Commentary - Clarifying Integrity

Clarifying Integrity

One of the few positive outcomes of the Enron and World.com scandals of a few years ago has been the heightened focus on integrity - executive integrity in particular.

I'm frequently invited to contribute to decisions on senior-level and key position appointments. Whenever I do so, I include three default factors namely personal (inherent) strengths, cognitive (acquired) competencies and integrity. Without the latter the other two are definitely suspect.

So how do I assess integrity? Probably I do it in the same way that you do - only I do it consciously and deliberately. Let me explain.

Dealing with the 'powerless' . . .

My first technique is to observe how people treat and deal with those who they perceive to have little or no direct power. My personal assistant, Patricia, taught me this many years ago.

Pat has a very pleasant and gentle manner, one that seems to invite focused response. There are those who respond to her in kind, and those who take advantage and/or dismiss her as irrelevant. She would signal her opinion to me as she brought the visitor to my office and I had a fast and accurate hypothesis from the outset of the assessment.

In social situations, I observe how people handle children, waiters and service workers. If there's a difference in technique relative to others who are perceived to have power, I’m immediately on the alert. Those who are primarily self-focused may well have distorted perceptions on the sanctity of truth, respect and honour. Surely, one mark of good breeding - and integrity - is a sensitive consideration for others regardless of their status or circumstance.

Respect for Differences . . .

We've all been well instructed on how to recognize and deal with those who are different from us. All too often, emphasis is placed on defensive practices versus accommodating or learning opportunities.

Placing someone in a position where there's clear conflict with their accepted perspectives / values will usually invite a definitive response. Such responses too are more often driven by the emotional brain than by the rational mind and so they reflect deeper, more pervasive values.

Firstly, I watch for a desire to understand an opposing viewpoint, regardless of its acceptability. Then there're further clues in readiness to identify those aspects of a conflicting position or argument with which there could be agreement in whole or in part. Lastly, in this area, I strive to detect respect for the person independent of the critical opinion. The presence of all three factors tells me unequivocally that I'm dealing with integrity.

Problem or Solution . . .

Among senior executives, especially those who are spokespersons for their organization, is a tendency to address the issue(s) as though they are remote and far from culpable. This simply cannot be - if it happens on my watch, then I carry responsibility!

It is very tempting to project one's self as the solution rather than as the problem, yet this isn't realistic nor is it credible. The more one tries to distance him/her self from the blame the less integrity is demonstrated. We are all fallible and prone to error and there's no value-added in evading responsibility. Perhaps worse, there are no valuable lessons to be learned from 'faultless' behaviour.

The greatest people I've had the privilege to know in this life have all 'owned the problem' from time to time. They learn from their integrity and so I'm able to learn from them!

Rationalization Routes . . .

Ask anyone to make a challenging decision, or to handle a sensitive dilemma, by verbalizing their thinking as they reach for a conclusion and you will 'map' their soul. Follow the train of thought and note the factors that are included, those that are excluded and the sequence of the process - this is a vivid description of the values that drive the outcome.

Where there's reference to principles, acknowledgement of purpose, recognition of meaningful consequences and acceptance of longer-term responsibility, you will find integrity. Conversely if the perspective is short-term, situational, focused on immediate gratification or public image alone, you will have good reasons to doubt.

We don't often track our own thought processes competently and our displayed values may be less apparent to us than they are to others. If you're in doubt, review your explanation of a controversial decision you recently made; trace the content and line of your argument while requesting input from others - the greater the divergence you discover, the more precarious the integrity involved.

The Common Touch . . .

People who are self-focused and self-promoting rarely see themselves on par with ordinary folk. Self interest is often rooted in elitist attitudes and these need continuous reinforcement for their survival. In short, the more we try to distinguish ourselves the harder we work to deceive ourselves - and there is no integrity in us.

The converse of self focus is 'other awareness'; a genuine interest in, and acceptance of other people. This works best if our judgments are suspended - rarely made as well as being hung out for all to see. Also, we're frequently hypocritical without intention - saying one thing while 'living' a contradiction. The resultant paradox is confusing, both to us and to others, and integrity is questioned.

My sainted Scottish aunt told me repeatedly that I can learn something from everybody I meet, but I need to look diligently for the lessons. She was easily the most humble and genuine person I know.

I never, ever doubted her integrity!