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Many organizations develop a set of values for ethics and integrity that are often selected as a strategy to shape the culture. These values are meant to be guiding principles for how decisions that influence employees’ behaviours are to be made. The theory being, if all employees adhered to these values as a minimal standard this would benefit their experiences as well as customers and reduce the risk of human error that can result in moral, ethical, and legal breaches.
However, when an organization puts a major focus on achieving a specific operational goal that becomes leadership’s all-consuming priority, leaders may pay little to no attention to the organization’s values, leading to actions to achieve an operational goal without considering the impact on those values.
As an example, Wells Fargo, the United States’ fourth-largest bank, was fined $3 billion because it set unrealistic goals on the number of new accounts to be opened. The drive to achieve the new targets resulted in unethical and fraudulent behaviour that breached the organization’s core values and ethics.
COVID-19 will continue to challenge many organizations to stay financially solvent. Fear of going out of business, employees concerned about their jobs, and pressure to figure out how to stay competitive will be top of mind. Conditions are ripe for organizations to surrender their values if leaders don’t pay attention to them and balance operational goals, provided their values matter and are not just artifacts.
If leaders do not pay attention to this, the organization’s bottom line is at risk. You can no longer tout your values and then behave in a way that is misaligned. Leaders are under a social media microscope and frankly, most employees are fed up with dual standards. Misalignment and/or the eroding of values, integrity, and ethics can happen in micro-moments whether it is during group meetings or one-on-one conversations. It can easily happen in a room full of employees when one person speaks inappropriately to another and no one feels comfortable enough to speak up. When we collectively allow unsuitable comments, behaviours and actions to pass without so much as a word of caution to the person or leadership team before we know it the acceptance of bad behaviour creeps into the culture and becomes the cultural norm undercurrent.
Many of us have been bystanders in these meetings, hearing an inappropriate comment or witnessing bad behaviour and not having the courage to say anything at the moment or even afterwards in private because we fear retribution or being seen outside the group. Far worse and more shameful is when an employee does speak up and is silenced or given excuses such as: “That is just Mary/Joe”, “leave it alone”, “he/she leads the top business unit/has the top sales” or a variety of other reasons why that person will not be reprimanded or brought to account.
When leaders put aside organizational values and hyper-focus on achieving an operational goal, some human behaviour dynamics can explain events like what happened at Wells Fargo.
In challenging times when humans are stressed and worried, they often do much better when their leadership is present, firm, and caring. That provides clear messaging with confidence as to what the organization is going to do to manage the challenging time and why, follow up with a clear direction to employees, and ensure their message is being adhered to until calmer waters occur and the challenge has been tamed.
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