The plague of learned helplessness
I talk about the way we get in our own way inside of organisations a lot.
And I talk about it with considerable empathy because I have lived through it, and I know there are no monsters lurking behind the terrible decisions we keep making (or the terrible impacts of the decisions we keep not making).
It is invariably good people doing the best they can, trying to do a good job on the basis of what they have learned… what they know… what they were told was the right thing to do when they learned their craft.
I get a lot of nods when I talk about that in rooms full of bankers.
Where the nodding stops and hackles raise a little bit is when I say that inside our organisations, we suffer from a plague of learned helplessness.
The term is meant to be confrontational, by the way.
That ain’t no accident, y’all.
“That is not so,” I am told.
“What can we do? We are not the biggest bank in the world…”
Well, friend, the biggest bank in the world says they have no options, too. So it ain’t that. What else have you got?
“Well, no matter how senior you are, there is always someone you answer to. The CEO, the board, the investors.”
I mean, sure. Making decisions and taking actions doesn’t come with total impunity. Of course there are other people in the mix.
What else have you got in your trove of excuses?
“What can we do?” says the banker. “There are no good options.”
Now we are getting somewhere.
To this, I have three things to say:
1: You don’t always get good options. But there are always options. Maybe not the ones you were hoping for, but that’s life.
A lot of the options that seem good right now are no longer available. You know why?
Because you didn’t take those options when you had the chance… because they didn’t feel like good options then. Hindsight being 20/20 and all.
Exogenous factors are always at play anyway.
There are always people and factors to consider that are not in your control. Of course. This is life, not a laboratory.
When do you ever get to control all the variables? When do you get nothing but good options?
This is life, not Disneyland. And some of the options you could have had, your past self robbed you of by not doing the doing. Because they felt there were no good options.
2: You don’t get to the end with one decision.
We are where we are, as an industry, through osmosis. Decisions and indecision piled on top of each other over decades.
We have habits and structures, learned behaviours and reward systems. Rules and policies. Ageing systems and risk modules that have long ceased being fit for purpose. We have layers of things that need changing, and it’s a lot. And every moment of hesitation adds to this pile of things we need to work out and work through. And the courage we need to work up to get started increases… because it’s a lot.
And it all needs to be done.
So, looking at it and trying to work out the one decision that will get you through to the other side… oh brother…
There isn’t one.
You need to make decisions and keep making decisions.
It’s a lot. But it should be a little reassuring as well, no? That you can take this step by step. You don’t have to work it all out from the get-go. You can eat the elephant one bite at a time.
I find that reassuring, to be honest, exactly because it means that you have to show up and keep showing up.
3: If you are a decision maker inside a bank, even if it is the smallest bank ever, you still have the potential to make decisions every day that reach more people and have more impact, for better or worse, on the communities you serve than most human beings have in a lifetime. I don’t want you getting drunk on this sense of power. Don’t let it go to your head and whatnot.
But you can’t wring your hands and say you have no options. You do. You just may not like your options. So exercise some of them to give yourself more, different options tomorrow.
You will never control every variable. You will not always like your options. So make choices to change those options, bit by bit. And remember that your comments in today’s meeting may set a process in motion that changes your systems in a way that allows you to service new segments in your community or service them better.
Today’s meeting may be the step you need to take to make small business loans easier to service, credit scoring smarter so you can service immigrant communities or truly enable people to improve their credit footprint.
Today’s meeting about risk metrics may enable your teams to switch off legacy systems that will in turn lighten your cost footprint just enough to bring some really competitively priced products to market that make all the difference between a kid being able to go to college or not, or young love being able to afford a home before their hair turns grey and a business getting the real-time credit lines they need to grow.
So, yeah, maybe there are no good options when you are trying to shift risk models without revising your risk appetite.
Show up and make the choices anyway.
And do it again tomorrow and the day after. Until the choices get better and you get better at understanding the responsibility you have. And the reach.
Exactly because you can have more impact in a day than most people have in a lifetime, you owe it to them to show up and do your best and not an iota less than that.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
Leda is also a published author – her first book, Bankers Like Us: Dispatches from an Industry in Transition, is available to order here.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!