Zach’s Blog

The 4 Signs of Purpose Misalignment Every Leader Should Know

“You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.” – Carl Jung

Wells Fargo clearly made purpose alignment a stated priority in the preamble to its vision and values statement: “We believe in values lived, not phrases memorized. If you want to learn how strong a company’s ethics are, don’t listen to what their people say. Watch what they do.”

Even more inspiring was the “Culture of Caring” mantra that Wells Fargo believed in firmly enough to trademark. On its website prior to 2016, the company explained what these words meant, promising to be warm, welcoming, and humble and to have the empathy to make a difference in people’s lives.

This is admirable work – to discover a purpose beyond profit and codify it. Unfortunately, this is also where most organizations on the purpose journey stop.

In mid-2016, some of the bank’s customers noticed they were paying fees on accounts they’d never opened. A consulting group was quickly hired to investigate. What it found was shocking; more than 5,300 of the bank’s employees had secretly opened more than 1.5 million deposit accounts, which incurred fees the customers never authorized.

The consulting firm described the practice as widespread and said that frontline employees, who made around $12 an hour, had opened most of the fraudulent accounts. The bank was fined $185 million by the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—the largest fine in the bureau’s five-year history.

So how did a noble purpose and a “Culture of Caring” result in so badly misaligned values and worse, behaviors?

To put it simply, building a purpose-driven organization is hard.

The alignment of purpose takes a systemic, cultural effort and a radical shift in beliefs about what business is and how its done. Unfortunately for Wells Fargo, its purpose misalignment was very public. Yet, the ways the organization slipped plague most modern corporations.

Recognizing the familiar signs of purpose misalignment is critical for upholding integrity of purpose, the consistent delivery of purpose through values and actions.

In examining the Wells Fargo case through the lens of purpose, here are four symptoms of purpose misalignment:

1. An obsession with results.

The Wells Fargo situation exemplifies what happens when we focus on results or “things” for motivation. The bank’s unethical sales practices were driven by two major things: a leadership obsession with quotas, which were incentivized, and a culture that prioritized these results over people and purpose.

The things we reward become our culture.

If, for example, you state that you have a culture of caring but reward self-serving behaviors, you’re already out of alignment.

But when we train our minds and our teams to focus on others and the greater good, short-term and results-based incentives have a tougher time taking over.

If the culture of Wells Fargo had focused on the well-being and lives of the people it served, building rewards around that purpose, the institution may not have faced the disastrous, public misalignment that occurred

 2. Goals gone wild.

In a 2009 paper entitled “Goals Gone Wild: The Systemic Side Effect of Overprescribing Goal Setting,” University of Arizona Management Professor Lisa Ordonez and colleagues found that goal setting actually has adverse effects when we focus on the goals obsessively.

Her research included two major findings: goals cannot create self-sustaining motivation and goals can’t be the only focus of leaders.

Goals only work in the short term. A goal or a result can increase extrinsic motivation or motivation toward something outside a person (a task) but decrease intrinsic motivation—the internal reward you feel by accomplishing something for its own sake.

Purpose is built on intrinsic motivation.

When we attach tasks to some “thing” to be achieved, what happens after we achieve it? It’s on to the next thing. We’re never satisfied. Such goals are too narrow. They don’t allow a larger perspective. The lack of a broader view can drive us into isolation, since we don’t have to recognize any impact beyond ourselves and the immediate task or decision.

Many goals also have unrealistic time horizons. We pressure ourselves to complete a task too quickly, which opens the door to cheating as a way out. This occurred in the Wells Fargo case, where compensation was tied directly to achieving goals rapidly.

Goals that are too narrow, difficult, or pressing open the door to unethical behavior. People begin to rationalize ethically questionable behavior for the sake of the goal.

Fear of failure and dissatisfaction aggravate what can become desperate measures as we lose sight of the people we set out to serve.

Purpose pulls us out of this isolation and returns accountability.

3. Getting caught up in the moment.

Research shows that unethical behavior doesn’t necessarily reflect your personal values. Humans are situational and reactionary, and the particulars of a situation, from declining sales to personal troubles, can influence our decisions.

Many of the employees who opened fake accounts at Wells Fargo were, no doubt, honest people overall. If, however, your job supported your family and earning enough to provide for them seemed contingent on opening fake accounts to meet unrealistic goals, you can see how environmental pressures might elicit unethical behavior.

Awareness of the environmental pressures that impact our decision making and ethics is important. Reflect on your purpose and make the space to consider alternatives before you decide.

Creating such space in personal and organizational life allows us to step back and reflect on alignment with our “why.”

4. Normalizing misaligned behavior.

In the early 1990s, a key study by psychologists Robert Cialdini, Raymond Reno, and Carl Kallgren found we are more likely to litter in a park if we see others litter. We define “normal” by what others do, which means unethical behavior and purpose misalignment may be contagious.

Seeing others abandon purpose makes it acceptable for you to abandon purpose too.

Focusing on the people you surround yourself with and the norms you establish on teams to achieve purpose alignment is critical.

I often see this phenomenon with college students, whose purposes range from becoming doctors to teachers to journalists. Whatever their aim, when they see peers—especially friends—skip class, they begin to skip class too.

The good news is that if unethical behavior is contagious, so is ethical and purposeful behavior.

Organizations can encourage behaviors oriented toward the greater good and a belief that the work matters.

In our lives and organizations, purposeful behavior can be contagious. And when our behaviors prove our purpose, we are aligned.

This piece is an adapted excerpt from Zach’s book, “The Invisble Leader: Transform Your Life, Work, and Organization with the Power of Authentic Purpose.”

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