By Anthony Smith-Meyer

Integrity is a popular word in governance circles these days. Company directors and executives are required to be persons of integrity. Yet what we desire from them is more than a descriptive label; we want ethical behaviour. Integrity and ethics are often used as interchangeable synonyms, and the outcome of these expectations are seen as self-defining, self-evident, and obvious in some way. Still, for most of us, integrity remains easier to spot in its absence, than in its presence. Despite this, we are expected to evidence our integrity, and it is often referenced in terms of the quality of the ethical outcomes that result from our actions.

In executive training circles we strive to teach integrity and ethics in a way that will gain traction amongst participants. 

We face two major challenges in doing so:

1.     Self-perception: Try and imply to a person that they might benefit from attending an ethics and integrity course: Is the immediate implication that this person is less than acceptably ethical and honourable? Forthright? Honest? Incorruptible? Integrity is personal, and neither you nor I have a problem with it, do we?

2.     The conceptual nature of the subject. Integrity and ethics are subjects that appear overly philosophical. Dedicating valuable time to engage in what is anticipated to be “navel-gazing”, on a topic that is dominated by a “you know it when you see it” mindset, seems unproductive and wasteful. The perception is that being ethical is a matter of applying “clear and obvious” common sense, and is necessarily imprecise; ergo, of little practical value. So we go back to our desks, and continue as before.

However, at thegovernanceproject.org, a social impact, not-for-profit initiative, we are working to create a course that brings clarity to the potential power and influence of integrity, to identify what practical measures can be devised to turn high brow aspirations into implementable steps that will impact behaviour in our boardrooms, executive offices, and operating plants. We seek to create a course that makes integrity come to life; that transports integrity and ethics from “cloud in the sky” thinking to “real-life” application.

Those of us, who have been practicing, writing, and teaching all things governance, ethics and compliance as a career, are convinced of the importance of organisational culture, and the influence that leadership behaviours have in shaping it. Many of us have seen it in action and experienced it first-hand in the business context, as ethics and compliance professionals, or as students of organisational behaviour. As practitioners and consultants, we have analyzed, reported and advised on it. Personally, I cannot put it more simply than that individuals observe and comply with the behaviours expected of them by the group they associate with, and those expectations are inordinately influenced by those people considered to be “the leadership” (aka” the tone at the top”).

At the Institute for Financial Integrity and Sustainability, part of the mission is to bring meaning to the word integrity. The question is, how can we make a course meaningful and worth the time of day for those we seek to provide valuable input to? Everyone asks what they should do about the demands for integrity and ethics being placed on them, so I decided to engage with colleagues on LinkedIn and within thegovernanceproject.org community to identify the concrete integrity questions they seek answers to, and which they would find valuable enough to invest time in. 

This review is the take-away from the feedback I received, and my first take on practical implications for the design of a course on integrity.

Integrity is all about predictability

The evolution of a course on integrity must follow from its definition. Look up the word in the dictionary and, apart from an attempted adjective of integrous, a number of descriptive words are provided to explain its meaning, including honourable, forthright, honest, and incorruptible. Its implication is “doing the right thing”, but I distance it from being “ethical” or “decent”, as these words muddy the waters by always being relative to a given (and changeable) set of benchmark expectations. To honour a promise completely, to be wholly transparent and forthright, to be honest and state what you believe, or not to deviate from your stated intention, have less to do with ethics or judgement, and more about fulfilling your promise – to be predictable in your actions – in other words, trustworthy.

If we define integrity as performing on your promise, be these specific or more generally applying a given set of stated values, then the study of organisational or leadership integrity may be broken down into how to ensure that our promise is embedded in organisational behaviour and employee conduct. We can now discuss practical steps to identify and define what the organisational “promise” based upon corporate purpose should be, and the behavioural values that are necessary to underpin that “promise”. 

Integrity requires full-hearted commitment

Nobody trusts a friend who is unreliable in keeping their promise. When an organisation commits itself to delivering on a purpose and to pursue excellence in performing on their promise, it commits to being predictable and reliable. Accidents may happen, but when it happens, the mentality is to get back on track, not to avoid accountability. From the top of the organisation, to the intern on the factory floor, the culture must be a full commitment to acting in accordance with the organisational promise and the values associated with it. 

In a small company, the behaviour and values of the founder or manager is easily discernable. Behaviours exhibited by the leadership will dictate employee behaviours, irrespective of what values may appear on a marketing leaflet. Authenticity in leader commitment to the promise and stated values is a pre-requisite. Even when this is present, in a larger organisation there needs to be a governance framework that supports and communicates these expectations and which embed them in everyday, and exceptional, decision-making. There have to be communication channels leading from the client-facing periphery of the organisation to an Executive who is willing and wanting to listen and learn. The measures implied by such a framework range from the delegation of responsibility, objective-setting, accountability and compensation arrangements, organisational justice and discussion forums. In short, the minimization of any ambiguity surrounding what is expected of each and every employee. 

Integrity is in the organisational DNA

Governance is often associated with rules and procedures. However, in a culture of integrity, rules can never be more that a safety rail. We live in a world involving dynamic change led by technology, consumer and employee expectations; not to mention social sensibilities as to what constitutes ethical behaviour. How the organisation impacts its stakeholders is rapidly translated into positive or negative perceptions and associations within the employee and consumer base, as well as within the media, civic society, and government. Reputation and brand value built over decades can be destroyed in a Twitter storm if they are not backed by integrity, authenticity and a readiness to be held accountable. Policies, procedures and performance evaluations cannot be more than guide rails for an organisation that is convinced by and committed to purpose, promise and values-led behaviours throughout the organisation. Integrity, must be in the DNA of the organisation, its actions and reactions dedicated to serving everything it represents. Governance is not a static, bureaucratic science anymore – it is an agile playbook.

The study of integrity is a study of culture formulation around purpose

Thus far, we conclude that to render integrity a practical subject for study and implementation is to learn to understand organisational purpose, its promise of value creation to stakeholders, and what is required to embed authentic, transparent predictability in the execution of its mission and responsibilities. It is also the modern definition of governance. 

Governance is not a static, bureaucratic science anymore – it is an agile playbook

Call for comment: The design of a meaningful course and workshop on the identifying the practical steps to forming a culture of integrity within the organisation is a work in progress. Any comments, questions or suggestions would be gratefully received by commenting on this blog, or via email to [email protected]

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