‘…what 99% of people intuitively want from their workplace’

AreteThoughts Q&A - Roger Miles

A brief AretéThoughts Q&A with Dr Roger Miles:

What is the most important contribution culture can make to the lives of people in organisations?

To affirm a collective, pro-social purpose. This may partly be found within “what shareholders think their money represents” but increasingly it’s so much more than that: a sense that as an organisation moves along, it leaves a trace of something greater than itself, rather than (literally or metaphorically) gouging a trench across the landscape as it passes by.

What’s odd to me is that we even have to spell this out, as actually it’s just what 99% of people intuitively want from their workplace. That basic human tendency to goodness may be why the infamous “1%” are so often to be found in charge. After the 2008 financial crisis we saw a kind of preview of a social reckoning – vox pop risk – that we’re seeing again during the mad global behavioural experiment that is Covid-19 response. With my political science hat on for a second, there’s talk of an “Attlee moment” akin to when in 1945 Churchill, having just won a war, found himself abruptly dumped by the voters. We might see this happen to governments around the world. I love how modern behavioural science is helping us to make better and better predictive lenses, by the way. Though I may be proved wrong on this call.

Regrettably, that simple, happy popular pull towards the satisfaction of “doing something worthwhile” gets knocked off course by how a lot of organisations operate. On my travels, in business and in the public sector, I see so many systems that are blind to the human factor. What the science calls “the informal organisation”, I prefer simply to call “What Actually Happens”. Badly designed systems of reward sit alongside control instructions that mostly seem to have been conceived by people with no empathy or even sightline towards what front-line staff actually do, with the controls then applied in such a clumsy way that they demotivate every person they touch.

For example, I was in a big bank last month where they proudly showed me their ‘Conduct Policy’, which consisted of more than 95 prohibitions (“don’t…”) versus just five motivators (“do…”). And they wondered why they weren’t winning any staff hearts and minds for their ‘Good Conduct’ initiative. It’s all very well Conduct regulators throwing around phrases like “psychological safety”, “speak-up culture” and “anti-bystanding” but you don’t overcome an organisation’s culture of fear just by preaching at people. Having Chief Executives who deny the existence of bias effects doesn’t help much, either. I actually thought that the science had won that debate, but apparently there are professional firms’ boardrooms still in full denial. Never mind, all the more work for me, or someone or other behavioural!

In certain sectors – again, finance, for example – it doesn’t help that there’s quite a history of suppressing ‘fail-learn’ signals, and promoting delusional and sociopathic risk-takers. And then they wonder why they’re so short of metacognitive skills.

What is your current favourite book or podcast and why?

I’m going to cheat slightly by choosing three if I may.

The Human Risk podcast by Christian Hunt has great new science insights and is consistently thought-provoking but also fun. It hosts an ever-expanding cast of applied behavioural science visionaries, usually with amazing anecdotes from their front line work. It understands that the best behavioural science is about closely studying “what actually happens”, not just building elegant theoretical models. My favourite people to work with, like Christian, are all driven by curiosity to understand why the human animal behaves as it does. Not coincidentally, they’re often also polymaths and second-career ‘outsiders’, bringing a fresh eye for the telling human detail.

I can’t go straight to a “best book”, partly because I always have at least a couple of science books on the go as well as something literary. The three (loosely) behavioural science books I’ve most enjoyed in the past year are:

David Omand’s How Spies Think: looking at bias, trustworthiness and situational awareness; it reminds me of a more Civil Service version of Gavin de Becker’s classic The Gift of Fear, possibly the best account ever of how to rebalance rationality against intuition.

Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Pattern-Seekers: delving into alternative cognitive states. It suggests that, for example, people with autism bring – have already brought – huge contributions to human civilisation and that far more can be achieved if only we would let more ‘non-neurotypical’ people join us at the table.

Which brings me to: My shortlisted science book would have to be Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas. Syed is reliably brilliant; one of the very best popular science writers as he’s both a great finder of evidence and a great storyteller, just straightforwardly excellent at the craft of writing. In this book he tackles cognitive diversity, a factor that’s vital to a healthy culture for any institution, yet can be really tricky to assess. Organisations of all kinds have been fooling themselves for ages by fixating on ‘conventional’ diversity markers (gender, ethnicity, and so on).

Cognitive diversity is way more powerful than any of these as a driver of business value, reflexivity and healthy culture change. But because of course it’s much harder to report on than those surface diversity indicators, few firms appreciate its huge, untapped value.

On the pure literary side I’m into John Mullan’s The Artful Dickens. It’s a bravura show of discovering how a great writer thinks, using some stupendously clever language analysis. Most of what we might call “literary psychoanalysis” is dodgy and opinionated, but this is the real deal.

Maybe I like it because it also draws on something that’s going among the language-analytic geek community (confessing I’m one) in ‘reg tech’ right now. We’re seeing in financial sector Conduct analytics, for example, with ultra-smart metalinguistic tools like Digital Reasoning starting to unlock the secrets of what language AI people call “unstructured data” but everyone else would call “casual workplace conversations”.

Do you think ESG investing will become mainstream and if so, how long do you think it will take?

Yes. Once the institutional investors’ AIs realise that ESG (Environmental, Social and corporate Governance) really does deliver durable value.

Or, for the same reason, possibly no. We’ve already seen an alarming tendency for AI (artificial intelligence) systems designers to ‘bake in biases’ – that is, for the systems they produce to simply replicate and amplify the programmers’ own perceptual foibles. If the people who programme trading algorithms persist in chasing maximum short-term returns – the flash-trading tendency – then we’ll probably succeed in incinerating the planet before the full resilience benefits of ESG have time to assert themselves. Which would be a pity, not to mention a waste of a little blue planet.

Roger Miles is a behavioural researcher and lecturer specialising in the fields of risk cognition and financial regulatory design. He is co-Founder and Faculty Lead at UK Finance’s Conduct and Culture Academy. His published work includes serial Culture commentaries for Thomson Reuters, and the books Culture Audit in Financial Services and Conduct Risk Management: A behavioural approach.