Recruiting for integrity? Be careful what you wish for!

What is your concept of “integrity”?

Recently, I worked with a client to shape a new competency model for leaders across the organisation.  There was a time when organisations would pay a lot of money for deep research to establish which behaviours marked out their most effective leaders, but this seems to be less fashionable nowadays.  Few organisations have the budget and some find it hard to believe that yesterday’s stars are the right people to meet the very different challenges of today – let alone tomorrow.

No, this was a more pragmatic approach, mining the wisdom of leaders themselves about the core leadership challenges they expect to face in the next 5-10 years, about those people who are handling these challenges most effectively, and about the core behaviours demonstrated by their chosen role models.

One behaviour, integrity, came up as key – and not for the first time.  It seems that, no matter what the challenges of the era, organisations aspire to employ men and women of integrity.

What is “integrity”?
Often, when clients discuss integrity, they think of someone who has clear values and who acts in line with those values.

The person who shows integrity makes promises and keeps them, and acts in ways which are consistent with the values they espouse (some call this “congruity”).  What’s more, they are not easily swayed from their values, even when acting on personal values carries a high risk.  Ideally, the man or woman of integrity speaks up about wrong-doing in the company and challenges poor decisions, with the greater good of the organisation in mind.

Implicit in the concept of integrity is the idea of “good” values – honesty, for example, probity, perhaps.  Clients also associate integrity with wisdom and emotional intelligence, too.

“How,” you may be asking yourself, “could such a person be anything other than an asset?”

Why organisations don’t like integrity in practice
Years ago, I was briefly the colleague of Annie Machon, a former MI5 officer.  She left the organisation I was working for quite suddenly after her partner, David Shayler, hit the news here in the UK after blowing the whistle on some aspect (I do not remember what) of MI5 practice.

Whistle-blowing is just one thing that people do who act with integrity.  In recent history, for example, whistle-blowers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have been talked about around the world. (Read 5 Famous Whistleblowers Who Shaped History to learn more).  But who loves the whistle-blower?  Rarely is it the higher echelons of the organisations whose practices (mal- or otherwise) have been revealed.

There are other reasons why organisations don’t much like integrity in practice.  If you’ve ever been in a meeting, for example, in which one of your colleagues has made the case – repeatedly – for or against some proposal based on a set of personal values that you don’t share, you will know how much time can be lost in circular discussion.  Especially when the individual’s values are out of alignment with the values of an organisation, integrity can be – quite frankly – a real pain in the arse.

There’s something else, too… that integrity without insight, the behavioural flexibility or even the position to influence or persuade can impede progress towards an organisation’s most fundamental goals.  And who judges whether the (wo)man of integrity is appropriately standing his or her ground or (as Jeffrey recently said of Edward Snowden in the New Yorker) a “grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison”?

If you want your leaders to show integrity, and if you want the result to be positive for you or your organisation, there are things you need to get right.

Getting it right when recruiting for integrity
Here are just four things for you to think about before you include “integrity” as a competency in your model of effective leadership:

  • Are you clear about your organisation’s core values?  Integrity can be a hindrance as much as a help if your leaders show integrity in line with values your organisation does not espouse.  Before you look for integrity in your leaders, you need to get clear on the core values of your organisation.  Only then is helpful to understand if your recruits share your values and can embody them in practice as well as espouse them in theory;
  • Integrity is just one behavioural ingredient:  Think carefully about what other behaviours your leader needs in order for integrity to be an asset to your organisation.  Do your leaders show empathy, for example – the ability put themselves in the shoes of their colleagues and to look at things from another point of view?  Do they show judgement – the ability to see the issue under examination in a larger context or to weigh the pros and cons of a particular forward path?  Integrity without empathy or judgement can look like just plain bloody-mindedness;
  • There may be other things besides leadership behaviours:  If your concern is to promote a certain set of values, you need to look beyond the integrity of individual leaders.  Recent scandals in the UK’s NHS, for example, point to a wide range of issues which undermine patient care.  What checks are in place when recruiting new staff?  What training is provided to develop core skills associated with good patient care?  What is the impact on staff of short-staffing or other issues?  The list goes on;
  • It may not be integrity that secures adherence to values:  This is something organisations struggle with and still, when your organisation’s values are clearly outlined and reflected in policies and practices which have been designed to support them, it may not be the integrity of your leaders that keeps people on track.  Instead, it may be other behavioural qualities such as a desire to do well.

And what about you?
I hope this posting has helped you to think through some of the issues that face you if you are thinking of including integrity as a core leadership behaviour in your organisation.

Having said this, I also want to point to something more personal – your own need to live a life of integrity.

This, though, is the stuff of another blog posting.

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