A shark’s primary sense is a lusty sense of smell. A shark can detect one drop of blood in a million drops of water and can smell blood as far away as a quarter-mile. Sharks also have what is known as a lateral line that allows them to perceive vibrations in the water from vast distances. A shark will employ this lateral line primarily to find prey in the water. Once a shark smells blood, if they’re esurient or covetous for some food, they will naturally gravitate towards their prey.
John Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo, is a gory and blood-soaked fodder kicking helplessly in the middle of the ocean, hoping someone will toss him a lifebuoy before the sharks’ pounce. Have you seen the poor guy lately? He looks like he’s been spun in one of those exploding Samsung washing machines for one too many cycles or tried to charge his Samsung Galaxy cell phone without the obligatory bomb suit garb for protection. These days, Stumpf has also been seen sporting an arm brace on his right hand during his weekly grilling sessions on Capitol Hill.
As Stumpf dangles in the open sea waters as shark fodder, most of us are the lurking sharks. Many of us, including Elizabeth Warren, smell the blood with a ravenous appetite, triggering an insatiable desire to swarm and forage the punctured meat. Admittedly, Wells Fargo is an easy target. The audacity and boldness it takes to create over 2 million fictitious accounts for personal gain is off the charts and deplorable in every sense. There is no denying this.
But, do we know with complete certainty that Stumpf had intimate knowledge of these fictitious loans and accounts being created? Or, on the contrary, are we just incensed that something so egregious and predatory could occur, and we need someone to blame and hold accountable in order to publicly reconcile such an atrocity? I understand that part of being the Top Dog in any business is being responsible for, and held accountable to, literally everything that occurs. Those privileged enough to hold an executive or manager’s role in a business know all too well that every transaction, encounter, or decision made could at some point come back to be a direct reflection on you. I get that. But to broadly paint Stumpf with villain acrylic and liken him to Bernie Madoff seems intemperate and reactionary to me.
The opportunity cost in spending all our time and resources vilifying Stumpf is that we miss our chance to comprehensively deliberate on the potential perils in incentive programs and reduce/eliminate potential vulnerabilities in the future. We are so laser-focused on throwing stones at one person that we are watching our opportunity to learn painstaking lessons about the dangers in incentive plans evaporate into the clouds right along with these 2 million-plus fictitious Wells Fargo accounts.
The simple truth is that incentive plans are dangerous. Incentive plans are often laced with countless moral hazards that incentivize otherwise good people to make bad, and sometimes unethical, decisions for their personal gain. It happens to the best of ‘em too. No one among us is exempt from capitulating to questionable decisions if the reward is sweet enough, or the situation dire enough. Just ask an “honest” single parent struggling to make ends meet if their moral fortitude has ever been pushed to the limits when faced with a choice between compromising their morals or providing for their children. Tough stuff that is much easier to judge from a position of having your needs met than living through circumstances where bills go unpaid and your children go to sleep hungry.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think a normal human being would actually go to the despicable lengths that many at Wells Fargo did to obtain their incentive (and I’m not sure that I’m qualified to determine what exactly constitutes normalcy in a human anyhow), but I do think poorly developed and monitored incentive programs can cause even the most morally astute to engage in shady and self-seeking activities. Perhaps it’s not as abominable as creating a plethora of bogus loans. Maybe instead it’s approving a loan that you know is outside of policy and unlikely to be repaid, but you justify approval by “helping a longtime member” when in reality the loan was approved because you knew of the rich loan incentives you’d be receiving on the backend if you approved the loan.
Incentive plans are dangerous.
Incentive plans can be a culture killer too. Incentive plans can entirely trivialize any notion or value an employee places on base compensation, health benefits, or retirement plans. An employee’s entire purview can become so fixated upon an incentive that the munificence of a base salary and benefits can be entirely marginalized. Incentive plans can also diminish employees’ natural instinct to want to help people. This is what credit unions are all about right– people helping people? Incentives can incite good people to put their personal interest ahead of the member’s best interest.
Instead of all joining-in on the disparagement of Stumpf, I’d hope more of us would reach deeper and try to learn valuable lessons about the dangers of incentive programs. In the original Wall Street movie, a sleek Gordon Gekko pronounces that “greed is good, greed is right, and that greed works.” I’m of the belief that greed is highly dangerous and can cause good people to engage in unsavory acts. As such, it behooves managers, executives, and directors to exercise extreme caution and careful oversight when considering offering any monetary incentives to credit union personnel.
We could use less sharks and stone-throwers right now and more people trying to learn valuable lessons about human nature, and the hazards of poorly structured or ill-monitored incentive programs.