Personal integrity and corporate integrity aren’t always the same thing. Too often, people are forced to choose between their personal values and their company’s values.
Had a very interesting discussion yesterday about values, specifically “integrity.” This morning, an article in my email feed talked about Integrity being the number 1 corporate value.
But what, actually, is a value? I have found that this is often a very misunderstood thing, especially in the corporate sense. A value, from Webster’s, has many definitions, but the two most relevant are: “relative worth or importance; something intrinsically valuable, or desirable.”
Not very helpful when considering “corporate values” or even “personal values”…
Let me offer an idea around the definition of “value” in this context. Esoteric definitions are very unhelpful, and I find it easier to create practical definitions that everyone can grab hold of in the context of their own experience. For me, then, “values” are the beliefs or things that when the chips are all down, when we are staring destruction eyeball to eyeball, and we are the ones likely to blink, that we do not let go of. Ever.
A story is told of a cold war raid by the KGB on an underground church in Russia. Apparently, a squad of KGB soldiers burst in and said that all Christians would be shot, and that anybody who wanted to live should leave. When various people had chosen to leave the room, and the rest were standing there waiting to die, the troops put down their guns and said, “Right, now that the imposters have left, let’s have a church meeting.”
The modern equivalent, sadly, is the beheading of Christians by ISIS, when they do not recant in the face of inevitable and ruthless barbarism.
More examples – It’s the whistle-blower who risks everything to reveal truth. It’s the rescuer who risks his or her life saving a child from a river. It’s the truck driver who steers his burning petrol tanker through a town to empty ground, so that no bystanders are at risk. It’s the doctor who admits their error instead of hiding behind their professional veil.
These people are living and potentially dying for a set of values or beliefs they hold more dear than ANYTHING.
Integrity is easy to define. Webster’s says it is “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values; an unimpaired condition; the quality or state of being complete or undivided.” Again, let’s simplify that with a re-definition: “Integrity is when your beliefs and your actions line up completely, all the time, regardless of the consequences.”
It gets interesting in the corporate world, because an organisation is not a “person.” It cannot have values that are intrinsic to itself. It can only have values attributed to it by others – usually chosen by the leadership team to reflect what they believe are the best representation of the drivers of corporate success. So, in a real sense, corporate values are commercial tools. That is not a bad thing; it is just how it is. But that does mean that whatever the values are, they are chosen because it is believed that they will benefit the bottom line. For that reason, sadly, corporate values can be malleable depending on the impact on the bottom line. It is always surprising and deeply satisfying to discover a workplace where that is not the case. Those leaders are inspiring.
In reality, corporate values are usually artificial, and many times poorly understood. Why do I say artificial? Because an organisation is made up of individuals, who all have their own set of values that they will stick to when their personal chips are down and they are staring personal destruction eyeball to eyeball. And those values are often fairly divergent to the organisation’s values! So what we have, largely, is an act, a role-play during the working day, that people do in order to get along smoothly and be “the right fit” for their employer.
It gets really sad when the corporate values are the act, when they are put on for show, or for commercial gain, but are not practiced internally.
I remember a company having its core value of integrity, and an owner/director asking me to forge the date on a letter that he needed. I remember a company saying “our people are our greatest asset” and the directors manipulating the bottom line to save on bonuses. I remember a company publicising that it stood against corruption, and then re-hiring its corrupt CEO when he finished his jail time. (If I said its name, you would know it.)
These are challenging situations. Personal integrity and corporate integrity are not necessarily the same thing. It is fantastic if they are – like that CEO in the news recently who cut his salary by over 90% and reduced profits, so he could pay his employees a fair wage. Excellent, noteworthy stuff. But all too rare. Mostly things run along smoothly and no one worries about these deeper questions, until a real challenge arrives that requires people to choose between their personal values and their publicly espoused corporate values.
The challenge arises because we hire for the easy things, and we manage for the easy things, and we discipline or terminate for the easy things. Skills, talents, performance, behaviour. Challenging values is a very difficult thing, because everyone is entitled to their own values. But what happens when corporate values and personal values are in conflict. What then?
It isn’t always obvious. Often values-based behaviour we don’t like is excused because of the individual’s exceptional performance, for example. In this case, clearly, the commercial imperative trumps the values imperative.
Let’s look at Jeremy Clarkson as a clear example of someone who, in hindsight, has not so different values to his employer. His value seems to be “me, myself and I.” “I deserve a meal at 2200, and I will punch the guy who says otherwise.” And the BBC? They did the right thing in terminating his Top Gear contract, but did they continue to do the right thing in offering him another show almost immediately? Probably not. It’s the same employer, with the same stated values, but opposing actions one week later. Actually the BBC was demonstrating “me, myself and I” values, as well – how can we minimise the damage we just caused ourselves? Let’s bring popular Jeremy back to earn us more advertising and syndication revenue.
Integrity is when there is consistently no difference between our values and our behaviour, whether we are a corporation or an individual.
This article originally appeared on Notes From the Road. Reprinted with permission.
Photo: The Natural Step Canada/Flickr