Most of our interactions with banks these days begins and ends at the ATM or our computer screen. So when we find a bank with great tellers and officers at the local branch, it’s a wonderful thing. Such was the case with Wells Fargo. My husband and I developed a great relationship with a local manager and became loyal customers. Needless to say, we were surprised and saddened when he told us earlier this year that he was leaving Wells Fargo. He confided that the work environment had become unbearable – with tremendous pressure and unreasonable revenue and product goals.

Hearing the recent news of the fraud and subsequent firings at Wells Fargo brought to mind what we had heard from the manager. It also brought to mind other examples of damaging behavior taking place in companies. Listening to commentary and reporting about this fiasco, many have focused on the employees and their inappropriate and, in some instances, criminal behavior. Few have focused on the work environment that may have set the stage for the behavior.

Now, I am in no way condoning what the employees did. However, I am suggesting that their behavior may have been a consequence of the system. Quality guru W. Edwards Deming said, “Fear invites wrong figures. Bearers of bad news fare badly. To keep his job, anyone may present to his boss only good news.” He also advised looking at the systems, not the people, to understand failures. In referencing “systems,” Deming was referring to a more holistic approach to understanding how work gets done and how success is achieved — i.e., how different functions interrelate and interact, how performance is measured, what root causes of organizational issues may be (rather than the symptoms that readily present themselves). Coming out of the Wells Fargo debacle, if the main focus of leaders is on what the staff members did and who is to blame, they miss the critical opportunity to examine what is to blame – to look at the systems, understand what was really going on, and take action for change and improvement.

While you may not have the colossal failures uncovered within Wells Fargo in your organization or team, you may have other gaps and weaknesses in your systems that are getting in the way of better results and greater performance. But how do you begin to discover where they are? In Deming’s view, “If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.” So, in that spirit, take time to assess and discover where you may be setting up your people for failure by asking these questions:

  • In what ways are our systems supporting healthy growth and strong interactions among employees?
  • In what ways are our systems promoting unhealthy internal competition or harmful actions?
  • What role does fear and mistrust play in how work gets done here?
  • Where may we be putting too much focus on the numbers/the results and not enough on the causes?
  • What are the biggest obstacles our employees face? How do we move them out of the way?
  • Why are we facing this issue or issues? Why? Why? Why? And Why again?

Egregious cases like that within Wells Fargo are rare, but missteps, corner cutting, and other “minor” infractions happen daily throughout companies because of programs, policies, and undue demands that drive behavior that leaders really don’t want. To get ahead of it, you need to begin asking the right questions.

Where do you need to dig deeper to understand what’s really going on in your organization?
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