There’s a Price on Your Integrity

Integrity is an important part of leadership

You always knew integrity was an important facet of leadership. But did you know there’s a direct correlation between your company’s profitability and the integrity of its managers and executives? Tony Simons, associate professor in Organization Management at Cornell University quantified it in a detailed study of 76 Holiday Inn franchises around the United States. He looked at the profitability of each hotel and also gathered employee feedback on statements such as: “My manager practices what he/she preaches,” and “When my manager promises something, I can be certain that it will happen.”

The results “were so clear they surprised even me,” writes Simons in his new book, The Integrity Dividend (Jossey-Bass, 2008). An employee’s assessment of his or her manager’s behavioral integrity, he finds, “is more important to your company’s financial performance than employee trust, sense of fairness, commitment, or satisfaction. These other attitudes also matter, to be sure, but behavioral integrity came out as the single most powerful driver of profit.” Specifically, many of the hotels with high management integrity converted 10 cents more of each revenue dollar into profits than others.

The message here is that cultivating impeccable integrity isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s also the profitable thing to do. But it isn’t easy. As a sales manager, one of the best ways to burnish your own integrity is to master the language of living by your word. Here, says Simons, are the elements of doing so:

Avoid casual over-promising. Almost everyone has thrown out the casual, “We should meet for lunch!” or, “We should get together for coffee sometime,” and never followed up. Are you sincere? Or are you simply speaking automatically? Often it’s the latter. We want to end friendly conversations on a note of warmth, so we toss out the old “meet for lunch” line. When you
don’t back it up by pulling out your calendar right then, or following up right away, your integrity suffers. That goes for any time you make a promise and don’t follow through. Granted, you may never hear about it from the other person, but they’ll remember it and your integrity will suffer.

Acknowledge uncertainty. Sometimes we promise things without laying out the uncertainties inherent in the promise. Simons tells the story of a manager who promised an engineer a promotion to the next pay level so he’d stay at the company. When the promotion later fell through, the manager blamed everyone from HR to his own boss, but it didn’t matter — the engineer no longer wanted to work for that manager. If the boss had laid out the promotion process and its uncertainties, says Simons, the young engineer could have made a fully informed decision about whether to stay or take another offer elsewhere. Instead, he felt “deeply violated” even though he knew his boss had meant well. Don’t allow ego or hopefulness or lack of confidence to drive you to tell people what they want to hear rather than what the reality is.

Speak awkward truths. Awkward truths are those realities that we should acknowledge but don’t, because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or cause them to be angry. When a sales rep has underperformed, for instance, it can be tempting to put off a difficult conversation hoping the person will just quit. Or if you’re not going to meet a timeline you laid out for a customer, it’s easy to convince yourself not to say anything because maybe you’ll be able to catch up on the work. These are awkward truths with one thing in common: not communicating about the issue is, in the short run, easier and more peaceful than communicating about it. “There is a certain strategic value in choosing when to rock the boat,” points out Simons. “The problems begin when our ‘choices’ become automatic.”

Demand — and get — clear commitment. In a culture of “cordial hypocrisy,” it can be easy to miss-communicate on important issues and deadlines. “More often than we realize, we communicate vaguely and then feel betrayed when our wishes are not followed,” explains Simons. Telling a rep, “You know how I want that report formatted,” or, “I need those numbers ASAP,” is setting everyone up for failure. “Asking people to do things is fundamental to any kind of management, and slowing down enough to ask effectively pays off in fewer disappointments and increased integrity all around,” says Simons. Take the time to communicate with precision and clarity now and you’ll find you not only save time in the long run, you also bolster your integrity.

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