Months ago, a young man approached me after a speech: “I’m sorry, I’ve been stalking you.”
John (an alias) explained his need to share his response to words I’d written in a blog about the tragic Wells Fargo case: “Too many people wallow in jobs that kill their spirit and rob their souls.”
This week, the fallout continued. Wells Fargo agreed to pay $3 billion over the fake account scandal -- on top of the hundreds of millions already paid in fines. The bank’s executives had set unrealistic goals, creating a situation where salespeople felt pressured to cheat over 85,000 customers to reach those goals. Wells Fargo is the extreme example, but far from being the only, of organizations whose practices erode choice, connection and competence -- the three psychological needs required for optimal motivation and thriving.
But corrupt leaders weren’t the only ones who perpetrated fraud: 5,300 people were fired. Many of them succumbed to the dishonest schemes. Individual employees didn’t stand up and say, “I won’t do this.”
Yes, their need for choice was demolished by the culture of fear and pressure; connection was trampled by the betrayal of values for trust and integrity; and their competence was smothered by the pressure for results over learning. Wells Fargo’s culture of greed made it more challenging for employees to do the right thing. But those employees share responsibility for caving into greed and fear.
John recognized he was working for an organization encouraging people to act unethically. After reading my blog, he decided he wouldn’t be one of those people.
What would you do in John’s case? What should you do if you find yourself in an unfair, unjust, or corrupt organization?
If you work for an unfair, unjust or unethical organization, you have choices
Let go of a popular myth. What is the primary reason most people leave their jobs? When I ask this question in my presentations, the overwhelming response is: “A bad boss!”
One of the great workplace myths is that people don’t leave their organization, they leave their manager. Yes, people quit their bad boss. But the primary reason people leave their job is injustice. You are more likely to leave an unfair organization than you are a bad boss.
Your organization’s fairness is a stronger influencer of your decision to stay and devote discretionary effort to achieve goals than the interpersonal justice you experience with your boss. This is not to say the relationship with your manager doesn’t matter! But research supports a trickle-down model of organizational justice, where employee perceptions of fairness are related to their commitment to the organization, its goals, intent to stay, and delivery of customer service.
Stay. You can be like the Wells Fargo employees and Major League Baseball players who knew they were cheating, but did it anyway because winning is more important than integrity. Just know that you are eroding your connection to meaningful values and the greater good -- and your optimal motivation.
Leave. This was John’s choice. In John’s mind, there was a difference between quitting and leaving. He didn’t just give up. John chose to leave and start his own company dedicated to creating a just, fair, and optimally motivating workplace for himself and others. He handed me his first business card as a symbol of gratitude for being a catalyst to proactively live his values.
Blow the whistle. We need to cherish our whistleblowers. The risk they take is real. Maybe you were moved by the courageous testimonies of Time magazine’s Guardians of the Year -- public servants who braved political and real threats during recent impeachment hearings. Maybe you’ve seen movies about people whose actions changed entire industries such as "Silkwood," "The Insider" or "The Post."
Perhaps you’ve read how another Susan Fowler blew the whistle at Uber exposing the sexist underbelly of Silicon Valley. These are high-profile examples of whistleblowers who have paid the price of not staying silent in the face of injustice or immorality. They are inspiring. But if the unfairness you’re experiencing doesn’t rise to that level, you have alternatives.
Be an advocate for justice. You can work to open closed-door policies where information is used as a form of control. You can challenge wage discrimination, favoritism and implicit bias. You can campaign for transparency and a seat at the table.
- Petitioning for equal wages doesn’t mean you’re motivated by money, but by fairness.
- Promoting fair goals doesn’t mean you’re motivated by a free ride, but by realistic standards.
- Encouraging unbiased treatment doesn’t mean you’re motivated by self-serving interests, but by equality.
- Requesting transparency for your organization’s initiatives such as a high-potential program doesn’t mean you’re jealous of not getting “in,” but by a desire to excel.
- Demanding a seat at the table doesn’t mean you’re motivated by status or power, but by the need to contribute.
Advocating for justice and fairness creates connection and generates positive, sustainable energy. You’ll experience a genuine sense of belonging, alignment with values and purpose, and the joy of contributing to something greater than yourself.
Be aware of your choices in the face of unfairness. As you contemplate being an advocate for justice, recognize that . . .
- A work ethic without ethics leads to corruption.
- A goal without a mission takes you nowhere important.
- A life without work based on values has little value.
- Empowerment without a sense of power is an empty word.
- Empowerment is not something that is done to you; it is something you do for yourself.
Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, "Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals," she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager with Ken Blanchard and Why Motivating People Doesn't Work ... And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit SusanFowler.com.