THE BLOG

Without Integrity, Nothing Works?

06/13/2014 01:37 pm ET | Updated Nov 25, 2014

“Without Integrity, Nothing Works” is the title of a short provocative valuable interview of Michael C. Jensen, Harvard Business School professor emeritus, by Karen Christensen for Rotman Magazine. Jensen discusses his work in partnership with co-authors, Werner Erhard SSRN and Steve Zaffron, CEO of Vanto Group.

As a high performance leadership coach in NYC, I have the pleasure and challenge of testing their bold assertion.

I discovered something.

As I engaged with their assertion, I thought to myself "yeah, yeah, yeah, well of course everyone should have integrity, right? Or at least look like you h-a-v-e integrity, its important isn't it?"

What I hadn't done is really test this statement, "without integrity, nothing works." Nothing? Really?

That seemed extreme to me.

So I took on the question, "does Integrity impact everything in life and business performance? Or not"?

In testing their statement, I realized that Integrity for most of us has been what we are left with from our childhoods, after all the embarrassing, finger-wagging accusations, scoldings, threats, shame, chastisings of some teacher, some coach, some parent in childhood who, though well-intended, chastised us, seemingly (or actually) threatened us for fibbing, or something we shouldn't have done, or cutting some corner. Something that was deemed "bad and wrong", the cure for which was this stuff, "Integrity".

All I knew from that is that I had to look as if I "had" this stuff, Integrity. I supposedly "Had it" (or didn't "have" it) like you might have a can of tuna fish or a baseball glove or something on your bureau. It was conveyed to me as something one had, like some kind of property, or characteristic or "trait" inside me, not something I could create or bring forth or restore for myself, moment to moment to moment, in my speaking, my words as I generate them. I learned that "having" Integrity was considered a virtue, a good thing to have and that only the "really good people" had it. So, I should at least look like I've got it.

Then I discovered something else.

Integrity is not about morality, about being a good boy or good girl or looking good, or possessing some pristine virtue (as many of us assume it is). It is not even about keeping your word at all times. Honoring your word and keeping your word are not the same thing; they are completely distinct. For one, I discovered Integrity has to do with a state of being, specifically, a state of being whole and complete. (In that sense, integrity has the same root word as integer, a whole number, and integral, as in "essential to").

Jensen, Erhard and Zaffron assert that if one is willing to be responsible for and acknowledge one's impact, fully, and clean up what they call "the mess" from revoking or breaking one's word, then we can actually restore integrity, fully and completely.

Jensen and Erhard assert that if one is willing to be responsible for and acknowledge one's impact, fully, and clean up what they call "the mess" from revoking or breaking one's word, then we can actually restore integrity, fully and completely.

This was an interesting and empowering idea to me.

It was clear to me that in my business and in our leadership coaching at VSA, that leaders necessarily had to make bold promises that put them at risk. Bold commitments are, after all, at the heart of leading. However, when you make a bold promise you risk breaking it or revoking it, in some instances. If integrity meant only and always keeping my word, then I would never give a promise that was bold because of the risk of it being broken.

Sadly enough, you and I notice that most leaders today rarely promise ANY thing, publicly and boldly; at best they "hope" or "try" that something turns out, but they almost never promise. This fear undermines the energy and power of leadership. This lack of distinction regarding how integrity actually operates....honoring (always truing up to) one's word vs always Keeping it.... suppresses leadership and suppresses boldness. Honoring one's word is completely distinct from keeping it. If one is responsible for when one revokes one's word or breaks it, i.e., by getting in communication as soon as one realizes that, and fully accounting for the impact of revoking or breaking one's word to someone, then one thereby can and does restore their integrity.

It's like a reset button.

I started to see the connection with performance. Integrity, Jensen et al. observe, is so impactful on performance that they propose it is as what economists call a "factor of production," that is, a major fundamental parameter/organizing principle that determines the playing field of what we know as economics.

The three that have traditionally been in place are:

  • Capital
  • Labor
  • Technology
  • Jensen and Erhard seriously propose that a fourth factor is now:
  • Integrity.

Think about it. Integrity and performance do go together once one thinks about it. Think about the frustration, the financial cost, the reputational damage, the delays, the cost of turnover, the recruiting problems, the investor disenchantment when an enterprise fails to honor its word, i.e., fails to keep it and then also fails to take full and effective responsibility for where and when they revoked or broke their word. This core, pervasive lack of leadership, accountability, authenticity on Wall Street is something we have all witnessed; it generated the recession of 2008.

Consider the current scarcity, if not impossibility, of a leader giving a genuine, public apology as in cleaning up a broken or a revoked promise.

What if we could train people to re-discover /re-claim their relationship to integrity.... from the pretense of always having to "look good" regarding some "nice-to-have" virtue.... to an operative, living, breathing, core practice in everyday life?

In organizations where we've re-introduced integrity as a critical factor of performance (what is it, really? how does it work?), performance has always gone up, 100% of the time. Sometimes dramatically, sometimes incrementally. If you realize a business is composed of zillions of interactions, each and every day, and you inject those interactions with integrity as at the very heart of them, things then get done, things then get communicated, things then get foreseen, that simply don't happen when integrity is optional, i.e., a" nice-to-have" virtue in order to "look good". Jensen et al. assert integrity is like a law of gravity; if you ignore it, it hurts.

So, I am left with this. Is Integrity critical, essential, at the heart of performance.... or not? Could it be re-claimed, re-visited, re-discovered by re-introducing it as a pivotal factor, and letting people examine and re-discover it for themselves (without any moral judgment, or any shame, or any scolding what so ever)? - And could people introduce integrity as a key factor in their culture and their performance? Begin to practice it? And gladly and vividly share it as a best practice across the enterprise?

The answer: a resounding yes!

My experience confirms their assertion. Without integrity, nothing really, fully, works. The many costs of ignoring it, or taking it for granted.... are too steep and too persistent to continue.

So the question for me is: "what do you see when you examine integrity as a natural and essential practice for high performance"?