Integrity as Management Practice

Christine Pietschmann wrote this as a principal with Root Paradigm, Inc. She is presently employed as director of training and leadership development for Bell Canada.


As a manager, your Behavioral Integrity can make the difference between average and exemplary team performance. Behavioral Integrity is defined as the alignment between words and actions. Research shows that employee perception of behavioral integrity in their managers has implications for individual, team and corporate performance. Employees who perceive strong behavioral integrity in their managers show increased trust, commitment and willingness to go the extra mile, thus improving customer satisfaction, decreasing employee turnover and improving profitability (Simons, 2002).

Recent studies have quantified the bottom line impact of integrity on an organization. In one important study, a 2.5% increase in profit could be seen for every 1/8-point improvement in perceived behavioral integrity on a 5-point scale. In this particular case, it translated into a $250,000 bottom line impact per 1/8-point change (Simons, 2002).

Based on a review of relevant business, research, philosophical and organization development viewpoints relating to the notion of behavioral integrity, this paper proposes a management practice framework to identify and repair integrity breaches that directly impact corporate performance.

The word ‘integrity’ is often used interchangeably with ‘ethics’. Dictionary definitions suggest observance of moral and ethical principles, confirming the widely held understanding of integrity as ‘doing the right thing’.
Research shows that integrity can be viewed in another light that has profound and practical applications for management. Coined “Behavioral Integrity” (BI), it is defined as the congruence between what one says and does. In this context ‘doing the right thing’ is less relevant to your perceived behavioral integrity than simply doing what you say you will do (Simons, 2002).

In 1999, researchers from Gallup Organization published a book called “First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently”. Representing analysis from thousands of research projects and millions of individual participants, the authors distilled the key management practices that distinguished the highest performing teams. Underscoring the importance of behavioral integrity for team performance, near the top of the list was the rule “Make few promises, and keep them all” (Buckingham & Coffman, 1999).

Jack Welch, the former head of GE and arguably one of the most effective corporate leaders in recent history recognized the value of integrity as a basic tenant of performance. Welch writes, “…The leader sets the tone. How hard you work, how intense you are, how much integrity you have, will be emulated by everyone under you” (Welch & Byrne, 2001). Welch is not alone in placing high importance on behavioral integrity. Many managers and corporate leaders implicitly understand the link between BI and corporate performance but until recently it was difficult to quantify the bottom line impact.

In a research project out of Cornell University in 2002, Tony Simons and Judi McLean Parks conducted a survey of 6,500 employees across seventy-six US and Canadian Holiday Inn Hotels. On a five-point scale, they asked employees to rate how closely their managers’ words and actions were aligned. The researchers then correlated the results of the survey against customer satisfaction surveys, personnel and financial records. The results were unambiguous – hotels where employees perceived high behavioral integrity in management were substantially more profitable than hotels where the perceived behavioral integrity was weaker. The analysis showed that a one-eighth-point improvement on the five point rating scale would be expected to increase profit by 2.5% on revenues. In the case of the Holiday Inn study, that translated to a bottom line impact of over $250,000 per one-eighth-point improvement.

Landmark Education, a renowned global corporation with offices in more than twenty countries, provides a philosophical perspective:

“Integrity is often thought of as moral uprightness and steadfastness – making the “good” choices, doing the “right thing.” In fact, it is far more than that. It is a home, an anchor, a created and continuing commitment – a way of being and acting that shapes who you are…. Integrity resides in the ability to constitute yourself as your word, to be true to your principles, and ultimately, be true to yourself”(Landmark Education Web Site, 2003).

In “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, best-selling author and Organization Development expert Patrick Lencioni argues persuasively that the foundation of a functional team is trust. Lack of trust, he asserts, opens the floodgates to four other dysfunctions: fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. These five dysfunctions combine to sabotage even the most well-intentioned, intelligent and motivated teams (Lencioni, 2002). This is in line with the results of the Cornell study, which found that behavioral integrity is an antecedent to trust and credibility. In other words, for employees to trust their managers and each other – the foundation of performance – they need to perceive a strong alignment between words and actions.

The bottom line: Without strong perceived behavioral integrity, organizational performance suffers.


Implications for Individual Performance
For individuals, there are two types of word / action alignment: internal and external. Thinking about something and resolving to take action is the same as having a conversation with someone else and make a commitment. Because the commitment is silent, there is no external pressure to deliver. Predictably, the commitments we make to ourselves are often the first to go. Consider the resolutions many of us make each year. We may resolve to eat better, exercise regularly or spend more time with family. How many years in a row have you made the same resolutions?

External integrity involves the commitments you make in a conversation with someone else where there is outside accountability. Even when we deliver on the big commitments, we regularly break our word on the smaller things. How many times have you been late to a meeting? How many times have you said you would send someone a document or forward an email or set up a time to talk and forgotten about it? How many times have you promised to be home from work at a certain time and not kept your word?

Each day we break our promises and commitments to others and ourselves. It has become so commonplace that these small breaches of behavioral integrity are rarely questioned – but they are noticed. In cases where they are called out, we craft legitimate sounding excuses, which only serve to further widen the breach.

It’s very simple. Every time you say you are going to do something and don’t, an integrity breach is created. As managers and leaders, we want to be seen as having integrity. When we know that our words and actions don’t align, or are perceived to be out of alignment, we must invest energy in either bringing them into alignment or convincing others that they are in alignment when in fact they are not. How do we do that? We justify ourselves, make excuses and convince those around us to buy into our reasons and explanations – all the while, widening the integrity breach. Over time, these breaches exact a psychological and emotional toll that leads to deteriorations in performance. The energy required to maintain appearances slowly wears us down. We begin to resist being around certain people or situations because they require too much energy. Our enthusiasm declines, things that were once enjoyable become difficult and a general sense of struggle begins to prevail (LEBD, 2002).

Implications for Organizational Performance
At an organizational level, things quickly become more complex. Research implications for performance and profitability make it worth considering group integrity – what we call a ‘network effect’. This network effect is created by the intertwining verbal commitments and actions of groups of people. It can be argued that organizational performance can be predicted from the level of integrity in the network.

Consider that very little of any importance occurs in an organization without a conversation, whether it happens in person, on the phone, through email, chat, instant messages or any of the multiple electronic medium available. Conversations lead to action. Executives align their business goals and strategy, managers align their workload, and employees strive to achieve the deliverables that will build upon themselves to move the organization forward.

At the highest level then, an organization can be viewed as an intricate network of conversations. We’ve all heard that ‘talk is cheap’, but in fact research into behavioral integrity contradicts this notion, suggesting that talk not supported by actions can cost a lot. Alternately, consider the positive impact on your own performance if you knew that everyone around you – particularly management – was delivering on what they said they would do.

Let’s take meetings as a simple example of the BI impact in organizations. How often do you or people in your organization show up late for meetings? If your workplace is like most, it happens frequently. Many people also show up unprepared. With relation to behavioral integrity, there are at least two breaches on display in this example. First, when everyone agrees that a meeting will begin at a certain time, being late means that you have broken your word. There is a second agreement, explicit or implicit, that you will be prepared for the meeting – otherwise it is a waste of time. Further breaches may have occurred if your organization espouses values such as respect, performance, trust, etc., because the integrity breach you have committed runs counter to these values which you, as part of management, are expected to support.

Now consider that as a leader in your organization, your behavior is emulated. How much attention are your employees paying to your word / action alignment? Research shows that the higher in the organization you are, the more your behavioral integrity matters:
“The perception of behavioral integrity is likely to be strongly influenced by hierarchical relationships. There is evidence to suggest that subordinates are far more likely to notice BI and its lack on the part of their managers than the other way around…. employees focus substantial attention on their managers partly because they depend on them for rewards, promotions, favorable assignments, resources and the like” (Simons, 2002).

When you deliver or fail to deliver on your word, it sends a message. This message cascades through the network, declaring and reinforcing what is important and not important. The meeting example is a mundane corporate problem, but consider the impact of behavioral integrity on initiatives like employee retention, client satisfaction, corporate strategy, growth initiatives, and major inflection points like mergers and acquisitions. The cascading network effect of BI in complex systems can be a significant determinant of success. Consider just a few of the symptoms:

    Indicators of Weak Integrity

  • Apathy, cynicism, sense of struggle
  • Viewing the customer as the problem
  • Missed deadlines, complex excuses
  • Undermining and shooting from the sidelines
  • Gossip about why things are not working
  • Confused and non-committal about goals
    Indicators of Strong Integrity

  • Vitality, excitement, sense of enrollment
  • Commitment to customer satisfaction
  • Responsible for deadlines
  • Forwarding the action – “In the Game”
  • Problems addressed honestly and effectively
  • Clear about and committed to goals


The concept of Behavioral Integrity is at once simple to understand and difficult to implement. After all, most of us would like to have strong behavioral integrity, but faced with the competing demands placed upon most people in management, it becomes difficult to put into practice.

This paper identifies four planes of behavioral integrity. Most people will move in and out of different planes depending on the area of their life under discussion. A driven executive may be perceived to maintain a high state of behavioral integrity at work by delivering on virtually all promises. The same executive may be perceived as having weak behavioral integrity in their personal life. Perhaps they never make it home by the agreed time, or are frequently unavailable for planned holidays and family events.

Evaluating Your Own Integrity
To evaluate your own plane of behavioral integrity, consider your current word / action alignment.

Exercise: Examining Your Integrity

1. Make a list of:
a. People who report to you
b. Colleagues
c. People you report to
d. Key personal relationships

2. Beside each name on your list, write down promises you have outstanding with each person. Include:
a. Explicit promises
b. Implicit promises

3. For each promise on your list, consider the likelihood that you will deliver: High, Medium, Low.

4. Review the four planes of integrity in light of your results.
a. For each of the people on your list, write down the state of behavioral integrity you feel exists in the relationship.
b. What would be required to take the relationship to the next level of integrity? What impact would it have?

Plane One: Recognition
Developing integrity begins with acknowledging the possibility of integrity. Remember that there is no good, bad, right or wrong in behavioral integrity. There is only the strength of alignment between your words and actions.

Acknowledging the possibility of integrity means putting circumstances in perspective. That is, rather than behaving as though circumstances have everything to do with your ability to deliver, you accept responsibility for your promises and the results you achieve. Circumstances happen but they don’t control you.

Plane Two: Being in Accordance with Your Agreements
The second plane of integrity is keeping your agreements. Your verbal promises and commitments align with your actions. Once you begin to pay attention to behavioral integrity, you may notice that you are more careful about your commitments. It becomes important to you to follow through on your promises.

Plane Three: Being in Accordance with Your Values
The third plane of integrity incorporates adherence to espoused values. In a way, this is where right and wrong enter into the equation – but only in the context of your values. In addition to keeping your word, the promises you make are in accordance with your values. In a management setting, these could be your personal values or corporate values.

Plane Four: Being Your Word
The fourth plane of integrity represents an ideal state in which there is such strong congruence between your words and actions that they become one and the same. In effect, you are ‘being your word’. What you say is inseparable from who you are. You own all aspects of your behavior and use your word thoughtfully to further the action in line with your values and commitments.

A Framework for Restoring Integrity

Step One: Acknowledge Integrity Breaches & Consequences
Identify the areas in your life and the people with whom you are out of integrity. To resolve the integrity breach, you will have to engage in a conversation with each person. In the conversation, accept responsibility for the situation without making excuses. Acknowledge the consequences of the breach (loss of trust, disappointment, anger, etc.).

Remember that integrity breaches drain your energy. To find integrity breaches, look for emotional triggers, or areas of ‘upset’. Notice people and situations you resist being around. Have you explicitly made a promise you didn’t keep? Or maybe the promise was implicit or personal. These are places to start.

Examples of Explicit Integrity Breaches

  • You commit to an important action item and fail to deliver.
  • You make excuses to explain why you are always late for meetings.
  • To secure a new hire, you promise upward mobility knowing a promotion is unlikely.

Examples of Implicit Integrity Breaches

  • You agreed to support a new corporate initiative but find yourself tolerating negative comments by your team and even gossiping about it yourself.
  • You personally exemplify corporate values, but ignore repeated breaches by your senior reports.
  • You promote knowledge sharing but tolerate an ‘us against them’ mentality within your team.

Step Two: Acknowledge Your New Commitment & Generate A New Agreement
In the same conversation, explain your new commitment to doing what you say you will do, and perhaps, the impact it can have on your situation / relationship. Don’t replace old promises you didn’t keep with new promises you won’t keep. Figure out what you can or will actually commit to and use that as the basis for a new agreement within the new context you have just created. Commit to minimizing word / action breaches and clearing them up when they occur.

Step Three: Repeat
Because many of us are results-driven, it will be natural to view breaches of integrity as failures. However, this viewpoint is not effective – and integrity as a management practice is all about being effective – and by extension, increasing performance.

Rather than viewing integrity breaches as failures, your acknowledgement of a breach is a confirmation of your commitment to behavioral integrity. If you weren’t committed, you wouldn’t have a problem.

Continue to take action to resolve misalignment between your words and deeds and generate new agreements to forward the action. Each time, your integrity is strengthened. Your performance and the performance of those around you will rise. Equally compelling, you may find that practicing integrity has an enriching effect that spills over onto your life outside of work.


1. Jack Welch & John A. Byrne, “Jack: Straight from the Gut”, Warner Books, September 2001.
2. Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, “The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization”, Harvard Business School Press, January 1993.
3. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal, “Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership”, Jossey-Bass; 2nd Edition, April 1997.
4. Landmark Education Business Development Program, April 2002.
5. Landmark Education Website, June 2003.
6. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, “First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently”, May 1999.
7. Patrick Lencioni, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, Jossey-Bass, 2002.
8. Richard R. Kilburg, “Executive Coaching: Developing Managerial Wisdom in a World of Chaos”, American Psychological Association (APA), April 2000.
9. Robert Hargrove, “Masterful Coaching: Extraordinary Results by Impacting People & the Way They Think & Work Together”, Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer; Revised Edition, October 2002.
10. Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, “The Art of Possibility”, Harvard Business School Press; 1st Edition, September 2000.
11. Thomas G. Crane, “The Heart of Coaching: Using Transformational Coaching to Create a High-Performance Culture – Revised Edition”, FTA Press, 2nd Edition, July 2002.
12. Tony Simons, “Behavioral Integrity: The Perceived Alignment Between Managers’ Words and Deeds as a Research Focus”, Organization Science, Volume 13, No. 1, 2002.
13. Tony Simons, “The High Cost of Lost Trust”, Harvard Business Review, September 2002.
14. William J. Rothwell, Roland Sullivan and Gary N. McLean, “Practicing Organization Development: A Guide for Consultants”, Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer; October 1995.

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