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Bankers suppress their identities to survive and thrive at work, finds study

Senior investment bankers don’t care what others think of them and don’t see their work as part of their identities, according to a study from Queen Mary University of London.

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While many of us search for meaning in our professional lives, none of the bankers interviewed for the study attached any personal value to their work. Instead, the ambition to make money allowed the interviewees to effectively bypass any concerns about incompatibility between their work activities and sense of self.

So extreme was this disassociation that the researchers invented a new term: teflonic identity manoeuvring, a process to avoid any difficult encounters or experiences 'sticking'.

Each of the six investment bankers were interviewed between 10 and 12 times, over an 18 month period.

Co-author Professor Maxine Robertson, based at QMUL’s School of Business and Management, says: “Investment bankers work in difficult, demanding and often sexist environments. We’d expect to find at least some evidence of anxiety, concern about being ‘out of sync’ with one’s values, and discomfort among women with displays of overt sexism.

In fact, we found none of these things. The group was entirely immune from any association between their personal identity and their work. We found that making money, and the motivation of making more, relegated other issues to the point of insignificance.”

The researchers argue that while profit and personal income is clearly the driving force in the investment banking sector, it also – perhaps uniquely – acts as a powerful regulatory regime, shaping people’s values, attitudes and behaviours.

“The role of money was so great that it suppressed any concerns around challenges to self-identity. The main reason for this, we believe, is that unlike any other sector, effort and reward are precisely assessed in real-time, solely in monetary terms. This is coupled with extreme employment volatility which means it is vital to make as much money as possible in the present,” said Professor Robertson.  

The researchers found that the dress codes and demeanour also helped investment bankers to ignore and circumvent considerations of personal identity. The necessity to conform to “the rules” around dress etc. was, among all interviewees, absolute.

One interviewee (Charlotte) emphasised the role of appearance in the context of an intern: “He had quite a lot of internships and really good experience, but now I know why he hasn’t got a permanent job. He kind of slobs around on the trading floor, he is one of those guys that can make a really expensive, sharp, nice suit looks scruffy and old. It’s all part of the wrap, it’s the kind of veneer we deal with in this business. So yes, I have to tell him that he has an attitude problem. Could you imagine trying to put him in front of a client?”

Along with money and appearance, the researchers found that each of the participants spoke of the need for “professional” behaviour. However in this context, the interviewees equated professionalism with acceptance and a “blind eye” approach to bad behaviour from clients.

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