Try building a better culture ... as best you can

Try building a better culture ... as best you can

We were in the middle of a ministry formation class when one of the participants made a point: “Leading like Jesus is a lot easier if you’re getting support from the people around you.”

“That’s why your parents urged you to pick good friends, right?” I asked rhetorically. “And that’s why those of you who are parents are now urging your kids to do the same thing.”

The room was full of knowing smiles punctuated by several heads moving up and down. We knew. We all knew.

One of the most used rationalizations for doing less than our best or even doing what’s clearly wrong is: “Everybody’s doing it.”

Of course, we don’t really mean to make an empirical claim that everybody – all 7.4 billion of us on the planet – are doing whatever it is that really shouldn’t be done. What we’re really claiming is that enough of the people around us are doing it to make it seem normative for us.


A culture gone wrong

That certainly appears to be the case with the Wells Fargo folks who illegally opened accounts for people without their permission – accounts for which the people were charged regular fees. It was a great way for the bank to grow ... except for one little thing. When you take money from people without their permission, it’s called theft.

In the case of Wells Fargo, it was dishonesty on a huge scale.  Employees allegedly opened 2 million unauthorized bank accounts and applied for 565,000 unauthorized credit cards.

As you might imagine, there was considerable pushback:

  • The bank was assessed $185 million in fines.
  • At least 5,300 employees lost their jobs.
  • Eventually, John Stumpf, chairman and CEO, lost both of his positions.

Employees who committed the fraudulent practices say they were under “extreme pressure” to do so.

Part of the problem was systemic: much of their compensation depended on how many new accounts they opened.  “Unchecked incentives can lead to serious consumer harm, and that is what happened here,” said Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in a New York Times story.


Growth at all costs

Part of the problem was that growth became the bank culture’s ultimate value. “If the managers are saying, ‘We want growth; we don’t care how you get there,’ what do you expect those employees to do?” said Dan Amiram, an associate business professor at Columbia University, in the same New York Times story.

"I had managers in my face yelling at me," Sabrina Bertrand, who worked as a licensed personal banker for Wells Fargo in Houston in 2013, told CNNMoney. "They wanted you to open up dual checking accounts for people that couldn't even manage their original checking account."

Bertrand, who is now a middle school teacher, said she believes the oppressive sales targets were set by managers who were higher up: "The sales pressure from management was unbearable," she told CNNMoney.

            Many people left the firm rather than face the incessant pressure to produce at any cost. Some were bothered by the intensity of the environment. Others were troubled by what they perceived as dishonesty.

But others, perhaps because they felt they had no choice, stuck around and struggled to meet quotas – and many of them ended up doing the wrong thing, in some cases again and again.

No doubt many of them rationalized their behavior with the elixir that “everybody’s doing it.”

That’s the power of culture – and the danger of toxic cultures.

Toxic cultures can just grow and grow until – and if – someone is able to turn a spotlight on the behaviors grown in those cultures. In the case of Wells Fargo, the toxicity was revealed. In many – perhaps most – toxic cultures, it isn’t. The abuses persist.


It doesn’t take much

Nearly everyone I’ve ever talked to about work has a story to tell about the toxic effects of bad leaders.

Some are just inept. Some are indifferent. Some care only about how they are affected personally. Some are prideful narcissists. Some are fearful cowards. The motives and permutations are nearly infinite – and way too common.

It doesn’t take much to begin introducing toxic elements into an otherwise healthy culture. A single person nearly always begins the process. If that person has positional power, the virus moves faster, wider and deeper throughout the culture.


Enacting change

So how can we enact change in a culture that’s so deeply damaged?

            It’s important to know what scripture says about being light to the world. Matthew 5:13-16 tells how powerful one follower of Jesus is in a dark place. Verse 14 says, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.” That image is powerful!

We have the power to impact our culture because there is no distinction between sacred and secular when we have the presence of God in us.

No distinction between sacred and secular when we have the presence of God.

A person trying to reverse the flow of toxicity has a hard job to do. And it’s a lot harder if they don’t have any positional power. But there are always options. Some examples:

  • Support the good – look for positive elements in the environment and try to affirm them; help others see and do their best; offer guidance to superiors and subordinates, and reward good behaviors wherever you see them.
  • Comfort the afflicted – find opportunities to mitigate the toxicity by reaching out to others who are hurt by it, comforting them and buffering as much of the badness as you can.
  • Afflict the comfortable – it may cost you your job, but if the culture is so toxic you can’t continue, then the risk is small – and you may be pleasantly surprised by how much you can achieve if your contributions are highly valued.
  • Time to go – deprive the culture of the gifts you bring to it, and share them in another, better culture elsewhere. For a variety of reasons, it can be hard to leave even the most toxic places, but sometimes it’s the only way to avoid being part of the problem.


Power of prayer

Whether you are trying to contribute to a healthy culture or trying to turn around a toxic one, one strategy is to pray incessantly. It’s important to remember that we are never alone because isolation is dangerous. In a healthy culture, isolation can lead to pride. In a toxic culture, it can lead to anger, outrage and self-righteousness.

One strategy is to pray incessantly.

Also, say prayers of gratitude for whatever occurs – no matter how large or small. Prayers of gratitude keep our perceptions attuned to the whole, larger picture of life.

Heavenly Father, thank you for allowing us to be lights in a dark world. You are the Light we shine. Help us to grow deeper in our relationship with you that we may shine brighter no matter what culture we find ourselves in. In Jesus’ name, amen. 


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Owen Phelps

Dr. Owen Phelps is Director of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and author of the book, The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus: Introducing S3 Leadership — Servant, Steward, and Shepherd. He has presented Lead Like Jesus Encounters in Canada, Uganda and India, as well as all across the U.S.


He formerly served on the faculty of the College of Business & Management at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, and was a consultant on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Communications Committee for about a decade. He has served as a consultant to church organizations from Vermont to Texas. 


Dr. Phelps was an award-winning writer, columnist, editor and publisher with a multi-state publishing company before he began work in ministry. He has written several articles and contributed chapters to two books devoted to issues of faith-based organizational performance.


He and his wife Jane, a CPA, have been married for 49 years. They live in Durand, Illinois, and Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, and they have five grown children and 17 growing grandchildren.