Most of the commentary about excessive Wall Street bonuses has focused on incredible greed and political tone deafness, and those certainly were in play. But it strikes me that part of the issue may relate to values, or culture.
When The Authentic Enterprise advises that, to earn the trust of the public, a global enterprise must define and activate values in new ways, it doesn’t really specify what those values should be. But there’s an underlying assumption that, in order to generate trust, the values ought to be positive, admirable, and acceptable to public stakeholders.
In most successful corporations, there is a value, a custom or a practice that says one’s bonus depends on one’s individual performance, the performance of one’s unit, and the performance of the firm. If the company exceeds plan, everyone has a chance to get a good bonus. If the company fails to meet plan, everyone can expect a lousy bonus. This is designed to get everyone to work together, and to discourage cowboys who seek to succeed at the expense of others within the firm. This practice or value is useful in making sure everyone pulls together to meet customers’ needs.
On Wall Street, however, it’s commonplace for bankers or traders to claw their way to success without regard for the impact of their actions on other individuals or units within the firm. And there is an expectation that if they perform well, they will be rewarded, regardless of the firm’s overall results. It seems to be more of an every-man-for-himself value or culture.
If I’m right about this, it would help to explain the disconnect between the huge losses and huge bonuses on Wall Street in 2008. The meltdown was caused by the actions of a relatively few bankers and traders. Those not responsible felt they were entitled to full bonuses, and in many instances, they got them.
That doesn’t make sense to taxpayers who have poured billions into shoring up those firms. Nor does it make sense to executives in companies where bonuses aren’t paid in the face of huge losses, no matter who might have been responsible or where in the company the problems occurred. It also doesn’t do much to create a culture within which everyone shares a responsibility to ensure that the firm takes only reasonable or acceptable risks.
As a taxpayer, I support President Obama’s attempt to restrict executive compensation in publicly supported enterprises. But over the long term, the best solution to the problem will not be government control, but rather Wall Street’s adoption of values that encourage collaboration within financial services firms.
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