It’s common for people to say that leaders must have integrity. We are quick to point out CEO’s or politicians who make ethical mistakes and talk about their lack of integrity. These are easy to point out. We also identify public figures who act in ways that demonstrate their honesty and integrity. Yet how easy is it to fall short of the ideal level of integrity?
There are some very subtle ways in which we may be acting which brings our integrity into question. We often don’t even realize that our actions are not aligned with our values. Unfortunately others will be watching what we do and compare it to what we say. Here are some simple things that can trip up even the most honest people.
- You say you hate gossip and actively discourage it; however you comment on a person who isn’t there at the time.
- You encourage and evaluate your team on personal development yet you never find the time to take a class yourself.
- Your company policy says that you will not accept gifts from vendors over a certain value but you allow a vendor to pay for you to play golf on a course whose fees are higher than the limit.
- You hold people accountable to deadlines yet you often miss deadlines of your own.
- You promise to give people honest feedback however you avoid the difficult conversations about performance because people will get upset.
- You promote teamwork and collaboration but you are normally too busy to pitch in when asked.
Some of these examples are more obvious than others. However, each one of these is an indication that you are not demonstrating the level of integrity that you may desire. There may be reasons why you do some of these things but if you are honest with yourself it becomes obvious you are not practicing what you preach. Even these small things can harm how others view you. If they see you ‘cheating’ on the small things it can create doubt on how you will behave on the big things.
There is a story about President Abraham Lincoln who is well known for his honesty. It demonstrates how keeping to your word may be uncomfortable in the moment but powerful over time.
While a member of Congress, Abraham Lincoln was once criticized by a friend for his seeming rudeness in declining to test the rare wines provided by their host.
The friend said to him: “There is certainly no danger of a man of your years and habits becoming addicted to the use of wine.”
“I mean no disrespect, John,” answered Lincoln, “but I promised my precious mother only a few days before she died that I would never use anything intoxicating as a beverage, and I consider that promise as binding today as it was the day I gave it.”
“But,” the friend continued, “there is a great difference between a child surrounded by a rough class of drinkers and a man in a home of refinement.”
“A promise is a promise forever,” answered Lincoln, “and when made to a mother, it is doubly binding.”
As you go about your day think about the choices you are making. Are your words and your actions perfectly aligned? Have you made allowances for falling short of keeping a promise or meeting a deadline? Integrity is something that everyone wants in their leaders and in their teammates. It can be hard to take the high road all the time and you run the risk of offending someone by sticking to your principles. Yet over time people will think more of us when we do. Leaders make hard choices all the time and this is one area that you completely control. Choose wisely.
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Have you ever said you would take care of a problem, knowing you weren’t going to do anything about it? Maybe it’s just one customer complaint out of thousands of customers. Does it really matter if you say you will fix it to make the customer happy and then let it drop? Yes it does for several reasons. First, your word is now questionable because you didn’t follow through on it. Secondly, that customer may give your organization a second chance and when they find no change, the word of the entire organization has lost its meaning.
About two weeks after I transferred from one factory to another I was called to address some concerns and questions from our field service representatives. One, Pierre, was really angry with the quality of several products coming out of that factory. Unfortunately, this was the first I heard about it, so all I could do was say I would check into it and find a solution. Pierre basically said my word was worthless because my predecessor had said that for years and nothing had changed. Why should he believe me? Now I’m really on the spot, what can I say as he had been let down more than once by this factory? He was right to be mad. I acknowledged his frustration and gave him my word it would be addressed immediately. He still wasn’t buying it. Fortunately for me there was a rep in room that I had worked with several times to fix problems while I was at the previous factory. I knew Mike had been satisfied more than once with my efforts so I asked him to vouch for me. He did and Pierre gave me a short window to address his concerns. I found the issue that was causing his concern and changed the process to improve the quality. The people performing the process had never heard of the issue; they weren’t thrilled with the change however they were willing to do what was needed to improve the quality of their work. It put the problem to bed once and for all. Our field service folks were much happier with the quality from the factory as were the end customers.
I can’t say for sure why my predecessor never really addressed the cause of the complaints but it really damaged the reputation of the factory with several field service representatives, dealers and end customers. The time it took to address the quality issue was about a week total, investigating the cause, determining the best solution, communicating the change and then monitoring it. Inside of a month it became a non-issue for production. Yet it had festered with our customers for about three years and it took another year for them to really believe we would live up to our word. By promising a fix and not changing anything it cost three years of mistrust and a year of rebuilding for something that took a week to get implemented. That’s a poor investment in time and effort.
Following through on a commitment to a customer or co-worker may take extra time and effort on your part, but it is far less than it takes to fix the damage caused by dropping the ball. Once people feel they cannot trust you to come through for them it will be very difficult to convince them to trust you. People will give you the benefit of the doubt the first time, after that it is based on your past performance. Skipping the follow up means your word is worth less than it was before and you may be bringing down everyone around you in the eyes of the customer.
It seems easy to make the promise and let it drop, however the damage can last years and haunt you and your organization. Take the time to do what you said you would do, it will be less than the time needed to repair your reputation. Develop the habit of being true to your word.
Living in the US, I am currently inundated with the political spin that has become a major part of presidential campaigns. It got me thinking about how much spin we see in the work place as well. It seems that “spinning” has become very common place in today’s world. Spin has become synonymous with making something look better than it is by lying. So is “spin” ever a good thing in a business setting?
If a leader is spinning facts to cover up problems, misconduct or defects then no spin is not ever acceptable. When spin is used to place blame it’s has a negative impact on the organization. So many of the business scandals of recent years show that leaders were busy creating a spin to look like they were not at fault for what was going wrong in their world. Time has a way of bringing the truth to light, so these spin doctors were found out and in some cases they did jail time for their efforts. This is the extreme use of spin.
However, we see spin in minor ways every day. Someone is late with a report or project and their reason for the delay is beyond their control. This may be spin or it may be fact. If they didn’t follow-up closely to ensure timely results shifting the blame is spin. If they really did do everything in their power to get it done and yet could not get a vital piece, the reason is fact. It takes a solid understanding of what is going on with that person and the organization to understand when the report of a negative result is being spun.
At times we see spin used to excite people towards action. Again, this can be bad in many ways. Yet, there are times in business that a positive spin is used to help the team feel good about what they have accomplished and keep the focus on the positive. Spin can be used to share the credit just as easily as it is to place blame. When a manager gives credit to a person or the team for a great idea there may be some spin going on to elevate the contribution. However, when done to keep people engaged, it’s sincere in its praise and the intent is to encourage innovation/involvement then the spin has positive impact on the organization. If there is any insincerity or any lies behind the praise, it will be seen as “spin” and become discredited.
As a leader, manager, boss or just an employee how you report results will go a long way to building your creditability and your trustworthiness. If you tend to spin things to look more positive than they are or to shift blame away from you, your integrity will be questioned. If you are someone who tells it like it is, good, bad or indifferent then people will trust your word and believe in your work. If you are honest in what you say, then sharing credit will be seen as sincere and will build your reputation as a good leader. There are times when you are telling the story in the most positive light, which could be seen as spin if you are not careful.
Stick to the truth and be upbeat about the good things that happen around you. Stay away from placing blame on others. Accept and admit faults when due. These will tell the story that you act with integrity and are a leader not a spin doctor.