In my last article, I wrote about culture in the context of questioning the behaviour of firms on the receiving end of British Steel Pension Scheme complaints. 

    (You can catch up on that article here.)

    I have inevitably been giving this further thought, as more steelworkers have contacted me to discuss whether they were properly advised to transfer. There are now more than 30 firms in South Wales against which we have been instructed to pursue complaints.

    It may surprise you to know that I don't consider those advisers who repeatedly gave poor advice to be 'bad'. I think it's unhelpful to put those advisers in a box marked “I would never do that”. 

    But it is important to learn from what has happened. Rather than taking a moral stance, we should consider that most of us are capable of doing things we never thought we would, given the right (or wrong) environment.

    Guards and prisoners

    Back in the early 1970s, psychologists from Stanford University conducted an experiment. 

    They recruited 18 student volunteers to participate in the study, all of whom had good mental health. At random they allocated them to be either a 'guard' or a 'prisoner'. 

    During the course of the experiment, the guards were given extensive powers and the prisoners were stripped of their rights. 

    At the start, the prisoners rebelled and sought to exert what little power they could by attempting a riot or refusing to eat. 

    But within days, the prisoners were compliant and behaved as they were expected and required to. The guards, in their turn, took steps to ensure compliance with the rules.

    The experiment was due to last two weeks. The psychologists were forced to stop it after only six days, such was the behaviour of the guards towards the prisoners. 

    Bear in mind these were not, in fact, guards and prisoners; they were volunteers who hadn't committed a crime and were peers out in the real world. 

    Within the space of six days, the guards' behaviour changed radically.

    They went from considering themselves to be liberal, pacifist individuals, who couldn't see a time when they would maltreat other living things, to guards who, in some cases, meted out physical or degrading punishments.

    These punishments included strip searches, force-feeding, solitary confinement and requiring prisoners to clean toilets with their bare hands. 

    Not all the guards were as extreme, but even those who did not meet out punishments didn't step in to stop those who did. 

    The effects did not stop there. 

    The psychologists running the experiment found themselves acting like wardens rather than scientists – refusing to believe prisoners who reported psychological distress, and working with the guards to foil a rumoured prison break. 

    One reported: “I am startled by the ease with which I could turn off my sensitivity and concern for others for a ‘good cause.'"

    Culture club

    Back to Port Talbot, again I find myself asking why several firms are now the subject of complaints. 

    Was there something in the water? Or is it because they took their eye off their culture, and the right ingredients were there to create a 'bad' culture? 

    In that environment, did the decisions become easier, did the meetings become shorter, did the advice, quite literally, become a “no brainer”? 

    Let’s be honest, how many of us have ever said to our staff: “Please stop making me money”?

    And so, while my view is the advice my clients received was negligent and in breach of the regulatory rules, I wonder whether the cause of that wasn’t deliberate bad behaviour, but an environment which inadvertently created the conditions for bad advice. 

    So how do we ensure we don’t create those cultures? How do we create a culture we are proud of? 

    What discussions, messages, policies or key performance indicators should we implement in our firms to save us from our darker selves? To put it another way, what is the worst behaviour you are currently tolerating in your firm?

    I spoke at an adviser conference about this recently and heard a positive story which made me smile. 

    An adviser who had not long joined a firm recounted his experience of waiting to be interviewed one morning as six members of staff went into the office to start their day. 

    As each staff member passed him sitting in reception, every one of them asked him if he was ok, whether he was being seen and whether he would like a cup of tea. 

    I want my firm to be this engaged with the client experience - and I intend to work hard to achieve it.

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