The word integrity is ubiquitous, which embodies its paradox: it is exceptionally valued and at the same time it is easily overlooked. The Oxford Dictionary defines integrity as “moral uprightness”. Merriam-Webster defines it as “incorruptibility.” We all know what it means, and it is the most commonly stated organizational value. Apparently, it is everywhere.
Even Enron, perpetrator of one of the biggest accounting frauds in history, named integrity as one of its core values. In fact, the word was mounted on the wall in the lobby to be a daily reminder for employees: we operate with integrity. So what was missing? It is clear that fostering a culture of integrity takes more than a bit of static wall art; it requires action.
Integrity Needs Action
Integrity must be put into action for it to matter, and in that way, it is like purpose. For 25 years, BCG BrightHouse has pioneered purpose for business, helping companies uncover their “why” and embed it within organizations to improve performance. Purpose is effective primarily because it creates a context in which meaning and inspiration unlock discretionary effort. It promotes alignment between words and actions; it creates a clearer path between wall art and behavior. It is this clarity that organizations use to earn trust among communities and to engage stakeholders with sincerity. The result is that others want to engage: to work with you, for you, alongside you to both seize opportunities and to solve problems.
How organizations solve problems has been brought to the fore by the COVID-19 pandemic. Crises are often defining moments, and there will emerge a set of organizations who, because of their integrity, have differentiated themselves. Did organizations modify policies and practices for their customers, employees, and suppliers? Did organizations leverage their resources: capital, human, and financial, to meet needs in their communities? And beyond goodwill and warm feelings, the payoff is measurable.
Like purpose, businesses with high integrity perform outperform peers. Research by the Ethisphere Institute, a global leader in defining and advancing ethical business practices, revealed the world’s most ethical organizations outperformed the U.S. Large Cap Index by 7.1% over a five-year period. The World’s Most Ethical Companies honorees have historically outperformed others financially, a trend that Ethisphere describes as the “Ethics Premium.”*
How to Value Integrity
Unfortunately, when integrity is present, it is often not recognized for the value it delivers to organizations or to the people who work in them. We take it for granted because it is considered ‘table stakes’; so foundational that we fail to celebrate it or even recognize when it’s tested and remains intact. Integrity as a stated value can even illicit yawns from employees, with images of compliance training and codes of conduct floating in their heads. Yet when integrity is in short supply and that foundation no longer holds, it is a deeply troubling and destabilizing experience and, as at Enron, negatively affects hundreds of thousands of people.
This is not an exhaustive list, but here are three ways that see organizations often miss when it comes to valuing integrity and fostering a culture that put action behind it:
- Celebrate Inegrity
Integrity can be celebrated. Think about how much energy and effort follows a breach of the Code of Conduct in training and managing damages. The same amount if not more can be put into celebrating no breaches. Fostering an integrity culture is analogous to fostering a safety culture, you have to talk about it often, develop commitment through belonging, and celebrate when ‘nothing’ happens, i.e., zero incidents.
2. Support From the Top
The leadership team sets the ethical tone for an organization. If they take shortcuts or exhibit poor behaviors, it gives employees unwritten permission to do the same. Leaders must be transparent in their decision making, clarifying their motives and intentions while protecting confidential information. This is an ongoing balance, sharing what you can, as timely as you can, while also being accountable for protecting what’s confidential.
3. Embed Purpose
Purpose and integrity while different strategic elements are complementary and reinforce one another. They are both meaning makers and magnifiers when they are paired with action. Together they set forth a framework for making decisions, for taking action, and both give people a reason to believe that we are sincere in our efforts, independent of outcome.