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Do you spend much time on peak hour public transport? I do, and I’ve spotted a major psychological regression in many of my fellow passengers. They seem to be experiencing some kind of deficit in their object permanence development.

If you’re a bit rusty on the phenomena of object permanence, just think of it as your ability to understand that something is there even if you can’t see it or hear it.

Consider the absolute delight of playing peek-a-boo with a baby. Hold your hands over your face, and to them, you are gone. Where did you go? THERE you are, back again by simply moving your hands.

But what has that got to do with public transport, and my personal kryptonite of hearing other people sniff?

While the cocooning seclusion of head-phones and impressive levels of self-absorption could be at the heart of it all, I also wonder about the trap of object permanence, and not just among those with incidental flatulence and sibilant sniffles.

What about beyond the train carriage? What about those who only listen to themselves, and others like them, in their own echo chambers?

Corporate echo chambers

Beyond individuals, the phenomena of object permanence deficit can be seen in organisations and companies who seem to forget that what they say and do is visible and affects multiple communities, in multiple ways. Even more curious is just how long it can take some industries to truly hear what those outside their echo-chamber are saying, and even longer to change their behaviour.

Let’s take an easy example – think of any one of Australia’s ‘big’ banks. In the last few years, the institutions we trust to manage our cash decisions have been impacted by scandals spanning financial advice, life insurance, alleged interest rate rigging and most recently; an alleged mass breach of anti-money laundering laws.

Did they change behaviour at the first sign that the world could see and hear their wrong-doing? Immediate shame and apology? Well…not exactly. Despite rather loud signals such as requests for a Senate inquiry from leading consumer advocacy organisations and filing of class action claims, the banking sector seems pretty slow to respond to consumer sentiment.

A recent release from the Australian Bankers Association referred to planned changes resulting from “…more than 20 inquiries, reviews and investigations into banks in the past two years.”

Two years. Two years to hear that there are, “low levels of trust, confidence and transparency in the banking industry with a clear need for improvement.”

While research shows that only 31% of consumers have trust in our big banks, I’m pretty confident it’s a sentiment that’s been around, and expressed, for much longer than two years.

I wonder what it will take to regain consumer trust? The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer Annual Global Study offers a blueprint for businesses looking to build trust; suggesting that the three most important attributes for building business trust are treating employees well, offering high quality products and services and listening to the customer.

How different it could have been if major banks could have self-diagnosed their object permanence disorder, and realised that yes, we see and hear that poor behaviour, and no, we do not like it any more than we like loud sniffing on the train (tell me I’m not alone on the sniffing).

About Belinda Macleod-Smith

An eternally curious solution finder, Belinda's extensive communication and marketing background has been forged in diverse sectors. A passion for public participation and citizen centred decision making has seen her deliver outstanding client outcomes in agriculture, health, water, public transport and local government.

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