Lone Wolf or Pack Culture?

I must admit to feeling a quiet sense of outrage when I read the comments of Lukas Kamay in this AFR report into his insider trading activities while working in foreign exchange at NAB. I may have muttered under my breath; perhaps even banged my fist on the table for dramatic emphasis. Good for me.

Part of what seemed an unconscionable defence were Kamay’s words, ‘I was driven and pushed. The money really consumed me; the culture really consumed me.’ Sounds like someone trying to shift responsibility, doesn’t it?

Kamay also described rituals such as ringing bells when targets were reached and a strong culture of ‘winning’ that was pervasive throughout the workplace culture. His defence team even suggested that the workplace was reminiscent of the Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio biopic ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. 

But was this the work of a Wall Street pack or merely a lone wolf serving his own interest?

The blame game

While our indignation is warranted, the truth is, Lukas Kamay’s defence has a strong behavioural science evidence base to it. No doubt that’s why his defence team chose it. Culture is incredibly powerful. It always has been and always will be an enormous influence for individual and collective behaviour. Psychology, anthropology and pretty much any ‘ology’ is littered with famous case studies, examples and experiments that prove that even the most normal, reasonable people will act beyond their moral, physical and mental boundaries when under duress.

The Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment are two of the best-known examples of seemingly reasonable people exhibiting unreasonable behaviour under the duress of influence.

So while we can stand in righteous indignation and have more than seven million reasons to condemn Kamay for his unethical behaviour, we also have to accept that human beings—you and I included—fundamentally lack integrity given certain environmental factors. Hurts to admit it, doesn’t it?

We’d love to place all blame on the individual, and certainly in this case Kamay’s actions have been found to be grossly negligent of lawful conduct, but there’s more to this. There’s simply too much evidence to suggest we’re not the fine upstanding citizens we wish to be, so given this, where are the checks and balances to prevent an individual or a team from derailing? When an individual or team does go rogue, are there tell-tale signs to watch for?

Spotting rogue teams and individuals

It would be naive of us to think this is the only example of insider trading happening within the industry. It is also short sighted to believe that the aggressive win-at-all-costs culture Kamay described is simply celluloid fantasy. There are definitely individuals and most certainly groups that will serve their own interests rather than uphold their legal obligations in pursuit of success, much less the corporate values and behaviours.

So, given human beings—and cultures—are fallible, how do we detect that a team is going ‘rogue’ and no longer putting the company or society’s best interests first any longer? I’d suggest the following are classic signs of a sub-culture running amok.

Their focus moves to short-term reward

Human beings are a chemical-response machine. Hormones released within our brain dictate to a large extent our moods, thoughts and behaviours. One of the most powerfully addictive neurotransmitters is dopamine. This is a drug created via evolutionary process to reward progress, but is so intoxicating—so selfish—that it can often wipe out higher-order human traits such as empathy and care. Strong evidence suggests links between psychopathy and this reward seeking, and we know quite well that psychopathic behaviour and empathy are often incompatible.

If members of a team have become so fixated on their short-term goals and successes in favour of reaching out to other teams for help, assistance or social interaction, this may be a strong indicator of a rogue team at work.

They stop becoming involved in company-wide effort

Along with becoming obsessed with the reward cycle of short-term wins, the rogue team would likely become insular in their objectives, discarding other social artefacts beyond this narrow focus area. Absence from social functions, setting own business plans not in accordance with company objectives and lack of collaboration with other teams—this withdrawal isn’t healthy and creates a cocoon that allows behaviour beyond the norm to be cultivated.

They actively hide failures

No team and no individual is ever perfect. If a team only ever brings forward their successes but is reluctant to share their failures, that’s not good, but it’s normal.

While most are uncomfortable about declaring their struggles and failures, if a team actively hides their misgivings, then you’ve got some deeper issues. Even if it’s small, this is a blatant manipulation of the truth, and if this is accepted or ignored, then it might start a snowballing of events that could become catastrophic over time. Senior leaders should be advocates of failure, not just success.

Which type of rogue do we want to celebrate?

Collectives can be enormously powerful in shaping behaviour, much more so than values, charters or codes of conduct. In extreme cases, however, such as Lukas Kamay’s systematic insider trading fraud activities, rogue behaviour can be damning, unwanted and unwarranted. 

But there are rogue behaviours that can be a huge advantage, not only to a business, but to society as a whole. Influential whistle-blowers, inventors and mavericks have completely reshaped industries in the face of that prevailing thinking of the times.

We should celebrate and venerate these rogues, and indeed we often do. But for the rogues who willingly break laws and seek to manipulate and degrade—the consequences should be swift and severe because whatever behaviour we ignore, pardon or make concession for, we’ve inadvertently given license to exist.