In the gleaming corridor of the 51st floor

Best thing I’ve read today is a diagnosis from commenter MSB over at Yglesias’s place. The original post asks the question: why are so many bankers douchebags? MSB’s answer comes from the perspective of a corporate lawyer, but really I think what he’s describing is not limited to finance and law:

These organizations accomplish this feat [turning their employees into, well, douchebags  –ed.] by structuring your career path as a type of white collar game of Survivor, except that the tribal counsel is a bunch of rich, old white guys who run the place and generally do not interact meaningfully with their most junior subordinates. At the end of one year, a 20% chunk of the analyst class gets lopped off. A group of 22 year olds in an analyst class has some vague sense of these numbers going in, but they usually also enter with some kind of wrong-headed idea that the firm’s decision making process will be, on the whole, meritocratic and open (often b/c the firm itself claims that’s how it will go). But usually it won’t take until the first round of cuts before the young analysts realize how much kissing ass and “fit” with the firm’s “culture” can affect their chances of success, and so they begin to mold themselves into the douchey banker/lawyer that the will eventually become. B/c they are buying into the institution, they also have to justify it to themselves, so people who are cut are derided as too stupid or weak-willed to withstand the rigors of their profession. And by the end of a couple years, the same analyst class you started with–full of plenty of nice, charming, interesting people from many different backgrounds–has morphed into a room full of hypercompetitive fuckwads who are constantly attempting reassure themselves and each other that they deserve to feel smug and superior, by dressing the same, buying all the same shit and having the same dull and mean-spirited sense of humor. Often the 20% that gets cut corresponds directly to the 20% that’s nicest and most interesting.

Without getting into too many of the details here, let me just say that I find this deeply resonant. And I think the reason why has to do with the trickling of the “banking culture” into other fields through the power of the MBA degree. Bankers and consultants with top-tier MBAs are the supermen of corporate America. If you’ve done 5 years at Goldman Sachs or Bain and then two at HBS or Wharton, senior executives in growing non-financial and non-consulting firms will want you very very badly as a middle manager who’ll be eventually groomed for much more senior roles. And as these firms inject themselves with more and more banker types, the banker types’ approach to organizational behavior starts spreading, changes the original culture of the organization, and recreates the Darwinian society of the banks in the name of “incentivizing performance.” It’s a virus.

*In case you were wondering where this post’s title comes from:

Lyrics here.

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