Anthony Jenkins has put great store on changing the culture at Barclays and restoring trust in the bank through the Transform programme.
Its promotional videos and presentations emphasise relationships, integrity, stewardship, service, trust and emotional connections and they talk about the sustainability of their lending. What's not to like?
If we take a look at recent interim results (pdf) the only references to Transform we will find are in relation to the financial targets. It is all about the money and cutting jobs. So is all the hoo-ha about culture change just window dressing? Is Jenkins setting out to transform the corporation, or transform what everyone thinks about the corporation?
There is little doubting Jenkins' sincerity, but there is an important parallel with the phenomenon of corporate greenwashing, where companies spend more effort talking about how green they are than on becoming greener. Lofty ideals butt up against hard commercial realities and human realities.
Every colleague in Barclays has been trained in Barclays' values and behaviours. But many banking executives (especially investment bankers) joined the industry with a primary aim of becoming wealthy. City bankers go to work to get rich. Clever graduates get their first job on the milk round at institutions like Barclays, not to change the world, but to transform their rather empty bank accounts into big fat ones.
How does this square with the values of the Transform programme, which is an attempt to change the company's culture? Which behaviour will take precedence?
If we have noticed that the remuneration of senior managers and investment bankers at Barclays has not been curbed, rest assured that the staff in the branches will also be taking note. The deeper question here is whether any grand culture change programme can ever realistically work.
To help examine this let us imagine that Barclays' enlightened shareholders gave clear instructions to Jenkins not to maximise profits but merely to earn a sufficient return on capital while delivering good social and environmental outcomes. Let us imagine no conflicts between profit, people and planet.
Even then, a corporate plan like Transform would be limited in its power to deliver these (or any prescribed) outcomes. The reality of social processes will ensure that Transform unfolds on a messier, unintended and unpredictable, path.
Such corporate plans are a product of a history of western thought that favours rational, positivist prescriptions of cause equals effect. However, the patterns of behaviour that eventually emerge at Barclays will depend on human behaviour. Organisation behaviour is forged not in the boardroom, but on the shopfloor. Order is not imposed: it emerges from below.
Behaviour is not driven by values but by a cocktail of emotions – destructive and positive – aspirations, experiences, thoughts, relationships and events in employees' personal lives. Corporate plans prompt improvised behaviour from employees, including gaming the new rules.
This does not mean that Jenkins and senior executives should not show leadership – they should. It merely suggests that management will be more effective if it proceeds from a better understanding of how meaning, behaviours, values and innovation emerge in social settings.
Values emerge through interaction, so a leader might articulate values and display them through their actions, but not try to create and then impose them artificially. The skill of leadership is to participate in this process in an imaginative and reflective way, drawing on listening skills and empathy, in order to assist others in acting morally, ethically and creatively.
Managers are not like scriptwriters – they cannot determine the ending of the play. They are merely participants in an ongoing improvisation where actors are constrained by the setting and circumstances and interact with the other actors, but we cannot predict where the play will go.
Executives cannot implement sustainability in their staff. They can only live it themselves and change the goals and structures of the corporation to give consistent messages to employees and other stakeholders.
Barclays cannot afford any inconsistency between the actions of managers, the bank's primary objective (making money for shareholders), and the fine ideals set out by the Transform programme. The real question is therefore whether sustainability is truly possible for Barclays as long as the only public announcement that really counts is whether its profits have gone up or down.
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