Where Complacency Rules
To quote the wisdom of mothers everywhere: if everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?
We live in a very busy world. As we are challenged to take on more and more, we tend to fall into routines and habits, as it is easier than actively thinking all the time. Instead of abhorring ignorance, we embrace it. This is why I continually pushed “Agree” on my iPhone without knowing what I was agreeing to. Reflecting on the recent Wells Fargo scandal, I wondered if complacency could also be behind the malfeasance that took place in that organization.
Wells Fargo has been embroiled in a fiasco involving thousands of employees opening up millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts to meet cross-selling targets.
Thousands? Millions? How can this be when the mission and vision statements adorning the corporate walls so clearly state otherwise? With its folksy stagecoach logo, the over a 150-year-old institution has always positioned itself as the Main Street lender you can trust.
“Everything we do is built on trust,” begins Wells Fargo’s vision and values statement, featured prominently on its website. It goes on to characterize work culture as “the habit of doing the right things, and doing things right.” This is the “tone from the top”.
CEO John Stumpf, took cover behind this lofty language and sought to portray recent problems at Wells Fargo as an ethical lapse among the 5,300 rogue employees who had been fired for their actions since 2011.
Although Stumpf may be sincere, his employees were only doing what was expected of them — even if such expectations were not explicit, but rather implied by shared group norms. Employees learn from each other, and from the kind of behaviour the firm celebrates. The incentives that were at play shaped employee behaviour predictably. This is the “tone from the middle” where work culture really resides, and where managers and leaders fail to look closely enough.
In our society we are relentlessly incentivized to indulge our baser instincts. Women are encouraged to crash diet to be perceived beautiful. Students are incentivized to cheat on tests to earn a better grade. There is no shortage of incentives to engage in poor behaviour.
Group acceptance is perhaps the most powerful incentive. To win it, we’re prompted by evolution to mindlessly mimic our peers’ behaviour and refrain from doing anything they’re likely to disapprove of.
Consider your own driving experience. If the speed limit is 100 km/hr but the majority of drivers are going 118 km/hr, you will almost certainly drive somewhere between 115 and 124 km/hr. The posted speed limit represents the tone from the top. But the tone from the middle prevails.
The Wells Fargo debacle is a perfect example of how we can become catatonic in our actions as we follow the behaviour of those around us. This complacency creates toxicity at work, the key ingredients of which include: unreasonable expectations put on employees, an acceptance of questionable practices and a reluctance to complain out of fear of retaliation. Wells Fargo has a much bigger issue than fraudulent accounts — they have a toxic culture of fear and distrust.
In a released statement, Wells Fargo attempted to downplay their culpability. “It is important to understand the context, the five-year period involved and the size of our workforce… On an annual basis, more than 100,000 team members worked in our stores, and the number terminated represents about 1% of this workforce over the five year period.”
Though only 1% of employees annually may have engaged in the illicit behaviour, considering that the behaviour continued on for five years, it is obvious that management chose not to curb the toxic culture. Now, distrust prevails.
In the past I have blindly signed documents provided by my bank, and I willy-nilly “Agree” to whatever my iPhone asks me to accept — I do this because they have earned my trust. Wells Fargo had that level of trust before they abused it. If there is one thing to be learned from this scandal it’s this: people are complacent so you need to be aware of the tone that exists in the middle of your organization.
Originally published in volume 18 issue 6 of Your Workplace magazine.