AMP And A Question Of Culture

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The big financial firm’s problems are a lot more simple than ‘cultural corruption’, writes Michael Bradley.

Order has been restored. After an abortive and disastrous dalliance with the politically correct in allowing a lady to be the Chair(person) of its Board, AMP rushed back to safety with the appointment of an old white man to replace her. David Murray is just what a forward-looking corporate institution needs in these complicated days.

Now, I’m not really one for white-male bashing, since I don’t personally desire unemployability any more than the next over-privileged refugee. So I’ll park the irony and not punish Murray for the greyish palour of his skin in the way that Catherine Brenner has been publicly garrotted for the sin of having lovely hair.

No, let’s hang him for his words. Speaking about ASIC a while back, Murray went on a bit of a rampage about the naïve stupidity of the current popular obsession with corporate culture. Yes, he’s getting all the headlines because he compared ASIC to Adolf Hitler, which tells us that he’s not particularly adept at metaphor. But this is the line that grabs me:

“…you can’t have the same culture for everyone by definition – a great culture is competitive advantage.”

Err, yes, it is true that you can’t legislate culture, although the right wing of the Liberal Party never quite gives up on the quest. Murray was quite irritated, and rightly so. It is patently idiotic to focus the conversation around the evil-doings of AMP and the big banks on their “culture”, whatever everyone thinks that is.

Because the issue here is not culture, but behaviour. Since Murray raised it, let’s go full Godwin for a minute and recall that the primary line of defence of the Nazis tried at Nuremburg was cultural: they were behaving lawfully within a set of laws which were evil but valid, and within a set of cultural norms established by popular decree and enforced by the lawful instruments of the state.

That didn’t wash then; the emergent law of crimes against humanity centred on personal responsibility, disallowing the taking of shelter behind inhuman laws.

Same thing back here on earth. To understand why “culture” is an irrelevant distraction, we have to understand what culture is. The equation is simple: the culture of an organisation (or nation) is the consequence of the behaviours of the people who live within it. Culture is a result, not a cause. Behaviour is not driven by culture. It is driven by the commonly held values of the group. These values find expression in laws, rules, policies and, most importantly, social norms of behaviour. The group conforms to this rule book.

A corporation is far more susceptible than a country is to the development of a corrupted set of social norms. The larger it is, the easier that is. AMP has an amoral culture; that is obvious. It came about because behaviours, like stealing money from its clients, have been rampant and uncontrolled. Two questions arise: what caused, enabled and tolerated those behaviours; and what should be the consequences?

The first question goes to the purpose of AMP’s existence. It used to have one; but you’d be hard pressed to find it today. That’s not to say that it can’t be re-found, if the organisation can remember what the point of a massive financial services conglomerate might be, other than to perpetuate its own existence.

If purpose exists, then values can too. Otherwise, they’re nothing more than aspirational abstracts. If AMP could rediscover values of meaning, anchored to purpose, it would then be able to properly address the elements in its business model which encourage the sort of anti-social behaviour which has made the company’s name a synonym for amorality. And that would challenge some fundamental notions, such as the financial incentives it offers its people and how it measures success.

On the second question – consequences – the correct reference point is not culture. It is the law. Some of what is coming out in Royal Commission is patently criminal conduct. Those who did it can and should be held accountable to nothing other than the law.

The law does not give a shit about culture, nor should it. Murray is also speaking plain truth in rubbishing the notion that culture can be imposed. What remains to be seen is whether he understands that the behaviour of the company he now leads is aberrant; and how deep a shift in AMP’s purpose is required before the behaviour can be expected to improve. Culture will follow. Judge him on that.

Michael Bradley

Michael Bradley is the managing partner of law firm Marque Lawyers. He's based in Sydney and has been published widely.

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