How the Wells Fargo Scandal Relates to Decisions you Make Everyday

Wells Fargo’s banking arm has been immersed in scandal over the last several months because of decisions leadership and employees made with creating fake accounts to meet overly-ambitious sales goals. Many people, from sales leaders who complied and became complicit in the lie, to HR who didn’t look at the voluntary and involuntary attrition of salespeople as a possible symptom of a greater problem, to executives that either chose to stay ignorant or sided with their pocketbooks over their conscience, could have ‘done the right thing’ at various stages and called for a halt to the program. Instead, they continued the practice and touted their success to the banking, and wall Street, community. Eventually, someone shined a light on the practice. Whether it was a customer or current/former employee, that person saw a wrong large enough that they took it to appropriate people that uncovered the scandal. The consequences have been large.

The Wells Fargo story, at a high level, gets played out every day in our lives and our organizations.

Every day, we’re faced with hundreds of choices. What to eat, whether to speed to make up for getting out of the house late for work, how you’re going to get your son or daughter to practice that night.

At times, there are opportunities or goals that may ask us to make decisions which may possibly stray from our ideals and what we stand for in order to get it. Some times, the initial answer is ‘easy’ because the likely consequences of the diversion are small. You give an inch.

Wells Fargo made ‘easy’ decisions in the beginning of their program.

Dangers of big opportunity decisions vs. small, everyday decisions

There are two primary paths regarding compromising your values (and by extension, an organization’s) – a ‘major’ decision with a goal or payoff at the end which appears noble, but may require a course that takes you away, sometimes significantly, from your belief structure; and a series of small, related decisions which, over their course, could lead you/the organization to a place where your values are far in the rearview mirror.

It’s easier for us to soberly assess the potential consequences to values, mission, etc. with larger decisions. We know we’re at a fork in the road and that the two paths may never come together again. We take the information we have at hand, try to anticipate what the future may look like, consider the tradeoffs, and make the best decision we can. One concern though, is knowing there will be spots where our values will be strained and believing we’ll be able to handle it and cross that bridge with it comes. Did Wells Fargo executives see the potential issues with the creation of fake accounts or other actions in order to hit their goals and believe they could manage it issue if they came up to it?

The small decisions are where we can, over time, get far away from what we hold dear individually or as an organization. Immediately after a major decision, there are a series of small decisions that move the plan forward. Sometimes, we are in uncharted territory and are treading carefully. We look back at our decision criteria and the short-term implications of moving forward with this small decision. We make our decision in good faith, if the major decision was made in good faith.

These small decisions involve many players, some with a lot of alignment with the plan and the organization’s mission and some with a belief or interest to take actions that will serve them or save their job.

As time goes on, each subsequent small decision doesn’t get tied to the major decision. It gets bounced off of the last few small decisions. We don’t take the time to regularly look back to the beginning to assess if we’ve gotten off course from where we thought we’d be and if we’ve sacrificed too much of ourselves. We trust the previous decisions were appropriate and gauge ourselves off of the recent past.


Each decision brings mutations and nuances. If those mutations are strong enough, they have a larger impact on future decisions, which may or may not have been anticipated. That’s the nature of evolution.

Since we’ve accepted the decisions, we usually accept the resulting mutation, if it’s not so big that it forces us to reassess where we’re at. However, the mutations may strip us of our values and mission as individuals and organizations before we can recognize it.

Wells Fargo leaders saw some people that set up fake account and hit their targets. Those people got praised. Word spread. If management praised Tom for hitting targets, if they do the same thing, they will get praised as well. Those that refused to do what as needed to hit targets were fired or they quit. The mutations grew.

How do we react when enough is enough?

At the point, or series of points, where we recognize our actions don’t appear to be connected and aligned with our values and mission, we have another choice to make.

Do we call out the misalignment and ‘stop the presses’ to address what’s happening?

Do we try to justify how we’ve gotten away from our mission and move forward on the same path?

Do we recognize we’ve gone astray and chart a path back to where we need to be?

Do we realize we’ve strayed too far, but don’t have the courage to right the ship and continue what we are doing?

Wells Fargo, with not recognizing that their big decisions had fundamental flaws and were destined to stray from their mission and values, to small decisions to accept, support and praise actions that took the company astray and choosing to continue on their unethical path, put themselves and their shareholders in positions of great pain.

So, after all of this, what’s the recommendation on addressing this issue of holding to mission and values? It’s not particularly sage or earth shattering advice, but here it goes.

  • We need to regularly check ourselves with various situations to assess how our actions align to, or divert from, our mission, purpose and values. I’m not talking about checking our actions to the strategic plan or our goals and objectives. When we evaluate ourselves or our organizations too heavily on those more artificial targets, we tend to make decisions that allow us to lose our way. Check yourself against goals, of course. However, don’t allow those aspirations to be how you measure your success or adherence to your values. Also, remain humble and open in this process. Don’t assume you have all the answers and have made the right decisions.
  • Hold not only yourself, but others around you accountable to mission, vision and core values. Many times, an outside perspective that’s less deeply involved can see things you can’t. Allow others to hold you accountable as well.
  • If you find yourself or your organization too far away from the true path, don’t be afraid to call it out. The adage, “If you see something, say something.” isn’t heard, or practiced, enough. People that have strayed from the path won’t like it when you call it out (including you if you personally do it), but there will be many others that will praise you for your efforts to right the ship.

The key is to consistently be true to yourself and/or the organization’s ideals. You can make what appear to be good decisions at the time and end up in a place that isn’t right. That’s OK. Courage and strength comes from adjusting and doing right by yourself and those impacted by your actions.