The Network Effect of Integrity

Exploring Individual & Organizational Implications

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
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