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BLANK SLATE

To succeed in investment banking, just switch off all feelings and emotions

A worker arrives at his office in the Canary Wharf business district in London.
Reuters/Eddie Keogh
Who am I? Why am I here?
  • Jason Karaian
By Jason Karaian

Global finance and economics editor

Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

“What do you do?” is often one of the first questions you ask when meeting someone new. That’s because, for most people, identity is inextricably tied to work. Professionals, in particular, draw heavily on their work for a sense of identity—think of doctors, scientists, or high-level executives.

And then there are investment bankers.

“For them, nothing matters,” says Maxine Robertson of Queen Mary University of London. “They literally don’t have a self—it is bypassed, put to one side.” This attitude is so unique, and so extreme, that Robertson and fellow researchers invented a new term to describe it.

In a paper published in the latest issue of the journal, Organization Studies, Robertson and co-author Mats Alvesson of Lund University in Sweden dub it “teflonic identity maneuvering.” That is, investment bankers actively avoid adopting any sort of identity associated with their work—in other words, nothing sticks.

Nowhere man (and woman)

That conclusion comes from a series of interviews with senior bankers in London. “Despite extensive and repeated interviews with each, there was an absence of a clear or rich story of identity,” the professors write. “Meaningfulness, emotions, and personal investment in work values were not salient in their career histories.”

There is money, of course.

It’s not surprising that professionals in the sector say that they’re in it for the money, Robertson tells Quartz. But what sets investment bankers apart is that they don’t use money to convey special status or establish a unique personal identity. Instead, they buy the same expensive suits and accessories as their colleagues, in order to blend in and draw attention away from themselves. Remind you of something?

Even when interviewed outside of the office, Robertson says the chats with bankers were “incredibly bland.” Free to express themselves outside of work, the bankers nonetheless showed “a distinct lack of any emotion.” Women reported pervasive sexism and outright harassment at work “matter-of-factly.” Others said honesty is a “career-limiting move” and called loyalty to a bank “stupid.”

Then, there was this killer passage: “John is comfortable stating that the bank he worked for and what he was selling was ‘crap’.”

Living a fantasy

In the research, bankers suggested that they were postponing their identities rather than negating them. They spoke of vague, general plans for an “expansive and independent life” in the future, after they left banking. But Robertson suspects this might be “fantasy”—some talked about being able to provide for their families when they didn’t even have a partner at the time.

There are also some caveats. The researchers only interviewed six bankers, although they spoke with each a dozen times over a two-year period. Despite the small sample, the fact that each subject independently showed the same unusually detached attitude towards identity is significant. (And this is hardly the only study to lay bare the toxic culture of big investment banks.) That said, the subjects were all relatively senior bankers with long tenures in the industry, suggesting that these characteristics may apply only to those who commit to investment banking for the long term.

What is it about banks that attract the smart and ambitious only to transform them into amoral automatons in expensive suits? Robertson reckons that it might be the peculiar mix of the highly specialized expertise and almost no job security.

“People can’t live like that, so you become like this,” she says. “It seems odd for the bankers, and it can’t be healthy for the organization.” Indeed, would the endless and expensive cycle of misbehavior at big banks be reduced if employees were encouraged to seek meaning beyond money alone?

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