Article: Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Most people will agree that integrity is a key ingredient to effective leadership. But what is integrity? Do you need to be holy – with the most moral set of principles – to be considered as having integrity? Based on my research and teaching I would like to posit an alternative definition of integrity that emphasises behaviour, and defines integrity simply as whether someone walks the talk or, in other words, whether they practise what they preach. Our research has shown that this ‘leader behavioural integrity’ matters for employee productivity, team performance, and even company profit.

Earlier studies have described several ways a leader can signal to followers that he has integrity. For example, leaders can create the impression of integrity when their actions appear to originate from a coherent set of moral values. When people believe a leader has moral integrity, they will perform better and they will also engage in extra-role behaviours that contribute more to organisation at large. How does this work? Moral integrity increases the likelihood that you trust the leader and because of that trust you feel committed towards the leader and the broader organisation. This will then have a positive effect on your willingness to perform above and beyond for the company.

When leaders walk their talk, they send out unambiguous signals about what it is that they expect from followers and, as a result, performance increases.

Behavioural integrity

I believe there’s a form of integrity that extends beyond staying true to moral attitudes. Other researchers and myself proposed the idea of ‘behavioural integrity’, which essentially tells followers if a manager does what he says. Or in other words: whether they walk the talk, regardless of whether that talk is moral or not. When using this definition, we can understand how a broader range of politicians, business leaders and religious leaders do or don’t show integrity in their behaviour without them necessarily being classified as ‘moral’.

Communication clarity

This is not just wordplay: this conceptual difference matters for performance. We conducted a meta-study to test the added value of behavioural integrity across studies and found that ‘walking one’s talk’ has a strong impact not only on employee productivity, but also on team performance, and even increases overall company profits. And very importantly, the impact of behavioural integrity is stronger than the morally defined integrity.

One of the main reasons why behavioural integrity has this stronger effect, is that, beyond soft indicators like trust and commitment, behavioural integrity improves clarity of the communication. Not knowing what to expect from a leader can be detrimental to performance, if followers want to work hard or have the capacities to perform well. When leaders walk their talk, they send out unambiguous signals about what it is that they expect from followers and, as a result, performance increases. And yes: even when values are decidedly not moral, most followers would prefer to know what the leader expects from them.

Developing behavioural integrity

By taking integrity out of the realm of morality, where the display of integrity is a function of the character of the person, it opens up a better understanding of the different challenges that leaders may have in maintaining their integrity. For example, middle managers are typically put in a position where it is particularly difficult to maintain integrity. They are required to preach values that do not necessary reflect their own values nor the values they believe are important to preach to followers.

The good news is: because this type of integrity is not about ‘morality’ or ‘character’, there is a strong case that it can be developed. I’ll give you two key insights to help you walk your talk.

Authenticity & political skills

An important first step is developing a better awareness of what you as a leader value: you cannot be true to yourself if you do not know what that self is. But it doesn’t stop there: you also need a good understanding of what the organisation values and is thus demanding of you as a leader. Knowing the difference between both will help you highlight value conflicts.

Knowing the potential for conflicts, it is important as a leader to become politically skilled when talking about what you expect from your people. This means taking the perspective of your audience, sometimes not speaking, applying discipline in aligning your words and deeds, offering a good explanation of when words and deeds do not align.

In sum, although they may seem paradoxically opposite, it takes both skill as a leader to be authentic – knowing oneself – and political – knowing your audience – to maintain the perceptions of followers that you walk your talk so you can reap the benefits in terms of increased performance.

Prof.dr. H.L. (Hannes) Leroy
Professor in Leadership Development
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Hannes Leroy
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