For most people, identity is inextricably tied to work. We strive for meaning within our jobs and take criticism of our labors personally. Not so for senior investment bankers. They dissociate their sense of self so severely from their work that researchers have coined a new term for the phenomenon: teflonic identity maneuvering.
The inspiration for the nomenclature followed a series of in-depth interviews conducted over nearly two years with six senior investment bankers in London. All the subjects described situations in which they regularly circumvented or avoided deriving a sense of identity at work. For example, in one interview, a banker said of his explosive boss: “I am kind of used to it now, and it just washes over me.... I just see it as my job and don't take anything personally.”
Such mental maneuvering may come in response to the demanding and exploitative environment that prevails in the banking sector, says Maxine Robertson, who worked on the study and is a professor of innovation and organization at Queen Mary, University of London. The minimization of self could serve as a coping mechanism. The participants justified this psychological detachment by the amount of money they made, according to findings published in the journal Organization Studies.
Alden Cass, a New York City–based clinical psychologist who was not involved in the study, worries about the long-term psychological cost. When people put money before mental health, he says, they risk burnout, physical ailments, substance-abuse problems and divorce.
With few participants, the study may not apply to other types of bankers. But it is notable, given a paucity of research on the lack of identity. The authors now wonder if teflonic identity maneuvering appears in other high-stress environments, such as academia.