When the concept of reputation management first became fashionable it was always the banks that topped the list. Dour bank managers (with a dose of Scottish Presbyterianism thrown in) were held up as the pinnacles of trustworthiness. After all, you trusted them with your money. And now look what’s happened. One minute we’re asking them if they could possibly see their way to extending us a small overdraft facility and next they’re selling us products we don’t need and mortgages that we’ve got no hope of paying back. Their collective behaviour nearly brought the Western world to its knees. And the solution to this is likely to be an inquiry that could lead to tighter regulation. In the words of that great banker, Sergeant Wilson: “Do you think that’s wise, Sir?”
Increased regulations are unlikely to change behaviour. Faced with a choice between what we read and what we observe, we will invariably choose the latter. Just look at the long-running inquiry into media standards. Sometimes it was exisiting laws that were being broken; and other times it was serial unpleasant behaviour. But in all cases, like the banks, the behaviour patterns were set at the top not in the words of the code of conduct. The solution, therefore, is less about rules and regulations and more about values and behaviours.
The question, however, is broader. How is it that we have reached a point in society where so many institutions seem to be in the wrong place. The truth is that you get what you deserve. As a society we have come to value the wrong things; for instance, we “teach” our children to pass exams rather than to learn and “success” is all about material wealth and status. I once heard a senior executive in a consumer goods company say that he could sleep well sure in the knowledge that he produced real goods and played no part in creating the financial crisis. But the truth, of course, is that he did play a part. Advertising and marketing create an insatiable desire for things that we often don’t need. The desire to have products that make your hair shinier than before is the same one that leads to taking on a mortgage that you can’t afford. Of course progress is important but it has to be sustainable not only in resource terms but also in understanding genuine human need. And yet, across the world the cry is going out that we have to get our economies growing. What growth means in reality is driving more people into the shopping malls to buy an even bigger HD TV, even though the current one works well enough.
So perhaps it is time to hit the pause button. Society today is dominated by a left-brain culture that values hierachy, status, and material possessions. We need less logic and rational thought and more contemplation of what is really important. Bankers won’t suddenly stop being so motivated by money that they act less badly simply because someone writes a new set of rules. Bankers are us in a different context. We all need to take time to reflect on what really matters rather than chasing after bigger and better. As Tolstoy said of Count Vronsky when he finally got Anna Karenina: “It showed him the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realisation of desires.”