Many organizational values include ‘integrity’; however, if you asked employees what integrity really means, a wide array of answers may abound due to confusion around its true meaning.

This presents a problem as it is the foundation of sustainable business success.

What does integrity really mean? It was a buzz word that was amplified during the recent financial crash due to wide-reaching corporate scandals.  It became known as an “accounting issue”; however, it is way more than just an accounting matter.

Here I will attempt to define integrity and provide ways to create this foundation.

If you boarded a plane and the pilot mentioned during the taxi, “Hi folks! Your Captain here. We are flying a plane today that is lacking integrity. Please sit back, relax and enjoy your flight.”

Chances are, panic would ensue. Why –  because the plane might crash. Yet, we experience a lack of integrity across organizations daily and at times put our blinders on and hope for the best.

Integrity is defined as a state of being whole, in perfect condition, and adhering to principles and rules. If a pilot identifies that the plane is faulty, it will not take off. The fault could very well impact the whole in not functioning. It takes the entire plane to work together to make it from point A to point B.

A “bad apple” will ruin the cart.  Employees who have integrity agree to established rules, speak the truth and do what they promised, always. Yet,  every day we experience a lack of integrity in ourselves and others which eventually leads to performance challenges, dissatisfied or lost customers, conflict, layoffs and/or lawsuits. There are endless corporate examples that reinforce these impacts.

Who is then responsible for ensuring integrity? Like any business practice, it starts at the top. I have worked with numerous organizations where things as small as boosting mileage expenses rippled across the company to a point where if you didn’t inflate your numbers, the boss would question you.

It was a behaviour role-modeled at the top and became the way of doing business. The long-term impact was profit margins needed to increase to offset expenses which made the company less competitive, all due to a lack of integrity.

Here are some suggestions to enable the foundation of integrity across your organization:

Evaluate Senior Leaders: Senior leadership teams that struggle with integrity generally put self-interests ahead of the team, lack trust, or fear conflict. These behaviours can poison an entire organization through a snowball effect.

I once worked with an organization where a senior leader was stalling efforts in culture change due to inaction on expectations with his direct reports. It stalled the rollout of the change and bred politics in various teams.  If leaders cannot address a lack of integrity, how can others be expected to do the same?

Ensure Role Clarity: Ask your employee: “What are you accountable for?”
Some may find it a difficult question to answer due to lack of clarity.  If everyone knows who does what, business processes and decisions can be streamlined which leads to greater integrity. This requires work in determining decision-making authorities, establishing role boundaries, determining cross functional role requirements and ensuring all involved parties are clear.

Create a Mess: Check under the carpets, behind doors and in tight crawl spaces rarely visited. In taking a careful look, you will likely find hidden pockets of integrity violation.

This is done by talking to suppliers, customers and employees through an open dialogue or confidential survey that asks: What is working, what is not working and how do we close the gaps. It’s is amazing what can come to light once you start asking questions.

Identify root causes in order to put the proper steps in place to ensure integrity is optimized in the future. Keep in mind that many integrity issues stem from systems or processes that are flawed.

Employ the Right People: In an article written by Forbes magazine, Warren Buffet was quoted saying, “In looking for people to hire, look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy.  And if they don’t have the first one, the other two will kill you.”

Too often, employees who lack integrity are kept due to their expertise, relationships or tenure. In employing those with integrity, you are sending a message to others that politics don’t work and that good business sense does.  It may be a costly undertaking to make these changes but the costs and risks are far greater if nothing is done.

Be As Transparent As Possible:  Regardless of what happens behind closed doors, there is a good chance of a leak. A lack of transparency erodes trust, confidence and behaviours that enable integrity.

I worked for an organization where everyone knew a layoff was imminent. Safety was at risk and the lack of openness by leaders created distrust in management and a feeling of “I’m just a number” versus “let’s work together as a team to achieve results.” If your leaders don’t trust, have a voice or feel their opinion is not valued, you may burst the balloon of secrecy.

Maintain High Ethical Standards: Establish and communicate ethical standards for all employees. Once communicated, hold people to those standards regardless of the impact.

Great companies consistently act in integrity. It is not just a value; it’s the only sustainable way of doing business in order to increase profits, improve employee morale and create loyal customers.

Will your flight arrive?

Glen Sollors, Senior Consultant