Can we expect compassion from the banking industry?

The seeds of a crisis

Following the banking crisis of 2008, investigations in many countries revealed an  industry that at times had lost its social focus. Ten years on the stories from the Royal Commission into banking, including that of the former Tasmanian farmer Michael Hirst, are unfortunately providing similar examples of insensitivity. In his evidence Hirst claims that his banking group never showed his family any compassion in its dealings with them while another family were told to sell their farm and home and then were threatened with bankruptcy if they didn’t come up with $300,000 within eight days. 

Banking executives have accepted that their conduct has fallen well below community standards and expectations. But they have also said that, ‘while these stories of farmers are sad – nonetheless, what they were doing was to pursue their contractual rights to get paid the money that belongs to depositors’. 

The heart of the matter

This statement goes to the heart of the problem. Any business that focuses purely on the bottom line of financial return, regardless of its treatment of employees or customers will create environments that are lacking in compassion and will be unpleasant to work  in, or be served by. In addition such views underestimate the complexity required in running large organisations today.  

Businesses have multiple groups to whom they are accountable, and many are now recognising that managing corporate reputations requires much more than simply meeting contractual duties. Co-founding editor of Wired, John Batelle once wrote that ‘business is humanity’s most resilient, iterative and productive mechanism for creating  change in the world’. 

Banking organisations can only create positive change if they recognise they have both a social and economic contribution to make. Economist Ross Gittins recently noted that while the business of producing and consuming, earning and spending, is and always will be vitally important, it needs to be kept in its place. An economics-obsessed nation is not likely to be a happy, fulfilled nation, he concludes.  

Economics-obsessed nations aren’t happier nations

Lessons of compassion

The science of compassion as a motivation has a contribution to make to these current debates. Humans have a range of motivations and these motivations include defending themselves against harm, seeking to belong in groups, forming attachments with parents, and, as we grow older, seeking our own relationships and caring for our children. 

Amongst these motivations two of the basic social motives are to: 

  • Compete with others, focus on self-advancement (self can include kin and group) control resources, and accumulate; 
  • Cooperate with others, offer care and support for others, especially those in vulnerable circumstances, and share rather than accumulate.

The problem with these two motivational systems is that they can produce intense conflicts. Humans have a powerful competitive and acquiring motivation which tends to turn off other motivational systems that link to caring and supporting others. For example, when we focus on our tribal identity we can be very hostile to people we see outside our group, while at the same time be very caring to those we see within our  group.  

So for people to engage with the work of compassion it is important that they understand compassion. Compassion is not about being overwhelmed, it’s not about sinking into other people’s pain, it is not about being superficially nice, so that  people will like you, and it’s definitely not pity, or about patronising others. It’s not about weakness, softness, or letting people off the hook when they cause harm. 

Prof Paul Gilbert, Director of the Compassionate Mind Foundation, UK says that ‘at the core of compassion is courage – the courage to descend into the reality of the human experience’. In calling for more compassion in business, we need to understand what a  compassion motivation system actually is.  

Research has shown there are three parts to compassion: 

1) paying attention and noticing suffering in self and others.  

2) working out how to respond to that suffering within the context it is arising. 

3) creating a sense of self that seeks to avoid carelessly or purposely causing  suffering. 

Compassion takes courage

This is very important for business and competitive behaviour, because humans will always compete. When they also become dissociated from, or don’t notice or are  indifferent to the suffering they are causing, then that becomes an issue. Gilbert states that the human mind is very tricky and it is very easy to get individuals to turn off their  compassion motivation. 

Getting down to business

Businesses need to be aware of the motivations and behaviours they reward in their staff because if they do not find a way for competitive businesses to operate within a  moral arena then increasingly businesses will be quite happy to make money for their  shareholders and themselves, regardless of the harm they are causing to their employees, their customers, or indeed the societies in which they operate.  

While businesses are beginning to realise that employee well-being supports profitability and sustainability, the compassion question is much broader. The emerging science of compassion – based in extensive research – is providing new insights into how we can improve our capacity to ‘see’ suffering. Because when we are able to ‘see’ suffering then we are better able to address it. 

These concepts are important in the banking industry because what the current banking Royal Commission is highlighting is that bankers are often working with people at very vulnerable stages of their lives – some that have life changing consequences.

Science is now studying human motivations, in particular focusing more on understanding the positive qualities and motivations of the human mind, which include compassion, altruism, and empathy.  

In his new book, Living Like Crazy, Prof Gilbert points out that developing a compassionate mind creates certain patterns in our brains that organizes our motives, emotions and thoughts in ways that are conducive for our own and other people’s well being.’ 

Organisations need to better understand that once they have provided their employees with an underlying motivation that organises their motives, emotions and thoughts, and behaviours then those are what will emerge within the organisation. If individual self-interest is promoted then individual self-interest is the way the organisation will go and  employees that find that difficult will simply leave.  

The point is that a self-interested competitive motivation (not all competitiveness needs to be self-interested) will organise the mind in a particular way – one that is more likely to focus on profit and bonuses, rather than on the wider impact of those decisions. Clients and customers are often simply not ‘seen’ in a scenario of personal and windfall gains.  

If the banking system – and indeed all corporate organisations – are to engage with compassion then they need to appreciate the power of evolved human motivations. While banking executives may have stated that there are no KPIs for staff to maximize the amount of money made from the sale of assets, it is clear that the sales culture of the banking system rewards employees through incentives such as bonuses, salary, and  promotions. And as Peter Drucker reminds us, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. 

In order to become proficient at noticing what motivation is guiding us, and what emotions are being stimulated, all of us, including banking executives, can learn to be more attentive and mindful. This means is that we come off auto-pilot and start to notice and be aware of what we are actually thinking, feeling, and doing. How often do we drive home, put the car in the garage and realise that we don’t really remember the drive because we’ve been thinking of something else. Neuroscience tells us that it is very easy for humans to live without attentive awareness. 

There is now considerable evidence that becoming more mindful of our emotions, motives and behaviours and making compassionate choices enhances well-being not only for ourselves but also of those around us. Mindfulness allows us to choose what motivation is most conducive to our own and other people’s well-being and to activate  deliberately our prosocial and compassionate motivation. 

The science of human motivations needs to be studied if compassion is become part of corporate business. Prof Jane Dutton and Monica Worline in ‘Awakening Compassion at Work’ write that we need to develop ‘compassion competence – so that we are capable of noticing, interpreting, feeling and acting in effective ways when alleviating suffering in the workplace’. Their research is showing that managing with compassion can be learned and developed through practice. 

In the end, we all benefit

A ‘better world is better for business’ according to the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella. In his recent book, Hit Refresh he concludes that is why ‘corporations need to think about the impact of their actions on the world and its citizens long into the future’.  

As corporations navigate their economic and social impact – the science of compassion can now assist them in keeping both their competitive and cooperative motivations in  clear sight.  

Dr Lynne Reeder is a member of the GCC Board, an Adjunct Research Fellow, Federation University Australia; Founder, Mindful Futures Network at Australia21; and National Lead, Charter for  Compassion, Australia. She is writing in her own capacity.

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