Don’t talk of stars burning above
If you’re in love show me
Tell me no dreams filled with desire
If you’re on fire show me.”
Eliza Doolittle’s heartfelt cry in the musical My Fair Lady targets all business leaders. When the exasperated girl tells her lover “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words” she could be talking to business leaders everywhere.
Employees of companies often feel the same way. Their collective response to well-meant assertions from the C-Suite is “show don’t tell.”
Integrity: We will always take the high road by practicing the highest ethical standards, and by honoring our commitments.” Boeing
Who we are: People who demonstrate integrity, respect, and teaming.” Ernst and Young
We wish to be known for our transparency, honesty and integrity. This is the hallmark of our behaviour in all we do.” Balfour Beatty
We’re focused on winning at Dell, but winning the right way. To us, that’s embodied by a commitment to integrity and responsibility Dell
We expect leaders to pronounce on values and describe what a responsible enterprise means in practice. This is partly how they influence the organisation’s tone and culture.
Describing ethics though is mere advertising. So far research can find no link between talking about values and their impact on short or long-term performance.
Integrity, a favourite leadership word for example, often translates as “We’re honest, you can trust us.” This confuses honesty—“we’re law abiding citizens”–with “doing what’s right, and because how we do things matters.”
Making sense of integrity starts by resisting the gravitational pull of “definition-demand.” This is the strong temptation to resort to the safety of abstract reasoning, using words to build concepts and assertions.
This urge to define things is a natural human compulsion–looking for patterns and certainty. Within business a desire for ever more clarity about integrity leads to the cul-de-sac of ever-longer codes of practice. These stem from the misunderstanding: “If we list enough rules people can decide what to do.”
However, no amount of rule listing will make an employee act with integrity, speak up about an ethical danger, or seek help on what to do when values collide.
For years the US Nordstrom retail company gave new employees a single 5×8” grey coloured card on which was written:
Rule #1: Use best judgement in all situations. There will be no additional rules. Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.
Was this crazy? Could such a simple instruction work? Well, Nordstrom achieved the highest sales per square foot performance in the retail industry, by almost double. The company was the fifth-largest U.S. department store by retail sales in 2012 and the next year the thirty-fourth largest retailer in revenue in the United States.
In a faint echo of the Nordstrom message of simplicity, the Balfour Beatty code has a basic reminder from the CEO
In their own way both organisations explain integrity as a personal responsibility. In essence, the message is: you must make up your own mind whether something is right or wrong.
Since everyone defines integrity in their own way this becomes more complicated with differences in culture. For example, in some places doing favours for each other is how the world works. In others, such favours will be treated as bribes.
Despite the vagueness of integrity it remains a basic building block of successful ethical leadership and the foundation of a sustainable business.
…high levels of perceived integrity are positively correlated with good outcomes, in terms of higher productivity, profitability, better industrial relations, and a higher level of attractiveness to prospective job applicants.”
Show me you’ve got integrity!
How does a leader demonstrate integrity? The non-negotiable starting point is always: be authentic. That well-worn joke that if you can only lie about integrity you’ve got it made, is just that–a joke. In business organisations, integrity remains always on show, not hidden behind propaganda or posters on the wall.
10 ways to convey integrity as a leader are:
1) Be a role model for those you lead–walk the talk and be an example
2) Be consistent in how you pursue ethical standards
3) Offer facts, stories and evidence to support your ethical message, not smokescreens
4) Speak up even when there’s a risk from doing so—put your reputation on the line
5) Challenge any system encouraging dishonesty or rewarding unethical behaviour
6) Do not reward or tolerate unethical behaviour, anything harmful to your company’s reputation for integrity must be tackled with vigour
7) Encourage people to express concerns about questionable practices and reward them for doing so; prevent victimisation
8) Make regular reviews about ethical concerns mandatory and see this happens at all levels of the organisation.
9) Take responsibility—acknowledge you are accountable for your actions and avoid blaming others
10) Create multiple ways and channels through which people can give candid feedback to management and colleagues
Perhaps these would be lost on Eliza who surely should have the final say:
Sing me no song! Read me no rhyme!
Don’t waste my time, Show me!
Don’t talk of June, Don’t talk of fall!
Don’t talk at all! Show me!
Never do I ever want to hear another word.
There isn’t one I haven’t heard.