On Goals, Motivation, Goal-setting and KPIs.

brown and black running tracks

At the end of my City career I was expected to draw up a set of KPIs for my team. I had a huge philosophical struggle with it. Goals and targets have a place, but too often the wrong things get measured. It can, at extremes, lead to unethical behaviour. The more I involved my line management and other senior colleagues in attempting to find something appropriate and valuable, the more we lost our way. I became outright stubborn about the worthlessness of the exercise. It may have contributed to the redundancy notice that came my way a few months later, but I was exhausted by my City career.

It had, for me, and for many of my colleagues, become increasingly miserable and unrewarding since the 2008/9 Crisis, (emotionally rather than financially; nobody need cry for bankers!) and I was ready to go. I am not convinced, though, that I was wrong to stand against the pointlessness of arbitrary targets with no clear impact on the business’s success and productivity. I still feel it was a distraction that undermined any plans I had to make us more valued and productive.

I was a few months into my Business Psychology degree. A recent module was solely about Motivation. One cannot avoid Goal Setting Theory, which spawned KPIs, when considering Motivation. The empirical evidence suggests I should have softened my stubborn attitude, but the more I studied, the more comfort I gained from the academic work on how else team members might be motivated.

This was the assignment that I completed in answer to the statement, “Goal Setting Theory is nothing more than a Technique: the other Process theories offer more to our understanding employee motivation.” Discuss. I wonder whether any of my industry contacts who read this will want to share their opinions. Leadership and Motivation remain two of the facets of Business Psychology that most intrigue me. See what you think.

person about to lift barbell

In discussing Goal Setting Theory (GST), I have isolated the comparison of technique, with theory, before addressing the issue of whether other Process theories help us to understand employee motivation better. I conclude that, despite Locke’s own observations, that GST is more theory than mere technique, and that its place in the theoretical family of motivation is alongside two other classic theories, Equity and Expectancy (also known as VIE), which I argue are inferior to GST. I argue GST is the father of most subsequent theories; that they are derivative, and therefore I dispute that other Process theories offer more understanding, merely enhancement. 

Sampling several dictionaries suggests consistency in definitions for both the word ‘technique’ and for ‘theory’. A technique is a particular method; a way of carrying out a particular task and a systematic procedure, formula or routine. It has specificity. By contrast, a theory is a system of ideas; a formal set of assumptions or accepted facts; the belief used as the basis for action and abstract reasoning. This suggests plurality. Is GST specific, or does it encompass abstract reasoning and a formal set of ideas? I argue that it is unspecific; therefore, a theory and not a technique.

Furthermore, it is the consequence of an inductive research process, whereby the process begins with observations, which are developed into abstract generalisations, then theory. There is something problematic about this conclusion, however, as Locke (Locke, 1975, Locke and Latham, 2019) himself, at least initially, referred to it as a technique, but the iterative processes that included developments like the High-Performance Cycle (Locke & Latham, 1990) confirm to me that theory is the appropriate definition. In a half century retrospective (Locke and Latham, 2019) the authors noted that “we did not begin our research with theory building in mind”, but a theory it has become. 

The world of workplace motivation, described by Latham and Pinder (2005) as “a set of energetic forces” in which work-related behaviours were given direction and duration, was initially interpreted using ‘Needs Based’ Theories. These attempted to explain ‘what’ motivated employees. The best known is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943), albeit not specifically workplace related. It was succeeded by McGregor (1957), whose Theory Y emphasised self-control.  Both suffered a lack of data measurement and empirical research. To come was Alderfer’s (1972) ERG theory and Herzberg’s (1959) 2-Factor Theory.

Relevance and validity were developing, but the ‘what’ question was morphing into interest into the ‘how’ question. Successor theories became known as ‘Process’ theories. In answering ‘how’ we are motivated, the focus is one of cognition. Conscious cognitions are open to measurement, helping improve motivation understanding and being useful as a practical tool for workplace management. They are sometimes divided into ‘Classic theories’ and derivative theories. The first of the classic theories is ‘Equity Theory’. It, (Adams, 1963) was influenced by Festinger’s (1957) Cognitive Dissonance Theory. It is that employees are motivated by a ratio.

That ratio is outcomes to inputs. Typically, outcomes would be remuneration, recognition and status relative to inputs of effort, education and experience. If it is inequitable then the employee will lower inputs (he/she is ‘demotivated’) or less usually, work harder to merit the outputs. Its weakness lies in imprecise measurement. Weak productive power, (Locke (1975), referred to its “vagueness”) led to it being largely replaced by Expectancy Theory, although it has evolved. It is the foundation of the more contemporary Organisational Justice Theories, eg. fair and transparent distribution of rewards. 

Expectancy Theory was developed from the work of Tolman (1932) and Lewis (1935), which assumed that behaviour was an outcome of the combined relationship of expectations and relevance or valence. Vroom (1964) extended these initial ideas into a specific work motivation theory. ERG theory introduced how valence judgements are made. For Vroom, a multiplicative relationship between expectancy, instrumentality and valence (VIE) manifests in ‘motivation’. He wrote of ‘force’. The strength of Vroom’s work was a focus on job performance ie perform well, and enjoy a pleasant, expected outcome. In 1975, Locke, still to develop his work into GST, described VIE as “the most popular approach to motivation”, but disliked its rationale of pleasure seeking, “it would be more accurate to say that individuals strive to attain goals, values or purposes”. 

Porter and Lawler (1968) attempted to address some of VIE shortcomings, such as the origins of each of V, I and E, and also whether there was a relationship between Vroom’s ‘beliefs’ and actual job performance. In so doing they extended ‘Expectancy’ to job satisfaction as an outcome of accomplished performance, which led to the realisation of both intrinsic and extrinsic reward systems. Expectancy theories were getting better at addressing individuality. They did not yet address role clarity of employee ability; consequently, a highly motivated individual may not deliver required performance outcomes, thus failing to enjoy job satisfaction.

Expectancy models were meta-analysed by van Eerde and Thierry (1996); limitations emerged, specifically that there was more of a relationship with intent, than with performance outcomes. A number of the historic studies were questioned given the dependence on self-reporting and a concurrent lack of reliability. The theories failed to address complexity, habit or unconscious motivation. Statistical conclusion validity concerns emerged over between-persons and within-persons research designs. However, VIE has provided foundations for subsequent workplace motivation studies. They lay the ground for House and Mitchell’s (1974) Path-Goal theory, which in turn stimulated interest in goal setting, and Pritchard et al’s (2002) productivity measurement and enhancement (ProMes) system. 

If VIE is about forces and beliefs; goal setting is about intentions. Based on a 1935 experiment in England by CA Mace, comparing a task with an exhortation to “do your best”; it developed inductively over several decades. It has established foundations for subsequent derivative theories. It was first presented as a theory (Locke and Latham, 1990) to contrast it with earlier research considering goal setting as a technique. In 2003, Mitchell and Daniels (cited in Latham and Pinder, 2005) described it as “easily the single most dominant theory in the field”, highlighting research extending over a thousand articles and reviews. Locke had been a student of Ryan, who had proposed that behaviour is regulated by intent.

Neither of the other classic Process theories address intent/intentions. GST posits that setting specific high goals leads to higher performance compared with no goals; the higher the goal, the higher the performance, and goals direct attention and effort and inspire persistence. GST (Locke & Latham, 2002) is based “on Ryan’s (1970) premise that conscious goals affect action”. Note the ‘conscious’. Furthermore, feedback moderates behaviour with regard to the goal. “Rational human action is goal directed” stated Locke (1977). This followed work on assigned versus participative goals undertaken by Latham & Yukl (1975). 

There are issues to be resolved over goal conflict, which can often motivate unethical behaviours. Ordonez et al (2009) made an amusing, but a serious point. Misselling, especially in the financial products industry, is a typical outcome of energetic goals setting – the most recent infamy being Wells Fargo, where salespeople’s goals led to the creation of fraudulent accounts. Also, Kanfer & Ackerman (1989) discovered that goals that were unrealistic, ‘stretch goals’ that were beyond a person’s training or capability, had a deleterious effect on motivation. Kehr (2019) suggested that GST was “firmly entrenched” but criticised its narrowness.

Goals are not the perfect or only motivational tools an organisation should employ. GST has enabled us to understand mediators and moderators, although more theorising needs to be done on Freudian concepts of unconscious drives as motivation. Kehr felt that the theory needed to better explain why individuals of similar skill sets did not achieve the same goals, in the same time frames. Locke and Latham (2019) agreed that “GST is not, and was not meant to be, a comprehensive theory of motivation”. However, it continues to broaden, for example Locke, Latham & Fassina’s (2002) work on the High-Performance Cycle. 

Control theory (Carver & Scheier, 1981) was one of many motivation studies that was derived from GST. It is sometimes referred to as Self-Regulation of Behaviour. The theory suggests that the ‘discrepancy’ between an employee’s performance and a goal, automatically triggers a response to narrow the discrepancy. The goal is a motivator and the negative feedback loop of under achieving the goal sustains the motivation. Its merit is it recognises individuality and dynamic behaviour i.e. that employees constantly adapt and revise what is needed to achieve a goal.

It also attempted to address a GST shortcoming insofar as it acknowledged that employees usually had several concurrent goals, and arranged them into hierarchies. Bandura (1989) was critical, asserting that goal setting is also ‘discrepancy-creating’ and therefore there was a forward-thinking loop. Locke & Latham (2002) asserted that it was a “mechanistic version of Hull’s drive reduction theory”, treating human behaviour as repeatable, like a machine, when machines have no goals of their own, merely those of the machine-builders. 

Bandura’s (1997) Social Cognitive Theory has provided the main challenger to GST amongst the Process Theories of Motivation. At the core of the theory is the notion of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a personal appreciation of one’s ability to complete a goal. There is a triadic relationship between personal factors, behaviours and environmental factors, meaning any change in one of the triad will affect the other two. Employees with high self-efficacy set high(er) goals and commit to them; those with low self-efficacy abandon goals in the face of setbacks. The GST authors see Bandura as additive to their theorising, not competitive with it. (Locke & Latham, 2002).

This extends to goal commitment (Seijts & Latham, 2000). Erez & Judge (2001) noted that GST had strong empirical support but stumbled when difficult and specific goals were “only motivational dependent upon goal commitment”. Erez & Zidon (1984) had combined field and lab studies to conclude individuals with positive self-evaluation tended to be better performers. This extended GST into new areas, such as ‘Affect’. Tubbs & Ekeberg (1991) had already divorced intention from goals, which are “the objects of aims”. In their view, intention “subsumes the concept of goal”. 

In comparing GST with ‘other Process theories’ in understanding employee motivation it is important also to consider the merits and demerits of Self Determination Theory (SDT) (Deci & Ryan, 1990). Typically categorised as ‘Needs’, not ‘Process’, it shares a link with cognition that is core to all the Process theories. SDT is about satisfying the ‘needs’ for autonomy, relatedness, and competence for intrinsic motivation, and distinguishing between autonomous and controlled motivation.

The more freedom individuals have, the greater their sense of autonomy, motivating higher levels of interest in the goal. The difficulty with it lies in direct application to the workplace (Fay & Frese, 2000), because the workplace is heavily weighted to extrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivators can actually undermine intrinsic motivators; a shift in the locus of causality. There are difficulties in assessing the strength of the motivators too. Furthermore, it fails to address the issue of negative emotion as a motivator, as in “I’ll show you”, when one has been told a goal is unachievable.  

Being inductive, not ‘hypothetico-deductive’, has lengthened the time available to GST’s development. It has spawned much subsequent research enhancing our understanding of motivation eg. Learning and Performance Goals. In their own review, the authors (2019) stress the benefit of new iterations and concede that the initial focus on conscious goals may need broadening in scope; “Once a theory is formulated inductively, the theory is open to further development”. It has endured because it is measurable – and demonstrated relevance across different durations, cultures, ethnicities etc.

Terpstra & Rozzell (1994) found significant correlation between “goals setting and organisational profitability”, supporting its value. Even in the public sector, Wright (2001) found that 75% of the variation in work motivation was explained by GST variables (difficulty, specificity and self-efficacy). The Other Process theories – predecessors have limitations, successors are largely derivative – whilst enhancing our understanding of employee motivation, have not necessarily offered ‘more’, by way of scope. GST deserves its current primacy and is more theory than technique.


Adams, J.S. (1963). Toward an understanding of inequity. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67 pages 422-436. 

Alderfer, C.P. (1972). Existence, relatedness, and growth: Human needs in organisational settings. New York: Free Press.

Bandura, A. (1989). Self-regulation of motivation and action through internal standards and external goal systems. In L.A.Pervin (Ed.), Goal concepts in personality and social psychology (pp.19-85) Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. Stanford, NY: W.H.Freeman

Carver, C.S. & Scheier, M.F. (1981). Attention and self-regulation: A control theory approach to human behaviour. New York: Springer-Verlag. 

Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (1990) A motivational approach to self: integration in personality. In R. Dienstbier (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation 38. Pages 237-88. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press

Erez, A. & Judge, T.A. (2001). Relationship of Core Self-Evaluations to Goal Setting, Motivation and Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86 (6) pages 1270-79.

Erez, M. & Zidon, I. (1984). Effects of goal acceptance on the relationship of goal setting and task performance. Journal of Applied Psychology. 69 pages 69-78.

Fay. D. & Frese, M. (2000). Conservatives’ Approach to Work: Less prepared for future work demands? Journal of Applied Social Psychology 30 (1) pages 171-95.

Festinger, L. (1957) A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row Peterson.

Herzberg, F., Mausner, B., & Snyderman, B.B. (1959). The motivation to work. New York: Wiley.

Kanfer, R. & Ackerman, P.L (1989). Motivation and cognitive abilities: An integrative/aptitude-treatment interaction approach to skill acquisition. Journal of Applied Psychology 74 pages 657-90. 

Kehr, H.M. (2019). Goal Setting Theory – Firmly Entrenched, but Narrow in Its Focus. Motivation Science 5 (2) pages 110-111. 

Latham, G.P & Pinder, C.C. (2005). Work Motivation Theory and Research at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century. Annual Review of Psychology 56 pages 485-516.

Latham, G.P. (2012). Work motivation; history, theory, research and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc. 

Latham, G.P., Locke, E.A. & Fassina, N.E. (2002). The high-performance cycle: Standing the test of time. In S. Sonnentag (Ed.) Psychological management of individual performance (pp.201-28). Chichester, England: Wiley.

Latham, G.P. & Yukl, G.A. (1975). A review of research on the application of goal setting in organisations. Academy of Management Journal. 18 pages 824-45.

Locke, E.A (1975). Personnel Attitudes and Motivation. Annual Review of Psychology 26Pages 457-80.

Locke, E.A. (1977). The Ubiquity of the Technique of Goal Setting in Theories of and Approaches to Employee Motivation. Academy of Management Review 2Pages 594-600

Locke, E.A. (1997). The motivation to work: What we know. In P.Pintrich & R. Stablein (Eds.) Advances in motivation and achievement vol 10. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Locke, E.A. & Latham, G.P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

Locke, E.A. & Latham, G.P. (2002). Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation – a 35-year Odyssey. American Psychologist 57 (9) pages 705-17.

Locke, E.A. & Latham, G.P. (2019). The Development of Goal Setting Theory: A Half Century Retrospective. Motivation Science 5 (2) pages 93-105.

Locke, E.A. & Latham, G.P. (2019). Reply to Commentaries on “The Development of Goal Setting Theory: A Half Century Retrospective. Motivation Science 5 (2) pages 114-115.

Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review 50 pages 370-396.

McGregor, D.M. (1957). The human side of the enterprise. Management Review 46 pages 22-8. 

Ordonez, L., Schweitzer, M.E., Galinsky, A. & Bazerman, M. (2009). Goals Gone Wild: How goals systematically harm individuals and organisations. Academy of Management Perspectives 23 pages 6-16. 

Porter, L.W. & Lawler, E.E. (1968). Managerial attitudes and performance. Homewood, IL: Irwin.

Pritchard, R.D., Paquin, A.R., DeCuir, A.D., McCormick, M.J. & Bly, P.R. (2002). The measurement and improvement of organisational productivity: An overview of ProMES, the productivity and measurement system. In R.D. Prithcard, H. Holling, F.Lammers, & B.D.Clark (Eds.), Improving organisational performance with the Productivity Measurement and Enhancement System: An internal collaboration (pp. 3-49). Huntington, NY: Nova Science.

Ryan, T.A. (1970). Intentional Behaviour. New York: Reinhold Press.

Seijts, G.H. & Latham, G.P. (2000). The concept of goal commitment: Measurements and relationships with task performance. In R. Goffin & E. Helmes (Eds.) Problems and solutions in human assessment: Honoring Douglas N. Jackson at seventy (pp. 315-332). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 

Terpstra, D.E. & Rozell, E.J. (1994). The relationship of goal setting to organisational profitability. Group and Organisation management 19 pages 285-94.

Tolman, E.C. (1932). Purposive behaviour in animals and men. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts

Tubbs, M.E. & Ekeberg, S.E. (1991). The Role of Intentions in Work Motivation: Implications for Goal-Setting Theory and Research. Academy of management Review 16 (1) pages 180-99. 

Van Eerde, W. & Thierry, H. (1996). Vroom’s Expectancy models and work-related criteria: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology. 75 pages 575-86. 

Wright, B.E. (2001). Work Motivation in the Public Sector: An Application of Goal and Social Cognitive Theories. Academy of Management Proceedings. 

On stress and burnout. A personal perspective

Woman, Library, Books, Study, Read

In Monday’s FT, Elizabeth Uviebinene has had an excellent piece describing burnout, and suggesting how to thrive in the office, published. She defines it as overwhelming exhaustion, accompanied by feelings of cynicism and detachment and a sense of lack of accomplishment. “A prolonged response to chronic stress that can lead to…depression”. I can tick all of those boxes, and all for the last eight or nine years of my career. Perversely, as defined by title and salary, they were most successful period I enjoyed, with one rather tricky interruption, that I think was catalysed by my burnout. Her article brought a number of things flooding back to me. 

I have thought long and hard about this. Not about writing it. It is quite cathartic. I am sure I suffered burnout, and I tried hard to think about my team’s individual risks of burnout, when I had managerial roles. What I thought long and hard about, was pushing the ‘publish’ and the ‘send’ buttons that make my experiences more public than I have ever thought they might or ought to be. Things, however, seem to be aligning for me. 

In my Birkbeck degree course in Business Psychology, I am about to study a module on mental health in the workplace. It covers everything from stress to work-life balance to neurodiversity. My continuing learning with both the British Psychotherapy Foundation and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, is making me more sensitive to the foundations of mental anxiety. And, I am now some months into my own analysis, which is making me a little more comfortable with sharing experiences, and trying to understand myself. 

In my City career, I had a number of demanding roles and I liked to put myself under pressure. In 2002, I topped a poll for being the best in my field in equity sector research marketing, thanks to working with a brilliant analyst, and being prepared to travel everywhere, and frequently, to ensure our clients had the best and most personal service. Only now do I realise how manic that period was, and how much pressure it put on my family life. 

At other times, I have had the privilege, but also the pressure of handling substantial financial capital (I was a proprietary trader from 2004 through the start of the Global Financial Crisis into 2008) and handling human and intellectual capital (I headed sales teams at three different investment banks and had responsibility for staff in London, Paris, Dusseldorf and Madrid, at different times). 

For the first thirty years of my career I was confident that I could handle any stress that I might have been subject to, and that, by contrast, I thrived on it. It appealed to the competitor in me, and I knew that I could outperform any rivals because of a capacity for hard work. It was a typically thoughtless, macho approach. I heeded no warning sign when the in-house doctor at the US bank employing me, responded to a regular visit from me by sending me to the Priory. I was told that I was not ill, but that I had a far from unusual streak of perfectionism and I was over-working. I was introduced to CBT and after a handful of sessions, I was on my merry way again. 

In 2012, my work style and the demands of my role, intruded on my life in a way that fundamentally altered me, my sense of trust and my relationships at home. After a thirty year, near-exemplary career, I made a mistake. I was at my desk at 5.56am (yes, I know; absurd), having left the office some time after ten pm the previous evening, with the memo that I had prepared about a corporate client’s major announcement. As Head of Sales, I was ‘over the wall’ with privileged information. I sent an e-mail. I sent another at 6.15am. The announcement was embargoed until a 7am ‘go public’ time. Trouble. Even when someone said to me about 6.30am, ‘did you mean to send that?’, I did not smell the trouble. Cognition break down. Probably stress.

Even today, I have no sense of why I pressed ‘send’ and what, if anything, was in my mind. But I was culpable. The upshot was that I was fired. Worse still, I was fired with the taint of ‘gross misconduct’. I have little doubt that the accumulation of stress contributed to my aberration. Perhaps, in today’s less stigmatised environment, I might have been treated differently and given a sabbatical and help. Instead I had a new world of financial devastation. (I still had a mortgage, my two youngest children in boarding school and no income, but also the ‘gross misconduct’ label meant that my years of accumulated worth of shares was wiped out. It cost me hundreds of thousands.) Financial devastation was joined by social humiliation and by emotional destruction.

I strongly suspect that the episode contributed to the subsequent break up of my marriage and to my divorce. When I read the FT article I found myself wishing I was back at my desk, but that I had decided that I had done enough preparation on the prior evening, and I would walk in at 7am. I might still be working for that same US bank – after all it was only my second employer in over thirty years. The City, though, is a remarkable place, and years of hard won respect can yield great benefits. A former colleague, now ensconced in a managerial role with a large French bank got in touch. Despite a CV that I thought would now exclude me from working again in banking, he interviewed me for a role in his sales team. I got back on the horse, albeit a little unsteadily. 

The new bank had a style that did not suit me. It was hierarchical. When I had my exit interview, I accused it of harbouring a culture of ‘institutional bullying’. I am sure it would dispute my perspective, but that was what I felt. Hindsight has taught me that I took out my anger at my previous employer’s actions on my new employer, which had rescued me from the scrapheap and may have wondered why it had bothered. Certainly, I tested the judgement of the man who offered me the job, in his peers’ eyes. I regret that. Generally, I behaved stroppily, and complained about all the iniquities, as I saw them. 

I did, however, try its in-house ‘Stress helpline’. It gave me a second introduction to CBT and a remarkable therapist who helped me understand my striving, and my compulsions and how destructive they could be. That helpline structure is confidential and kept from one’s managers. It is a brilliant resource. My managers could see I had demanding standards, but also that I was undermining what they had in place. They needed to think about how to utilise me. Thoughts about my mental health and welfare would not have come into it. 

The solution, after I had suggested that they simply decide that I had failed my six-month probation, was to promote me. I was back in charge of a sales team. I continued to chafe against the prevailing culture and was encouraged to consider a move to Asia, to set up an equities business in Singapore. As that played out I was being headhunted by a London based bank. Its office sat directly opposite the employer who had destroyed my wealth and reputation (as I saw it). Asia was of no interest now – this was my chance to show what had been missed by treating me unreasonably. 

My new employer was very bureaucratic (and still is, I am assured), and it had an inner cabal of decision makers. Management was remarkably narrow for such a large business. Promotions were in the gift of those who liked to promote people in their own image. Groupthink was rife, and contrary opinions were sometimes humoured, but rarely welcomed. Despite my extraordinary good fortune in being back in such an exciting, well-remunerated and responsible role, I believed that I had been employed as an ‘agent of change’ and started to try to improve where I could. I relished not being a ‘yes man’. Basically, ego getting in the way. 

In Elizabeth Uviebinene’s article are a number of recommendations for dealing with burnout. Sensitive to my past, I had promised myself that no job was going to prevent me putting my health first. When I joined the French, I made sure that I gave myself regular gym visits in my schedule. My self-discipline is poor, so the only way to ensure that is to commit to having a personal trainer. Then, you feel that you cannot let someone else down, and ensure you turn up on time. Post-gym I was always more enthused and dynamic. I felt the benefit, physically and mentally. 

My old industry suffers with a curse of presenteeism. Worse, when people are sat at a sales desk from pre-7am to 5.30pm or later, they are often unproductive for most of those hours. I wanted my team out of the office, seeing clients and freshening up their views. We started exploring the capacity for creating personalised sales packs to have on portable tablets, and working increasingly remotely. Above all, I wanted to give some staff, especially those exhausted by child care and longish commutes, the chance to work from home one day a week. They had to commit to read a couple of lengthy research pieces and to distil them for the purposes of their colleagues. Clients read little research, but read more than the people selling to them, who drown in daily output and who often restrict themselves to a summary from the front page, and a couple of salient points and charts to highlight. 

I wanted the ‘best informed about its own product’ team, and I wanted staff who would be invigorated by breaking their routines, and inspired by sharing their work with their colleagues – competing for how best to sell an idea, and to show some unheard of creativity. My seniors gave me plenty of rope. I was told that any sort of working from home was anathema, but that I could go ahead with the plan provided I never claimed I had authority for it, and if I could handle any of the likely negative consequences to come. 

I was encouraged to redesign the sales roles and to consider new specialisations working more closely with the other asset classes, with derivatives, and trying to drive greater consideration of ESG investing. My contention was it was a space that any bank could dominate given it had been badly covered until then, and I was convinced the ‘G’ bit – Governance – was where we could establish our eminence. It became clear that for all the pretence of looking for fresh ideas, thinking and strategy, really what was wanted was conformity and as little impact on the status quo as possible. Cognitive dissonance kicked in. Stressful. Equities was a small business in a group context, and should be seen but little heard. It was not a petri dish for culture change. 

I was also keen on the marriage of physical health and mental health. I encouraged gym visits (the bank had one on the site) and let it be known that I had regular yoga classes (not just because I found it beneficial, even though I do, but to make a statement). It did not take long before desk absences and gym visits became the negative topic highlighted in senior management’s ‘Town Halls’. References were made to ‘holiday camps’. This is the sort of cultural challenge that helping employees deal with chronic stress and anxiety, struggles to overcome. My petulant response was to keep trying to be a little different.

That manifested itself in resisting the creation of KPIs for the team. These are acute stressors. In a contracting industry, staff know that a redundancy round is never far away. The madness of KPIs is like ‘teaching to the test’. Creativity, which sales teams need, is smashed, and staff learn how to ‘game the system’ to protect their seat. Encouraging teamwork; it does not. It is another example of an obsession with scoring systems and of treating employees like engine cogs. It is back to Taylorism.

My argument, which fell on stony ground, was that the regulatory change that Mifid II presented the industry made most of the things that we thought we should be recording, redundant. Encouraging gym visits and ‘working from home’ could be just about tolerated as the mad thoughts of a delusional head of sales, but woe betide a man who does not love a KPI or several. A battle was underway and I lost it. Happily. 

Now I am eighteen months distant from my City career and I can think about what I learned and what I might have done differently. The thing that is most striking since my first day in 1982, is the changes in the length of the days and the disappearance of lunches. I am not convinced that the sandwich at the desk trend, is better for a business and its employees, than the often boozy lunch hours I grew up enjoying. I tried to encourage my sales team members to join me at a wine bar for short lunches rather than have interminable and frequent internal meetings fuelled by bad coffee. 

According to Michael Leiter, an Australian academic studying burnout, its prime cause is “a mismatch of how people want to work and the actual conditions of work.” See above for presenteeism. As Elizabeth Uviebinene highlights, we are victims of an apparent desire to ‘optimise’ our lives (see above re KPIs), and quotes BuzzFeed writer Anne Helen Petersen, who wrote “we’re deeply in debt, working more hours for less pay and security, struggling to achieve the same living standards as our parents, operating in psychological and physical precariousness”. 

I am proud of my City career, but wish I had been more sensitive to the mental demands it was making on me, and how that affected my relationships outside of work. If anyone thinks I can help them through their own feelings of stress, burnout, anxiety, I should be delighted to hear from them.  Selfishly, it may help me with my university module, but my primary motivation is because I would not want anyone to lose a career (and some of their financial security) for the sin of being at the desk at 5.56am and sending an untimely e-mail.