Integrity has become the new conversation piece amongst leaders. It is a more acceptable construct than the traditional reference to business ethics. Many people hold the often unstated assumption that ethics in business is an oxymoron.
Integrity Requires a Shift
With this swing to an integrity focus, companies have the chance to redefine where they should start. If they are serious about building integrity into their business, a paradigm shift is required.
Businesses must move away from the moral philosophers’ fixation with personal character. They must begin to research the science of behavioural economics. This information will allow them to see that all people are emotional beings, even at work. People can respond in irrational ways to the contexts in which they find themselves.
It starts with consciously designing the context and culture. Companies must begin to recognise that people may behave in ways they don’t mean to. They need to forewarn and forearm their employees to protect against the pressures that will occur. They must hold managers to account for how they create unconscious ‘frames’ for employees. An example of this is Wells Fargo’s impossible target of “8 financial products per household”. In this scenario, jobs appeared to rely on sales targets. Businesses must redefine traditional operating systems to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
What Behaviour Ethics Tells Us
The science of behaviour ethics shows that people can be very poor decision-makers. People screen out elements of information all the time. That leaves them prone to decision-making biases of which they are unaware. Slippery slopes lead to ‘bounded ethicality’, not just in their own behaviour, but noticing that of others.
Motivated blindness also contributes to our inattention to the unethical behaviour of others. The science of behaviour ethics shows us that emotions drive our actions. Humans are not as rational as they consider themselves. Therefore, giving people more information will not always change behaviour. Memories of behaviour are not reliable, and others can unconsciously change our behaviour. Context is everything in trying to make sense of the way people act.
Integrity in Context
Each business’s context shapes definitions of integrity. However, the underlying principle remains the same. Integrity in business means the ability to consistently act in line with company values. Many companies today are entirely new to embracing the full scope of the integrity challenge. Integrity begins on the inside of the business. Enterprises can only build it on the day-to-day commitment to treating employees with respect and fairness.
People are not resources or numbers that you can manipulate according to share price fluctuations. Neither are they human capital to be invested or divested at the whim of the company. Behavioural scientists have known for years that high trust businesses are higher performing. Yet, there are still too few companies that leverage the full capacity of their people. The same commitment to human respect is then extending outside towards customers, suppliers and stakeholders.
Neither does a commitment to integrity start in the communications department. It is set at the leadership table. Leaders come to recognise that the company’s social context shapes all behaviour. They realise it is their job to manage the internal culture. That way, they can better respond to the changing external context. Leaders build company integrity by holding the line, especially when the going gets tough.
Ethical leadership means that leaders set boundaries around values-based leadership, quality services, and corporate responsibility. These boundaries are adhered to so that their employees can feel safe knowing their leaders walk the talk. It is the sum of behaviours that enables a company to achieve its strategy and objectives, or not.
Culture, not corporate policies, drives behaviour. Leaders can only build and maintain a culture if they are committed to measuring and managing their cultures. Measuring culture enables leaders to fine-tune policies and procedures. That way, they can shape and design the cultures they want.
If you would like to explore further the research into behaviour ethics, take a look at EthicalSystems.org.
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