of high self-esteem is essential to the narcissist’s image. Of all the personality disorders, narcissists are least likely to seek help, to admit that there is anything wrong, or disclose other mental health problems such as anxiety or depression. The narcissist is at pains to be seen to be ‘living the dream’: to be decisive, popular, successful (even if this means running up high levels of debt). Like addicts with their addiction, narcissists will lie, cheat and steal to maintain their image. And the problem of narcissism comes down to a willingness to countenance behaviour that people with a healthier psyche would find unacceptable. Narcissists are prone to be grandiose, manipulative, dishonest, secretive, two-faced, and to have diminished levels of empathy.

Narcissism has a societal dimension as well as an individual one, as Lowen explains in his book Narcissism: Denial of the True Self: “Narcissism describes both a psychological and a cultural condition. On the individual level, it denotes a personality disturbance characterized by an exaggerated investment in one’s image at the expense of the self. Narcissists are more concerned with how they appear than what they feel…acting without feeling, they tend to be seductive and manipulative, striving for power and control… On the cultural level, narcissism can be seen in a loss of human values –in a lack of concern for the environment, for the quality of life, for one’s fellow human beings. A society that sacrifices the natural environment for profit and power betrays its insensitivity to human needs. The proliferation of material things becomes the measure of progress in living, and man is pitted against woman, worker against employer, individual against community. When wealth occupies a higher position than wisdom, when notoriety is admired more than dignity, when success is more important than self-respect, the culture itself overvalues ‘image’ and must be regarded as narcissistic.”

There is a degree to which all of us in modern societies exhibit narcissistic tendencies. And as Dr. Jean Twenge wrote in The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement: “Narcissism increased just as fast as obesity over the past 25 years, and a study today shows that it has been increasing at twice that rate since 2002.” However narcissism is particularly well represented in corporate life, thanks to recruitment and advancement choices that tend to reward confidence, charm, persuasiveness and risk-taking (characteristics that narcissists frequently show) over substantive and proven achievement, genuinely empathetic inter-personal skills, real integrity and prudence. In a recent study of 261 business leaders at Bond University in Australia, forensic psychologist Nathan Brookes found that more than one fifth (21%) were found to have pronounced ‘dark personality’ traits (narcissism, machiavellianism and psycopathy). Brookes noted that the only other places such a high concentration is found are prisons.

The narcissistic brand

The phenomenon of branding has many points of similarity with narcissism. The modern brand has become a kind of parallel entity to the organisation, which is often hidden behind it. In this way, the brand can be presented as ‘aspirational’, as about ‘lifestyle’, ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’, while the organisation languishes in poor morale, with a high turnover of staff, significant inequalities and insecurities in pay and conditions, an aggressive management style and a toxic work culture. Marketeers even talk about brands as if they were the organisations that produced the products and delivered the services. “Brands define who we are, how we live, our standards of living and ultimately, our quality of life. A company’s brand is its most important asset.”

“We believe you can create marketing that resonates with a wide range of people if you have storytelling with universal themes that they can emotionally connect to. The message behind our new advertising is a great example – we all work, and do so for what are often emotional reasons. That’s a place where we think Wells Fargo’s brand can have a very meaningful connection with people.”

Marketeers can’t, of course, singlehandedly address the credibility, integrity or empathy deficits in our organisations. But marketing can at least acknowledge that it has created a Frankenstein’s monster (or, better, that it has helped to produce a Jekyll and Hyde dissociation) in many of our organisations and take some responsibility for the damage it has done. And there is another way of representing organisations, which is to anchor communications in an organisation’s reality. For the narcissist, letting go of the image is a terrifying prospect. But for everyone else, accepting who we are – with all our limitations and foibles, as well as our strengths and qualities – is a sane and pleasant way to be. Human values will always trump grandiose visions, because it’s the simple things like friendship, concern, loyalty, helpfulness and sharing that matter most to people who haven’t been crippled by childhood trauma.

It’s all right to be who we are. It’s all right for our organisations to be who they are, too. Assuming, that is, that they are prepared to go about their business with a modicum of human decency.usive rhetoric of Donald Trump, the Maoist-style ‘calling out’ by campus protestors, the paranoiac accusations of media conspiracy against Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, or the barefaced lies of the ‘Leave’ campaign, few of us have witnessed anything like this before. But these disturbing tendencies are by no means confined to politics. They are increasingly also found in the world of work. Indeed, so phenomenal is the rise of ‘nasty business’ that ideas of corporate citizenship and responsible business are beginning to feel like relics of the last century. Enter the world of the dark brand.

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© 2018 James Souttar