Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Psyched in the workplace – Fear is the key

AFTER A FEW DRINKS I can get maudlin and can be heard to say things like: “I should have joined an investment bank, made some money and then downsized to grow shiitake mushrooms in the country.” A fair indication of where my current neuroses lay.

But my sentiments about investment banks went through something of an adjustment recently following stories about the death of Moritz Erhardt, a 21 year-old German intern with Bank of America. He was found dead in his lodgings and newspapers reported his colleagues claiming he had worked for three straight days without sleep. Bank of America announced a review of working practices for junior staff.

Whether the death of Erhardt was related to his work is a matter for conjecture, but the incident certainly brought attention to the long-hours culture in investment banks and saw numerous comments online from other City interns claiming they pulled marathon stints at their desks for fear of losing out on a coveted job and because of the expectations and sheer aggression of senior staff. Other articles revealed research that appeared to demonstrate how unhealthy such a lifestyle is and we all wondered why anyone would put themselves through it.

But the articles implied a single factor. Fear. That’s what this seemed to be about. Fear of losing the job. Fear of managers. And perhaps, fear of not making it. But how could this be in the age of the modern manager who understands his staff and what motivates them? Why would anyone want to work that way?

Which brings me to a book out this month Becoming a Better Boss: Why Good Management is so Difficult, from Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business school. For me there is a standout passage when Birkinshaw discusses what motivates employees, especially those in mundane roles with little opportunity for higher wages or promotion. It’s not what I quite what I was expecting.

First a bit of background. Birkinshaw investigated the issue for his book by taking on a succession of jobs with “low pay and low intrinsic satisfaction”. After questioning plenty of employees Birkinshaw comes up with a fascinating matrix of motivations which essentially lead to the conclusion that managers of people in such jobs need to understand that they come to accept the limits of promotion and pay and come to value their job for other factors like its inherent social life, the quality of the people they work or the flexibility of the job and its security (anyone who has seen it will be instantly reminded of the BBC series The Call Centre – Happy People Sell and note that Birkinshaw worked in a call centre as part of his research).

But then Birkinshaw makes what I see now as the stand out observation which seems achingly poignant in the wake of discussion surrounding Erhardt’s death. “Compared to motivation, fear gets much less attention in studies of the workplace.” Which seems a bit strange when you think about it, a view that Birkinshaw apparently holds too. It’s as if we’ve decided to delude ourselves into thinking that fear – perhaps the most primal of all human emotions and motivations – had disappeared from the modern workplace.

Birkinshaw response (working long before the Erhardt incident) was to map our workplace trepidations. After a survey he finds the top five are 1. Fear of losing your job, 2. Lack of opportunities for advancement, 3. Fear of failing to deliver to expectations, 4. Lack of clarity about an organisation’s vision and 5. Excessive change or turbulence in the workplace. Number 14 on the list, and the last, is a fear of being intimidated.

Birkinshaw concludes from his research among employees in a bank (I assume it’s a retail rather than investment bank) that in a hierarchy of fears the biggest concerns are fear of meeting expectations and for opportunities to progress. The answer, he says quite rightly, is for managers in banks to spend more time on coaching to support individuals in achieving their ambitions.
But as I read this I wonder how investment bank employees would have responded to the research. The ones taking artificial stimulants to wrack up the hours, or the ones who [reportedly] had their boss throw mobile phones at them for taking a break. Their hierarchy of fears may well have seen “intimidation” rise much further up the list (if they were willing to admit it).

Perhaps, the most interesting question though about the psychology of fear is the in-built assumption that it is demotivating. Given the huge profits made in investment banks, and the readiness of many employees to log endless hours, it appears to work. Some of the time. Which makes me wonder if the psychology of investment interns is something akin to the mindset of base jumpers. After all, the working culture of investment banks is common knowledge, and people continue to step off the ledge.

That said I like Prof Birkinshaw’s conclusions. We come out at the same place. I don’t like fear, why would I behave in a way that caused it for anyone else? Going through it everyday seems to me to be a bizarre way to spend a career, even if the rewards are high. But it also seems to me to be a subject worthy of more discussion and study. The books say keeping people happy is the best motivation and yet some workplaces are built on intimidation and what now looks like extreme sacrifice.

I can’t help thinking that fear goes beyond an issue about the psychology of motivation and the implied business case. I can’t help feeling this is where we wander into the difficult area of ethics too. Being a better boss is not just about understanding the way your employees think. It’s about doing right. In the high pressure world of investment banks these issues can become crushed in the rush for profits.

And as for me? Next time I’ve had a drink, I hope I remember to thank my lucky stars and forget about the money I didn’t make at an investment bank.


Becoming a Better Boss: Why Good Management is so Difficult By Julian Birkinshaw is out this month on Wiley. Hardback £18.99.

Gavin Hinks is a freelance journalist and writes the Profits and Loss blog at