Every weekend I play golf with a guy who has worked as a banker all his life. Great fun. Hard working. Competent and committed – the two divine ‘C’s in any employee. Historically, he was upbeat about his job and the organisation. Now, when someone asks him ‘where do your work?’, he replies: ‘In town’. There is something fundamentally wrong when you don’t want to admit where you work and this story could be replicated across the country. This is a crisis period for thousands of people who work in financial services. Despite the public perception, many of these didn’t buy a second home or a Ferrari during the Celtic Tiger era and have actually suffered more than most as the value of their bank shares has disappeared faster than Lord Lucan.
Dogs Abuse: Bank staff have already received terrible abuse from customers. There are myriad examples of customers verbally and even physically attacking staff – as if they had personally sailed to Fuji with the money for the Christmas Hamper. With about 3% mental illness in the general community, the banks deal with their fair share of customers who are ‘difficult’ on an ongoing basis. But in recent times the level of animosity towards bank staff has increased exponentially. However, a significant new factor in the mix is that bank staff are themselves down in the dumps. There are no bonuses (with some notable exceptions) and the pension nest egg of share options is heavily under water. Nowadays, telling someone you are a banking executive has become a conversation stopper on par with “I’m enjoying my first couple of days of freedom”. In this scenario, the key managerial challenge is getting bank staff turbo charged!
Three Timelines: To answer this challenge, bank executives need to consider three timelines. They need to (1) remind staff of a positive past (2) equip them to deal with an uncertain present and (3) co-develop a better future. In this short blog, let’s just look at the central component – equipping people to deal with the present – by building resiliance.
Applied Psychology: In applied psychology two major changes have occurred in the last decade regarding stress and incidents involving hostility/aggression. The first is that it is generally not possible to avoid stress, particularly in certain occupations; therefore the need is to equip people to cope with negative events when they happen. The second and related viewpoint is that successful encounters with stressful events can actually enhance a person’s sense of self-belief – helping them to manage similar events in the future. In other words, dealing with difficult situations can be an opportunity for personal growth. The early work on resilience primarily focused on traumatic stress. By implication, some occupations are more stressful than others — medical personnel dealing with bereavement, soldiers involved in battle etc. Even in these extreme scenarios, resilience training can be strikingly successful. So, how could this learning be applied in a financial services environment?
Bank Staff: In the post-Celtic Tiger era, a distinct minority of clients are behaving inappropriately to bank staff. Even with customers who behave normally, bank staff encounter people who are upset by personal issues including marital breakdown, negative equity and inability to meet financial commitments. The dramatic recent changes in the environment requires staff being able to manage hostility. Building personal resilience can help staff quickly recover from adverse experiences.
Can Resilience be Learned? There is a growing body of evidence (based on solidly grounded research) to answer yes – resilience can be learned. People can learn the skills to manage difficult encounters and bounce back. While the initial research was based on extreme setbacks (typically traumatic stress), more recently this has been extended to the everyday ‘hassles’ that frontline staff encounter. Resilience can also be understood at group and organisation levels. This ‘systems perspective’, can result in co-ordinated responses to threatening events and help staff to feel that they are not alone. One of the most promising approaches to resilience emphasises the assets that an individual or group brings to a situation i.e. building a resilient environment.
Up-skilling & Organisation Supports: Several separate strands are needed (a) how staff manage hostility/aggression when it happens (b) how organizations cultivate resilience, ensuring staff are equipped to deal with this (c) building a team’s resilience to stressful events and (d) equipping the managers to support staff following traumatic events.
Skills Required: Based on the above, any resiliance training programme needs to ensure that staff acquire the following skills:
(1) Being assertive rather than aggressive and understanding the difference
(2) Empathising with angry clients
(3) Use of non-verbal cues to defuse anger
(4) Providing clients with ways of coping with an issue
So What? The call to banking executives is crystal clear. You have an obligation to build a psychologically safe working environment for staff and get them performing in 5th gear. The banks were solid places to work and they can be again. It has genuinely been sad to see so much of what was positive in the banking arena being eroded. And hey, you need to get my buddy back to his normal form, telling jokes and being proud of what he does – bringing that same level of focused energy and good humour to work on Monday morning as he does to his golf.
PS I am hugely indebted to Professor Mark Morgan of St. Patricks College for his expertise in helping me to understand this area. Mark has ‘two normal brains’ and allows me to look clever by restating all of his ideas!