I don’t often speak about politics, but the recent change of the UK’s prime minister having been forced out of office due to failures of integrity, it is pertinent to consider the ramifications of having or not having integrity.
To begin therefore, what is Integrity and what does ‘having it’ mean in terms of behaviour?
Integrity is a commitment and adherence to a set of standards, ethics and behaviours that are demonstrated consistently over a long period of time. Integrity also means whole, integral or ‘the same throughout’ i.e. what is shown on the outside is also what is on the inside – with no difference or flaw. So, if a person or company represents themselves as honest, caring, espousing a set of values at a personal or company level, if what they actually practise is consistent with what they advertise, then they can be said to have integrity. If those they deal with, experience the same views, through their behaviours and attitudes, then they can be said to have integrity.
For a person to have integrity, we assume that they have a set of values and beliefs with which they behave congruently. As external observers, we infer that they have those values by virtue of the behaviours that we see them demonstrate. When a person claims to have integrity, then they must be able to detail and clarify the beliefs, values and ethics that they refer to, as substantiating their own behaviour, ethics and attitudes.
In business, as in politics, we can see many examples where someone will claim to have integrity, espousing certain ethical principles, and then they behave in ways which are not congruent with those principles. These lead their stakeholders to initially lose trust, then outrightly to condemn such behaviours, then ultimately reject the whole person from their position.
This is what happened in the case of Boris Johnson. The whole country and then his own ministers had to take action to evict him from the office that he had initially a strong mandate for.
You wonder, how can anyone, in a role of leadership, whether in business or politics not recognise that integrity is important?
Behaviours that contradict the avowed values or ethics, can only be accounted for by self-deception – held in place as a blind spot to excuse poor behaviour. These blind spots are created by long-held behaviours based on assumptions of what is normal in their particular business.
For a person to have integrity, they need to have self-honesty and not self- deception, which is not something that can easily be assumed. Small self-deceptions are practised by most people (such as in matters of weight, exercise etc) but in a bigger role, particularly in leadership, such self-deceptions have greater consequences. For external stakeholders will be more aware when they make statements which carry such deceptions, and will make them pay a price for behaving out of integrity.
A greater concern perhaps is when behaving badly is a matter of lack of integrity at a corporate or group level.
For example, CEO’s and board directors of FTSE 350 businesses can’t see that bonuses of between 10% to 100% of their salary are indecent, when they’re paying out bonuses of 2% to 5% to the majority of their staff. Yet, it is normal behaviour currently. It may not be right, but it is the norm, kept in place by blind-spots shared by board members and their remuneration committees across those companies.
Another example was during the economic downturn, when bankers still expected to receive bonuses when their bank had become bankrupt and had to be bailed out. Only to those outside the industry could see this to be indecent or out of integrity to fairness and just dealing.
The current rise in energy and utility costs has brought to the forefront those companies who have loaded up their organisations’ with heavy debts, so that huge payments could be made to directors and shareholders, whilst not investing in improving the service functions of their business. This is lack of integrity at a business level.
The correct name for such behaviours is raping the value of a business and abusing their customers.
Businesses have yet to bear the consequence of such behaviours, but it will undoubtedly happen. Whether this will be via re-nationalisation, or a change of law – watch out for it!
2 September 2022