Your corporate culture is contagious, and that might not be a good thing.

Wells Fargo is in the middle of a firestorm of controversy following the revelation that thousands of its employees falsified transactions to appease the overbearing pressure to increase sales mandated by management and reinforced by its corporate culture.

Corporate culture is often thought of in two ways. The first is as a statement of values that employees are supposed to express in their work (especially with customers). Platitudes like “we push each other to success” and “we deliver the best solutions” are often seen in these kinds of statements. This is a limited and naïve understanding of what culture is and how it influences behavior.

The other way corporate culture is thought of is in the hushed hallway conversations, the stories people tell about past failures and successes, and the subtle incentives at play that influence how people behave. This is much closer to the truth of what culture is, but can be difficult for people to impact in their daily work.

While perverse incentives were certainly present and while leadership hounded its employees to increase sales, Anthony Bolante writes that cheating became contagious at Wells Fargo. We should use his insight to see a broader phenomenon at play: behavior itself is contagious.

A precedent for other people’s behavior

Psychologists have known for decades that the Golden Rule (to treat others as you’d like to be treated) is rarely followed. Instead, people generally treat others as they themselves are treated. The ugly truth of organizational dynamics is that if you are treated poorly by a colleague or supervisor, you are much more likely to treat another person poorly as a result. Conversely, if you are treated with respect you are then more likely to treat others with respect. Cheating begat cheating at Wells Fargo last year. Behavior is contagious in that we unconsciously imitate those around us to fit into whatever culture landscape we find ourselves in.

But what does this have to do with corporate culture?

Consider a third way to think about culture that offers real, immediate opportunities for you to make a difference in your culture today. The only place people can point to when they say, “there, that’s culture!” is in shared behavior by many people over time. All the motivational posters and incentives can do is influence behavior.

A simple question

If culture really boils down to nothing more than shared behavior, and behavior is contagious, then we are presented with the opportunity—every day and at every moment—to set a precedent for the kind of culture we want through our own behavior. I know, I know: you’d rather other people change first. I would too, but unfortunately we’d have to wait a long time for that to happen.

The simple question is: what kind of culture do you want to create today?

Others are already watching, waiting, for your lead.

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