Unconscious (Ethical) Incompetence: The Curious Case of SAC Capital Advisors

Should Have Seen That ComingNoel Burch is credited with formulating the Four Stages of Competence model. It describes the psychological states involved in a progression of competence, as in:

1. Unconscious Incompetence
2. Conscious Incompetence
3. Conscious Competence
4. Unconscious Competence

The model has always struck me as one of those so-obvious ideas (like spreadsheets) that the miracle is no one ever thought of it before. It just makes sense.

It is usually applied to the mastery of skills, expertise, or knowledge. It is equally interesting, however, to apply it to the concept of moral development in people and in organizations. Which brings us to the curious case of SAC Capital Advisors.

SAC Capital: The Contradiction

Last week, SAC Capital Advisors was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury in New York for insider trading. The firm pleaded not guilty, and of course nothing I say here should be construed as an opinion on the merits (and my legal credentials are zip-squat anyway).

In reporting on the story, New York Times financial reporter James B. Stewart highlights an interesting question:

According to SAC Capital Advisors, the wildly successful hedge fund now accused of systematic crime, the firm not only has “a strong culture of compliance” intended to “deter insider trading,” as the firm put it recently, but may also have one of the most rigorous and “cutting edge” hedge fund compliance programs in the country.
The firm said it spends “tens of millions of dollars,” on compliance, “deploys some of the most aggressive communications and trading surveillance in the hedge fund industry,” has hired big-name lawyers like Peter Nussbaum and Steven Kessler to oversee compliance, and has a staff of “no fewer than 38 full-time compliance personnel.
Which sets up the question: What were they doing?

What indeed.

Two Scenarios for Going Bad

Let me suggest a continuum of answers to that question, with the two extremes reflected in the following two purely hypothetical internal conversations at SAC following the indictment:

Version A: “Can you believe our bad luck? Just when everything was going so great, some flunky up and blows the whistle on the greatest inside deal since Teapot Dome. It was perfect! I guess it was too good to be true, something had to go wrong some day and we’d get found out.  Well, let’s fight the hell out of it and see what we can still walk away with.”


Version B: “Can you believe our bad luck? We take compliance seriously around here, nobody spends on compliance like we do, we’ve got the best systems in the business, the best programs, the best communications and the best lawyers to make sure we’re squeaky clean, and – a couple of lousy bad apples come in and ruin it. Not only for us, but for our clients as well. If they only knew the opportunities we pass up… For crying out loud, when is enough; blood from a stone. We are over-regulated to a T already, how much more compliant can you get?”

I don’t know about you, but I’d put money on the B end of the continuum. What looks like clear malfeasance from the outside all too often looks like business as nearly usual on the inside, with shrill grenades of  misunderstanding being lobbed in from the outside. Whether it’s SAC, Enron, WorldComm, or the generals in charge of preventing rape in the military, most frogs sitting in the water don’t notice the temperature rising to a boil.

Which raises the ethics conundrum – Scenario B is a form of Unconscious Ethical Incompetence. The doers of badness do not recognize that it is badness they are doing. Indeed, they often see it as goodness.

In the Four Stages model, unconscious incompetence is the first step in the process. That heightens the contradiction, because the evil-doers in such cases think they are actually at the opposite end of the scale – having already internalized the right behaviors so that they are unconsciously competent. Nothing could be more wrongheaded and insulting, they think, than to suggest they are actually at the bottom of the scale!

Hence the reaction – not guilt, or even remorse, but pained indignation. Moi?  Nous?  Surely you jest.

You Can’t Depersonalize Trust and Ethics

Cases of this sort highlight a vicious circle in managing for trust. Violations of trust are met with new processes or procedures for preventing it in future. Since so much of business is about processes and metrics, this is seen as a perfectly normal response.

However, by turning trust and ethical issues into issues of process, they are robbed of their context in a relationship, and therefore stripped of their human quality. The predictable result of this is to lower the internal standards of conscience and social behavior, which then leads to more violations. And on, and on.

This is the substitution of quantitative, transactional, impersonal focus for qualitative, relationship-based, human phenomena. Unless checked, it only gets worse. Financial services is only one of the most obvious industries in which this happens. You can see it in pharma, in many sales organizations, even in academia.

Unfortunately, most outside consultative solutions to institutional trust issues tend to focus primarily on traditional change management factors – incentives, structures, communications (or culture, which I tend to see as the result of all the other things). But those traditional change management factors, which work so well when introducing quality or customer focus initiatives, have limited range when it comes to issues of trust and ethics. In fact – they make it worse, by implicitly suggesting the issues are ones of incentives, structure and communication.

What is sorely needed is something that sounds too old-fashioned – personal role-modeling of character-based behavior by leaders. Personal actions at the most minute level – comments, reactions, shading of language, confidence of decisions, personal displays of integrity in the moment. These are the things that employees notice, absorb, and emulate.

Former SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt had done some consulting for SAC. He told reporter Stewart that he “Came away from his visit to the firm unimpressed. ‘My sense was that it was a check-the-box mentality, not a serious commitment,'” he said.

Whether he was right or wrong about SAC, the distinction is powerful. As Mr. Pitt also said, “When it comes to compliance, you have to live, eat, breathe and drink it. It has to be embedded in a firm’s DNA.”

And the route to the firm’s DNA (metaphorically) goes straight through that of the leaders (literally).