How to model and reinforce integrity, beyond the rulebooks.
To most of us, integrity is probably associated with ethics and morals. And about being upright and honest. We know that lapses or violations can have horrific consequences. People get fired and companies get fined or censured. And that’s only the start. At the organisational level, the impact can be devastating. Think about what happened to Enron and Arthur Andersen.
However, is integrity more than ethics or morals? We see the origins of the word in the Latin and French words associated with ‘integer’, ‘integral’ and ‘intact’ – which suggest that integrity is about being whole and complete. Scholars like Prof. Michael Jensen of Harvard Business School advocate that integrity is about honouring one’s word – being a more whole, a more integrated person.
So, in my message today, I want to suggest that we need to view integrity a little differently and that it is key to becoming a complete leader.
Think of the following situations:
- Padding numbers
- Sexual harassment
- Any other violations of our code of conduct
You will agree that these are lapses in integrity. But how about the following situations?
- Downloading pirated moves or music from the internet
- Showing up late or not showing up for a meeting
- Behaving rudely with your team members or partners
- Not responding to emails
- In general, not keeping a promise or commitment
If you think that integrity is about being whole and complete, then these kinds of situations also reflect a lack of integrity. So, beyond being upright, integrity is about building trust and doing what you say. It is about being consistent, authentic with yourself, and authentic with others.
Many leaders make the mistake of thinking that integrity is a ‘nice to have’ value. But it isn’t.
Integrity is absolutely critical to how we do business. It is at the heart of who we are. So, it can never be at crossroads with our growth or success. It can’t be something that we trade off in a cost-benefit analysis.
And if you ever do feel like that, then know that you’re likely to make some serious lapses in judgment. Prof. Jensen explains this by saying that integrity “creates workability”. It enables us, whether as individuals, teams or organisations, to do the work that we are supposed to. Without integrity, workability declines and consequently, the ability to perform.
On some level therefore, integrity should really just be a given. It’s almost ironic that we need to emphasise it so strongly. As Ron Ashkenas puts it in his Harvard Business Review article, ‘Why Integrity Is Never Easy’: “Integrity should be the basic building block for doing business: Nobody wants to get involved with a company that lies, cheats, and tricks its customers; nor do people want to work for a company (or a manager) that is dishonest and disingenuous with employees.”
So, where is the problem?
Let’s start with the basics. As an organisation, we must ensure that we have the governance and control systems in place to drive integrity. We have to nurture a strong culture of ownership and through that, compliance. But the truth is that even our best laid plans and all the rules and audit checks, won’t be enough. Sure, they are absolutely necessary to ensure that we have the larger issues covered, the ones that fall more easily into clear distinctions of black and white. But truly bringing a culture of integrity to life goes beyond the traditional watchdog measures. It is about the everyday choices we make; the choices that come from personal judgment. Because at the very heart of it, integrity is about giving your word and then sticking by it. That’s what makes it much tougher. And that’s what we don’t and can’t have rules for.
Ask yourself, how, at a personal level, do you make sure to take the right calls? Ashkenas points out two big challenges here, which, if you’re honest with yourself, you’re probably grappling with too. The first, is the innate human ability to rationalise behaviour. We can always find ways to justify our choices – why our reasons probably make it okay to have made the choice we did, whereas someone else’s wouldn’t. Ashkenas uses the example of high school students and cheating. If you ask them whether or not cheating is the right thing to do, a majority disagree and say it isn’t. Research however shows that some 95 per cent of them also admit to having cheated at some point. In retrospect, they explain it away and conclude that they had reasons to do so. But that it doesn’t change the fact that they are largely, honest. Does this sound familiar? What are the little exceptions that you allow yourself? Where do you draw the line?
The second, is that everyone defines integrity differently. That’s both true and worrying. If we have different moral compasses, then we can’t quite debate what is and isn’t a breach of integrity. We must be on the same page for that and share a universal understanding of sorts.
To add to this, as we get more global and complex – today, half our business comes from our global businesses and over two-third of our team members are based outside India – we must continue to reinforce the principles that we stand for. With the current speed of change, who we are and what we stand for is becoming even more important.
So, the question we need to ask ourselves, is this – how do we live with integrity and reinforce it in our organisation?
1. It starts from the top
As the senior leadership team, we really have to walk the talk on this. We are the role models. What we do and say and how we react to situations sets the tone for the rest of our teams. There can’t be any scope for error here. We must get much better at having authentic and honest conversations, especially the tougher ones. Most surveys show that senior leaders rate themselves higher on upholding integrity, than they do, their team members. That’s something to think about. Does getting more senior really makes us better custodians of integrity? Or are we not holding ourselves to the same, exacting standards as everyone else?
Also, do remember that integrity and trust are intrinsically related. So, work on building trust with your peers, team members and partners through your actions and consistently honouring your word. Trust is built when you genuinely care about people.
2. Set high standards
There is no such thing as having more or less integrity. Either you have it or you don’t. So, let’s never compromise on integrity. We must hold ourselves to the toughest standards, irrespective of the consequences. We must know right from wrong and clearly articulate our expectations on it. There is no space for grey. And the little things, like your everyday actions and behaviour, matter. They all add up.
3. Don’t try to hide stuff under the carpet
Things can go wrong. But don’t wait for them to spiral out of control. Let’s push ourselves to get to know our blind spots. Ask more questions. Get feedback. Encourage people to speak up. Whenever possible, don’t let this come as a surprise. And if things do go wrong, we must be able to call them out and deal with them.
4. Have real consequences
We have to ensure zero tolerance when it comes to a breach of integrity. It really is as simple as that. We need to make it clear what the consequences are, and follow through with them. And while we are at it, also start talking much more openly about it.
5. Shift from a mindset of ‘Do no harm’ to ‘Do good’
Given just how much of this is driven by personal judgment, perhaps we need to reemphasise our approach – not as one of ‘do no harm’, but as one that takes much more accountability to ‘do good’. Our answers could change significantly.
6. Respect the guardians
Our Legal, Finance and Audit teams are the backbone of our compliance systems. In that sense, they are absolutely integral to ensuring we create the kind of culture that we want to have at Ndiema. But this is not something that they can do alone. Each of us has the responsibility to own and champion this in our own right. And we also need to very strongly signal our respect and complete backing for the systems and processes that are laid out.
7. Accept and learn from mistakes
No one can be perfect. But how we learn from our mistakes, have the humility and strength of character to admit what has gone wrong and then correct it – that’s what really matters. We must look for ways to continually improve.
8. There is no time frame
Integrity doesn’t come with an expiry date. It is about who you are as an individual. Remember, that even as we discuss it within the context of the organisations that we are part of, it doesn’t end there. What happens when you leave? What data or information are you taking with you? What if you could use that information to hurt the company? Remember that this is not about whether you have signed a non-compete agreement or not – it is about your conscience and not doing the wrong thing.
As C. S. Lewis famously put it, “integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching”. And there probably isn’t a better way to sum it up. We often say that for us, it is most important that besides our strong financial performance and innovative, much-loved products, we remain a good company. This starts with being absolutely committed to living our values, every day. I’m sure that many of you have grappled with judgment calls. Our best way to learn from that and create this shared understanding of how we will value and approach integrity as an organisation, starts with sharing and discussing these stories. Do write in with your thoughts. I look forward to hearing from you.