What is your corporation really doing to you? And what are you doing to it?

Michael Lewis, ridiculously excellent author of Moneyball and Liar’s Poker has written an excellent column for Business Insider that examines the consequences of people who join the finance industry, only to be altered profoundly and negatively by the experience:

The question I’ve always had about this army of young people with seemingly endless career options who wind up in finance is: What happens next to them? People like to think they have a “character,” and that this character of theirs will endure, no matter the situation. It’s not really so. People are vulnerable to the incentives of their environment, and often the best a person can do, if he wants to behave in a certain manner, is to choose carefully the environment that will go to work on his character.

Just so you know the lens through which I read the article, I don’t think that we’re significantly compelled by our genetics to behave in certain ways. Yes, genetics have an effect, but since you can shape and change your genetic make-up as you live, I’ve always thought that (to quote a quite brilliant Economist ad – you remember them – by the equally brilliant Tim Riley) it’s Nature vs Nurture: away win.

So the idea that a somewhat well-intentioned person might enter the lion’s den of global finance and not be changed (damaged?) by it seems to me unlikely. But how does that happen, and is it happening in your industry?

Mr Lewis’s article gives some disturbing and thought-provoking reasons for the effect that occurs in the financial sector, but one in particular seemed an interesting corollary to the insidious nature of many of today’s giant corporations:

The people who work inside the big Wall Street firms have no serious stake in the long-term fates of their firms. If the place blows up they can always do what they are doing at some other firm — so long as they have maintained their stature in their market. The quickest way to lose that stature is to alienate the other people in it. When you see others in your market doing stuff at the expense of the broader society, your first reaction, at least early in your career, might be to call them out, but your considered reaction will be to keep mum about it. And when you see people making money in your market off some broken piece of internal machinery — say, gameable ratings companies, or riggable stock exchanges, or manipulable benchmarks — you will feel pressure not to fix the problem, but to exploit it.

So do you love the agency you work for?

And would you care if your agency went bust tomorrow if you had already secured a good job elsewhere?

And would that caring be down to anything other than the fact that your friends would lose their jobs and therefore find the near future somewhat difficult?

I’ve loved many places I’ve worked at, including the current one, but I’ve also seen how large corporations can suddenly decide that its employees are expendable. And what does that do to people? It makes them care less about the corporations they work for and makes them concentrate much more on what’s in it for them.

In the above Lewis paragraph you can swap ‘gameable ratings companies’, or ‘riggable stock exchanges’ for scam ads and many staff not giving a shit about whether an ad shifts product so long as they get a big client on their CV or work with an edgy director.

As many of you saw in the David Abbott memo I posted last week, some companies used to have an ethos that people could stand behind, a North Star that could guide every difficult decision. Now the North Star is more often than not the generation of cash, and it’s hard to swallow being called in to work late nights or weekends so that Martin Sorrell’s Cannes yacht has enough fuel to move another 500 yards.

But no one comes into any industry to be thusly jaded. It happens because your surroundings shape you, minute by minute, millimetre by millimetre, and by the time it’s bent you out of the shape you wanted to be, it often feels like it’s too late, and that’s to the corporation’s detriment as well as your own.

But does it really matter?

Yes it does, because it reduces the chances of you or your corporation realising your possibilities.

You create your company and your company creates you. You create your circumstances and your circumstances create you. It’s kind of chicken and egg, but it’s always going to be within your power to make the most of the situation in which you find yourself. You can be a fluffier chicken or a tastier egg. Don’t be shaped by something that doesn’t work for you. Shape it back until you have the context that speeds you on to your possibility.

You have nothing to lose but the shitty life you never wanted.