Illustration by Victor Kerlow
Illustration by Victor Kerlow

In the 1970s, my fieldwork as a young sociologist led me to interview white, working-class families in Boston. Our team talked with about 100 families in a place where factories and shops were organized so that each person was meant to have a fixed niche and stay in it. This formal structure had deep roots in the 19th century.

Our team found, however, that strong informal bonds forged by manual laborers in Boston took them out of their niches. These relationships were built on three sides of a sturdy social triangle. On one side, workers extended grudging respect to decent bosses, who returned equally grudging respect to reliable employees.

On a second side, workers talked freely with one another about shared problems, and also covered for co-workers in trouble, whether that trouble was as small as a hangover or as big as a divorce. On the third side, when something went wrong in the shop, people pitched in, doing extra hours or other people’s jobs.

In other words, the society was based on earned authority, mutual respect and cooperation during a crisis. In a factory or office, such a triangle doesn’t transform work into Eden, but it does replace soullessness with civility.

Wall Street’s Unemployed

Forty years on, I have been interviewing quite a different group of workers: back-office, white-collar workers on Wall Street who lost their jobs in the crash of 2008. The sudden jolt that forced them into temporary unemployment made these bureaucrats, technicians and low-echelon managers critical of their working lives before the crash.

The financial industry is a high-stress business that requires people to work extremely long hours, sacrificing time for children, spouses and social pleasures. But after 2008, many of my subjects were no longer willing to make those sacrifices. Looking back, they realized how little respect they had for the executives who’d worked above them, how superficial was the trust they had for fellow workers and, most of all, how weak cooperation proved in the wake of financial disaster.

The fragility of this social triangle is disturbing. When informal channels of communication wither, people keep to themselves ideas about how the organization is really doing, or guard their own territory. Weak social ties erode loyalty, which businesses need in good times as well as bad. Many of the employees I’ve been talking with have come to feel embittered by the thin, superficial quality of social ties in places where they spend most of their waking hours.

In the 1970s, many older American men working on the factory floor had fought in the Second World War, and many younger ones had fought in Vietnam. Military life instilled in them a two-sided measure of authority. They accepted that an officer provides the strategy for battle. In fact, they wanted him to set the strategy, to lead, to direct; he’s the one who should know what to do. Yet, once the orders are issued, the officer ought to give troops the freedom to fight. Micro-managing every shot creates chaos on the field.

In the Boston factories, when bosses behaved like petty tyrants, workers who had seen active duty would stand up to them. But bland, polite foremen were a greater goad; foremen who shouted and swore and then let people get on with the job seemed better leaders. The master had to earn his legitimacy.

Earned Authority

Earned authority manages the everyday experience of inequality. A boss with earned authority who doesn’t humiliate can shout and swear, as in the Boston factories, then let the guys on the shop floor get on with it. Or, in an office, he can wander quietly from desk to desk. Moments of anger pass, and though they may temporarily humiliate, shame also passes.

Informal office discussions can become binding rituals; they just need to happen regularly. The discussions may seem trivial, as in when to grease a machine. But if a workplace is organized so that exchanges are commonplace, workers know that they are being taken seriously.

Isolation is the obvious enemy of cooperation. In management jargon, it’s called the silo effect. Workers in silos -- defined by rigid, top-down management structures - - communicate poorly with one another.

On Wall Street, however, I found that isolation is often self-imposed. Old hands blame it on the advent of computer work: People stare at their screens rather than talk to one another. They also say e-mail diminishes cooperation. “I’d send a message to the girl three work stations away,” said a woman doing account reconciliation, “rather than walk over to her.”

One remedy is to encourage teamwork, indeed to impose it. But enforced cooperation is difficult in a workplace where many employees are short-term. Teams stay together for six months to a year, which reflects the shifting nature of companies’ business plans and their very identities.

Some business schools and companies now offer coaching in cooperation. Students and recruits learn to shake hands, make eye contact and offer succinct contributions to a discussion. The labor analyst Gideon Kunda has called this kind of cooperative behavior “deep acting.” Team members are mainly showing off, and their “feigned solidarity” collapses easily. When things go wrong, people seek cover and shift blame.

‘Guanxi’ Is Forever

This contrasts dramatically with what the Chinese call “guanxi,” the durable social bonds that exist in their culture. Guanxi involves much criticism and sharp advice, rather than studied handshakes, but people realize that, in speaking directly, others mean to help, not display themselves as exemplars. Most of all, guanxi is sustained, not temporary.

A contrasting phenomenon, invidious comparison, is another factor that can erode social bonds. Invidious comparison based on competence has a particularly corrosive effect: It’s hard to have faith in someone you think is incompetent.

The back-office employees on Wall Street have harbored little respect for the technical skills of their executives. In the wake of the crash, the public learned how little many of the major players in the finance industry understood about what they were doing.

The back-office workers, even during the boom time, regarded many company leaders as incompetent. Many even acted on this judgment through their own investing, avoiding their superiors’ high-risk gambles -- which they described in terms such as “fairy gold,” “crap certificates” and “junk bonds.”

My informants did single out individual leaders in investment banks and hedge-fund-management companies who seemed to them competent and prudent; these executives were spoken about using their first names, while incompetent ones were referred to generically as “he,” “she” or “they.”

In the craft of finance, respect is often given to people who understand the techniques used in the business - - for example, the algorithms used to generate instruments such as credit-default swaps. These mathematical generators are often as impenetrable to the top brass as to the general public, and the back-office craftsmen notice when the executive eye glazes over in discussions of technicalities. “I asked him to outline the algo to me,” a junior accountant said about her derivatives-trading, Porsche-driving superior, “and he couldn’t. He took it on faith.”

Executive Ignorance

Of course, you can’t know everything, even if what you don’t know is making you whopping rich. Yet executives often immodestly duck their own ignorance, resorting to sports talk and other chitchat, rather than try to learn.

The back-office workers said that, in the run-up to the 2008 crash, their bosses were guilty more of inattention than raw inability to interpret spreadsheets. And they found fault not so much with the managers immediately above them (many of whom also lost their jobs) as with the people at the top.

These employees were relentless judges of their bosses, always on the lookout for details of conversation or behavior to suggest that the executives didn’t deserve their powers and perks. Such vigilance naturally weakened the bosses’ earned authority. And it didn’t make the people judging feel good about themselves either, as they were stuck in the relationship. On the contrary, it was more likely to be embittering than a cause for secret satisfaction.

Even for those workers who have recovered quickly, the crash isn’t something they are likely to forget. The front office may want to get back as quickly as possible to the old regime, to business as usual, but lower down the institutional ladder, people seem to feel that during the long boom something was missing in their lives: the connections and bonds forged at work.

(Richard Sennett, who teaches sociology at New York University and the London School of Economics, is the author of “The Craftsman” and “Practicing Culture.” This in an excerpt from his new book, “Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation,” to be published Jan. 10 by Yale University Press. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this article: Richard Sennett at Richard.Sennett@nyu.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net.