Integrity is an element of character, isn't it? It is something a person has, or they do not. They learned it from their parents, or they didn't. Right? That is not what we find. We train for integrity, and we make an impact.
We train managers in how to maximize their credibility, and thereby their effectiveness, by visibly living by their word. By keeping promises. By living out the values they speak of. By increasing their personal integrity.
Many trainers get frustrated in their efforts to shift ethical behavior. We define integrity a little differently than the dictionary does. Webster's online dictionary defines integrity as "An unreduced or unbroken completeness or totality [or] moral soundness." We strip out the moral aspect of integrity, to look only at the "wholeness" or alignment of words and actions. We focus on seamlessness, as in "the integrity of a boat hull"—no gaps between words and actions. Morality is important, to be sure. But our work focuses not so much on the content of one's values as on how well one lives them. We find that when people start living by their word, the rest follows.
Reliably living by one's word is crucial for leadership, and for almost any business or personal relationship. Managers. Salespeople. Spouses. Nothing happens without a reliable word. It is fundamental.
By excluding morality from the definition of integrity, we make the subject discussable. Nobody describes themselves as having low integrity, of course, but most of us can allow that there are times when we fail to keep our word. We intuitively recognize that getting better at keeping our word will enhance effectiveness and credibility.
We link integrity to the bottom line. Most integrity programs focus on compliance as a way to stay out of legal trouble. We think that approach sets the integrity bar too low, and it gives integrity a negative frame or emotional tone. We draw on scientific research linking integrity to the bottom line. Surveys of more than 6,800 employees at 76 same-branded hotels found that tiny differences in employee perceptions of how well their managers live by their word translate to large differences in bottom-line profitability. These differences are measurable—for the average employee rating of a single hotel, 1/4 point on a 10-point scale translates to roughly $250,000 per year, or 2.5 percent of revenues. We call this impact the integrity dividend.
This link allows us to approach the issue in a hard-bitten, practical way: It is not about being nice, creating a nice place to work, living with yourself, or being ethical. It is about managing your credibility so you can be more effective. This practical orientation allows us to reach the people who think about results first.
We bring the issue into the here and now. We begin our sessions with a promise—and, given the subject, it is one that people will implicitly expect anyway. We offer that we will be an example of behavioral integrity, we will do as we say, walk our talk. Nothing will blow credibility faster, when you are talking about living by your word, than starting a session late.
We ask workshop participants to point out anything that falls short of that promise, and we get them to agree. Then we promise to do the same for them. This process creates a non-threatening contract holding each other to integrity.
During our time together, should anyone point anything out, we thank them and gracefully apologize. Afterwards, we ask them if we became less of a person for having made a mistake and apologized. They usually say no. This is an interesting starting point, since most executives still believe that to admit a mistake or apologize diminishes their power and status.
Admitting to slips in integrity and sincerely apologizing strangely enhances the reputation for integrity. Also, a discussion of apologizing eases the discomfort participants feel as they consider raising their standards of promise-keeping and they start to recognize the many ways all of us fall short. The key is in the striving and the recovery.
The argument goes like this:
(1) People notice how consistently you keep your word.
(2) It deeply affects your ability to influence them.
(3) 1 and 2 above are not going to change.
(4) Sometimes it is necessary to break a promise or to trade off one espoused value for another.
(5) Don't lose heart about it, or condemn yourself over it—acknowledge it openly and make a new commitment.
This last point is absolutely critical, as maintaining integrity requires sustained attention and energy. Self-abuse over the inevitable stumbles drains energy and so undermines the change effort. A successful person is someone who cleans up when they make a mess and keeps striving. There is no place for drama in an effective apology.
We frame it positively. When a trainer starts pointing out the many ways in which people violate their word, workshop participants can get defensive. They may voice the defensiveness openly, or, more often, they will quietly switch off. They buy the basic message, but it makes them feel so bad that they do not want to keep thinking about it. The danger is not so much one of despair as it is one of an instinctive turn away from uncomfortable topics.
What we do is acknowledge the discomfort—and then point out that it is universal. Everyone blows their word, and how you respond is what determines champions. As with sports and everything else—everyone fails sometimes, but the winners pick themselves up and try harder. Further, since the challenges are so common, extraordinary integrity represents an opportunity for distinctive advantage over the competition. It is not about how to avoid the shame of failing to live up to your moral ideal—it is about how to excel at a practical and fundamental leadership (or sales) tool. Cleaning up your messes—without drama or self-flagellation—is a key part of the tool. Participants should walk out pensive, but excited at the opportunity before them.
We raise awareness. Everybody likes to think of themselves as a person of integrity. Most of us do not recognize those places where feet and mouth point in very different directions. A great starting point for a discussion of the awareness of integrity, or its lack, is what we call the Executive Dichotomy. We ask participants, "What is the most important thing in life?" Most will say family. Then we ask them about their time allocation, and what they do when they face a conflict between the two—say, a kid's recital and a major report due at work. We find many respond as though work were their top priority. This recognition will start a lively discussion and bring great awareness, usually accompanied by humor.
It is worth spending some time on this dichotomy. Ask questions that allow people to sidle up to their own shortcomings:
- Have you noticed people who are more honest in some situations than in others?
- Notice the places where you yourself are more honest and less honest. (Assure them they don't have to share these insights out loud unless they want to).
- Are you perhaps more inclined to keep your word to your boss than honor a promise made to your five year old?
- How about the promises you make to yourself? New Year's resolutions? Most of us treat these as least important of all—when a good case can be made that they are the most important.
We sometimes allow up to 20 minutes in solitude outside of the room for reflection on one or more of these questions with a request that each person comes back with a story to share—perhaps where they have done well and feel proud of how they behaved.
These questions often lead to a broader discussion of how emotions can undermine integrity. The desire to be liked or even feared can lead a person to behave in ways other than they would espouse. A desire to be kind can lead to small lies from a person who would say honesty was the most important value in a relationship: "Does my bottom look big in this?" becomes a minefield for the scrupulously honest person. Performance appraisals come up as a place where most managers feel their integrity tested. Many managers compromise in the face of the challenge, and as a result engage the task with fear and loathing. Being honest requires greater skill than small deceit, but it pays off in the quality and effectiveness of relationships.
Commiting to Integrity
We ask for a commitment. Having raised awareness of integrity challenges, we ask participants to identify at least one key area for improvement. The next stage is to make a commitment to change that one area.
Commitments made in front of others are somehow easier to keep than those we make in private. So we ask people to make a public commitment to change at least one thing, something for which they are prepared to be held accountable. We take time to emphasize what commitment really means. When people feel good, are focussed on integrity, and away from their daily lives, they will commit to things easily. We ask them to consider in advance the times it will be difficult, when they have to get up early on a cold winter morning to have that run before work or tell their team they are about to lose their bonuses for the year or when they have to leave the meeting their boss expects them to attend, so they can be at their child's school play. Commitment means doing the thing you said you’d do, long after the mood in which you said it has left you. Often, to make a commitment that you can guarantee, you have to back up and make it a bit more conservative. For example, say you will exercise four or five days a week, not seven.
We evoke the idea of discipline. Commitment needs to be backed up with discipline. We have come to see discipline as an unpleasant word, often associated with punishment. Actually, it has the same root as disciple; it means to learn. Ask people to consider the times they have used self-discipline to achieve a goal. Integrity is no different. It happens by inches, not all at once. Each decision for integrity enables the next bigger decision, thus beginning a virtuous cycle.
Encourage them to form accountability partnerships or buddy up with someone who will help to keep them on track, perhaps someone with a similar commitment. Get them to commit to communicating once or more each week, to hold each other accountable, and to provide support and encouragement.
Sharing their commitment to integrity with another person may help them overcome challenges. If the difficulty is family-work balance, for example, they might want to include their partner in the conversation.
The most important step of all is deciding to make the change. It is a decision that must be made anew each moment of each day. The key, then, is to help participants set up reminders and supports for making that decision, over and over again.
In essence, we approach the profound issue of integrity in a simple manner that works. To cut through cynicism, we justify the work based on measurable bottom-line results. We strip out the moralizing and shaming aspects of integrity by our term definitions. We frame the issue positively, and bring it into the here and now. We raise awareness of common dilemmas, ask for a specific commitment, and reinforce the commitment with the idea of discipline. When you treat integrity like any other skill, albeit one of supreme importance, it becomes discussable, teachable, and learnable.
Tony Simons is a professor of management at Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, author of "The Integrity Dividend: Leading by the Power of Your Word," and a principal speaker and consultant for IntegrityDividend.com. Heather Allen is vice president of European Operations for IntegrityDividend.com. To learn more, visit www.integritydividend.com.