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Roger Martin
Dean/Scholar

Roger Martin

Roger Martin is Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and author, most recently, of The Design of Business. His website is www.rogerlmartin.com

Feeling Good on Wall Street

I think that the key to missing the outrage is a social system on Wall Street in which one's sense of self-worth is measured by the size of one's bonus. So the focus was on "how does this bonus make me feel" and decidedly not "how might it make the public feel?"

Everybody in life wants to be appreciated and feel a sense of accomplishment. Social workers would feel appreciation and accomplishment from making a positive difference in the lives of their clients and from being recognized by their peers as being talented and dedicated professionals. They are not very likely to feel better about themselves because they get a salary increase or a bonus. This is in part because the monetary compensation is quite low in the field and in part because compensation is not used in the field of social work as a measuring stick.

On Wall Street, compensation- year-end bonus in particular- is an important measuring stick for one's status, firm, and the industry overall. To feel good about one's status, one has to earn a high bonus relative to one's peers. In part, it is because it is not easy to become enthused about one's accomplishments in non-monetary respects. Recall the difficulty of the bond-trading father in Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" attempting to explain to his daughter what he did for a living and how it added value of any sort to anybody. She ended up in tears of despair.

When it is hard to take pleasure and feel self-worth from the content of a job, it falls to compensation to take up the slack. So arguably, Wall Street desperately needed those bonuses. It was all about feeling good, not about having the spending power associated with the bonuses. If their firms were imploding and taking American savings with them, so be it. Nobody could take away their bonuses- they had to have their bonuses. That is what caused the blind spot. They couldn't see past their own feelings to the broader feelings out in the public.

How to guard against blind spots? Sadly, I don't think there is a way to insure against them entirely. Everyone will have a blind spot and they will only find out about it when it causes them to crash. And they will react to the blind spot and in reacting may yet create a new one.

The best way to minimize the negative impact of blind spots on you is to seek the counsel of those who think most differently than you. It is an analog of Charles de Gaulle's famous admonition to always be "in with the outs". The "outs" have the best chance of telling you something that you have never thought about. I have a left-wing activist PhD student who has been predicting this fall of Wall Street in the public eye for years. If the kings of Wall Street had been talking to her, they probably wouldn't have had such a big blind spot on bonuses. But she is probably the last person they would have ever wanted to listen to - and hence the big, gaping blind spot.

By Roger Martin

 |  February 2, 2009; 12:43 PM ET
Category:  Economic crisis Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Whoa! Hey, a few hefty whacks to the self image is EXACTLY what many if not most of these captains of finance need now. We need to send them the message: "This is a performance based bonus, and your bonus this year is that you get to keep your job at a reduced rate of pay if and only if you do a good job of righting the economy. Otherwise, adios muchachos."

Posted by: kguy11 | February 3, 2009 10:17 PM
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What hypocrisy! These guys are paid (bonused) for performance - that's the deal! But now that their unabashed greed has totally screwed up the system, some people want to change the rules so that they don't get whacked financially. Bull!

And by the way, the idea of paying social workers a decent salary isn't a bad idea either.

Posted by: uncleross | February 3, 2009 1:53 PM
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