The closet of shame
Although I am no longer a banker, I work with banks. And, hand on heart, I am not sure if I will ever fully not be a banker. It’s a world I get and care about. It’s a space that makes sense to me, with all its failings and foibles. It’s the industry that made me who I am and the cause I come back to time and again. And if I castigate, it is because I care. And if I flag its shortcomings, I do not consider myself outside looking in and making light. Far from it.
Everything I flag, I want to fix, not mock.
And nothing more than the closet of shame, an idea that isn’t even mine.
It came from an ex colleague, Bill, who had a sharp wit and a soothing sense of humour on a bad day. Well. Every day, to be fair. But it was most needed on a bad day.
And we had been having a bad day. I can’t even recall why. The details are lost in the decade between that conversation taking place and now and the multitudes of times the same circumstances have transpired since.
Are you a banker?
Then this one is familiar.
There is a mistake.
It can be a small one or a huge one.
It can be a deliberate political manoeuvre or a genuine miscalculation.
It may be that person who was given responsibility for a big deliverable and is really not working out but nobody is willing to call it. It could be a glaring error (like that bank I once worked for who forgot to accrue contractor pay for the month of May and would rather delay all projects by a month than go up the food chain and admit the boo boo). It could be miscalculations in estimates, complexity, dependencies or you name it.
It could be the height of stupidity or a most human error.
It doesn’t matter. Both happen all the time.
What matters is what happens next.
Will we never learn?
So that thing that I genuinely can’t remember had happened and I am on the phone to Bill. He can’t fix it any more than I can and although he is as disappointed as me, he is resigned to my furious. And why am I furious?
Because that thing, whatever it was, had happened before.
It was entirely avoidable and would have been avoided, if only we had talked about it and learned from it the time before, and the time before that.
That person doing a terrible job at stakeholder management has actually driven three more projects into the rocks of misaligned expectations. Why are we acting surprised?
Why are we using the same estimation tools that didn’t serve every other time we used them?
Why did we repeat the same mistakes in the same way?
Why can’t we learn?
Because of the closet of shame, said Bill.
Everything that goes wrong in a bank, big or small, gets put neatly away in the closet of shame.
Don’t get me wrong. Consequences are real and for big mistakes financial repercussions, fines and folks losing their jobs are not unheard of.
But even then, subsequent reflection is minimal. The organisational learning non-existent. Because, once the dust settles, the incident is put in the closet of shame never to be talked about again. Never to be learned from.
Or not quite.
Learning the wrong things
We actually do learn.
We learn that the closet exists and therefore you take things out at your own peril: if you have ever mentioned past failings and were enveloped by the awkward silence in the meeting room you know what I mean.
If you want to know what is actually inside the closet of shame, don’t ask in the meeting room, don’t ask by the water cooler.
Don’t ask in the pub, don’t be daft, that only happens in movies.
Ask on plane rides and train journeys (the in-between places where everything is possible) ask during time out of time moments when you will receive an answer human to human, not colleague to colleague. But be careful not to use that knowledge and betray the confidence. For the unwritten rule is that we know of the closet but do not speak of what is in it.
Only the non-bankers are laughing by now.
What else do we learn?
We learn that responsibility and accountability are slippery things and if you retain deniability, if you produce enough paperwork to show due process, if you have a risk log and close your Jira tickets, you may fuck up and still triumph.
We know that there are tools and paper trails that can protect you from memory and consign your failures to the closet.
And although nobody sets out to fail, everyone protects themselves just in case.
That’s why half your life as a banking junior is spent filling out templates and producing documents that have no purpose: no actual usefulness and no apparent use.
But as you grow and learn the skill of creating a project plan, and pre-agreeing KPIs and milestones, and communication cadence models and risk logs, you realise nobody is trying to arm the team to do the work through these tools and artefacts. That comes after if it comes at all.
All this, all this effort, all this work, all this toil is the one-way ticket to the closet should things get bad. Failure isn’t talked about if it’s neatly wrapped in logs and reports, updates and Gantt charts.
So what if we never learn to estimate? So what if we never learn how to measure performance in ways that will, god forbid, improve it? So what if we never give people a chance to fall, get up and learn from the process?
We have learned that all of those things matter less than the closet of shame.
And we have learned why.
Anything you say can and will be used against you
It’s sad but it’s true.
Although I have met incredibly supportive colleagues, bosses and mentors in my years as a banker, life inside a bank is spent mostly dodging bullets and deflecting poisoned arrows. Internally launched in an endless nonsensical battle for resources, air time and supremacy that may turn into currency at bonus, promotion or redundancy time. You don’t know when you are going to need it. And the old hands play a deft game.
As a newbie all this is above your head.
But the time comes when you start to rise and the surest sign of impeding success is that the missiles start pointing at you. A dubious honour and one that feels deeply personal at first. Then you learn.
You learn to hate neither the player nor the game.
You learn that a good boss is a shield. You learn to become a shield for your people. You learn that trust is a different kind of currency inside a big bank, and a constantly appreciating one. And you learn about the unspoken truces and the battle-ready mountains of paper that surround the closet of shame. Just in case.
You know that if you fail (and come on, you will, in ways big and small, you will because only those don’t try don’t fail) there are two paths: the door, or the closet of shame for your misdeed. It’s not a pardon. It’s a polite “we shall not speak of this again”. If you try for the third path of let’s talk and learn and reflect you will find arrows galore pointed at your head: because nobody fails alone and nobody wants to join you in your Quixotic quest for self reflection.
So we learn.
We learn from our mistakes. We learn who to trust. We learn how to protect ourselves to live to fight another day. We learn how to dodge bullets and work around assumptions and sacred cows. We learn who we can count on and who is waiting to pounce before the closet of shame does its job, when things are still raw and it’s fair game to use them against you.
We learn all this and it is useful.
What we don’t learn is how to bloody estimate better.
How to support that project manager develop and not watch the same chaos unfold each time she’s at the helm.
How to have checks in place so that, if a junior working late into the night forgets to drag the month tab 12 clicks on his spreadsheet and sleepily only goes as far as 11, the whole division doesn’t down tools for a month because nobody picked up on the error and how embarrassing is that?
Avoiding the retro placebo
Before you suggest it, banks do retros. And they are sad affairs.
They involve dancing around elephants in rooms and flagging things like “we should talk more, email less”, “we should have involved Jane earlier”, “we should have had a coffee machine in the project room”, “we should have pre-agreed holidays to align to the skills matrix so that Joel didn’t go away on honeymoon when we most needed him”.
All probably true.
All probably beside the point that probably would have entailed a conversation about departmental politics delaying approvals, the fact that releases are timed by people who have not been told the 1980s are over, the fact that some tech choices were made that are no longer fit for purpose but who’s going to tell the CTO that?
The fact that we missed things. Were wrong about assumptions. But now we know.
And what we know is uncomfortable because it involves changing a lot.
And having hard conversations about people’s styles and personalities and actual commitment.
The things that can really make or break a project.
The things we don’t talk about because we know it is above the pay-check of the people in the room to fix and because it’s no skin off our nose right? We won’t even be working as a team in this guise on the next piece of work so what’s the point?
Plus we have probably told our boss over a drink and now it’s his problem.
Only he really doesn’t feel that way. It is not a problem for him. Not really.
He didn’t lose sleep over it. He didn’t feel its consequences on his skin like you did and nor will he suffer from re-living it next sprint. Your boss will protect you from yourself and not let you flag and fight this. He will let it go the way of the closet and look after your career.
How do you break the cycle?
In a bank? I am not sure you can to be honest. But I hope I am wrong.
But outside a bank?
In our efforts to build and create technical solutions and culture wedges to help the banking industry from our hipster offices? How do we ensure this doesn’t happen because we are not immune to any of this.
It is human nature to want to let mistakes be forgotten.
It is human nature to try and protect yourself from potential blame.
It is human nature to see something going wrong and try and put it at someone else’s feet.
It is human nature and it is entirely, totally and irredeemably damaging.
So how do you stop it?
Seriously, DM me, comment, send a courier pigeon. I want to hear your solutions.
Here are mine.
Unless another person has been hurt, upset or in any way emotionally involved, any mistake big or small is mine as much as the person who made it.
I am the boss right?
Their success is my success, no?
So are the mistakes.
And on a fundamental level they are. Errors of omission or commission, bad behaviour or genuine fucks ups, they are my responsibility and my fault as much as the perpetrator for missing them, if nothing else. As is the responsibility to solve things.
Second. It doesn’t matter who did it. Who broke it. Who didn’t think about it. Whose idea this was. Who should have been keeping an eye on it.
Unless it’s malicious. Unless someone did something on purpose. Unless someone was hurt in the process, never ever ever ask who.
Ask what now, what next and how we will prevent this from happening.
Ask how do we fix and how do we learn from this.
Do not seek blame.
And equally do not permit blame. Even when people are potentially right. Even if they are conceivably notionally right. The minute your team start pointing fingers at each other and say he did or didn’t, she could but hasn’t, is your moment to act.
You are what you tolerate. And if you tolerate that, your own closet of shame is not far behind.
In our team, when something goes wrong, we roll up our sleeves and say, “this is a fine mess mate, how do I help?”.
And when things are no longer on fire we talk about how we can do better. Together. Because that is how we work and how we mess up and how we fix things.
And maybe every problem is fresh and we can’t learn all that much from our errors. So be it.
We will at least have learned how to have each other’s back. How to pull together. How to be a team. And that, is everything.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption as CEO of 11:FS Foundry.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!