Get Ahead of a Toxic Culture

Everything is fine, and other lies we tell ourselves.

CO_WebSite_BlogHeaders v2-09The disturbing Wells Fargo fraud revelation goes to show how going against one’s moral code can have mental health implications. It’s even worse when that pressure to act unethically comes from the culture promoted by the organization that provides your bread and butter.

Following the bank’s admission this September that it had created as many as 2 million unauthorized bank and credit card accounts, dozens of former and current Wells Fargo employees reached out to media outlets including CNNMoney describing the high pressure work environment the institution had evolved into and the toll it had taken on their health.

Pressed to reach aggressive sales goals and even use some questionable tactics to get there, some workers reported stress-induced migraines and severe anxiety, others sought out therapy, some slipped into depression and even considered suicide.

Calling the bank’s culture toxic during that time is an understatement. The company told CNNMoney it had let down its team members and is “making fundamental changes” to help ensure employees are supported in upholding a customer-focused culture. The company’s newly-minted CEO, Tim Sloan — who wasn’t in that role as this drama was in motion — apologized to employees and during a recent address, said the company will hire external help to identify areas of cultural weakness that need to be strengthened and fixed.

That sounds like a decent way to begin turning the page on this. But there’s no denying some serious damage has been done to the company’s reputation, its employer brand and its employees.

A recent study touching on ethics had me thinking about the Wells Fargo story, corporate cultures everywhere and both the obvious and hidden bind people can put each other and themselves in when they toe the line of dishonesty.

To put it bluntly, after a while, lying simply becomes easier. Not for any nefarious reason, necessarily, but because, according to researchers at University College London, over time, the brain becomes less sensitive to self-serving dishonesty.

In the study, published in October in the journal Nature Neuroscience, participants were asked to guess the number of pennies in a jar and share it with a second person — an unaware partner. The guessers — volunteers — had their brains scanned while they completed these tasks. In the control group, participants were told that aiming for an accurate estimate would benefit them and their partners. In other trials, participants were told that over- or under-estimating the number of pennies in the jar would either be advantageous to them at their unsuspecting partner’s expense, or they were told it might benefit both, or it might benefit the partner but not the guesser or neither would gain any value.

As the experiment unfolded, volunteers who were told that overestimating the amount would benefit them alone began exaggerating their guesses, which provoked strong responses in their amygdala — aka our fight-, flight- or freeze-loving lizard brain. Time wore on and the volunteers’ lying only escalated, but their amygdala’s response began to decline.

“It is likely the brain’s blunted response to repeated acts of dishonesty reflects a reduced emotional response to these acts,” said the study’s lead author Neil Garrett in a story on UCL’s site. “This is in line with suggestions that our amygdala signals aversion to acts that we consider wrong or immoral.”

So, basically we have an idea about right and wrong. Our brain and body knows it and sounds an alarm when something just doesn’t feel right. After a while though, that bell just doesn’t seem to ring as loud. Over time, it appears that lying — especially for self-gain — begins to feel natural.

That’s the last thing any organization wants to contend with: misbehavior and a culture so highly pressurized and competitive it fuels and rewards unethical actions to a point well past people’s awareness and discomfort with it. At that point, the business and its people — and the people it serves — get hurt.

Now, few things in life are beyond repair in my mind, and I don’t count the Wells Fargo culture controversy among them. An easy journey to that repair isn’t promised nor should it be expected. Still the bank’s drama and the UCL study reveal how powerful starting early to define and promote strong values in word and deed can help to avert some of the heartache Wells Fargo, its people and customers are feeling right now.

Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. To comment, email