What’s a Word Worth?
Honest communication is built on truth and integrity and upon respect of the one for the other. ~Benjamin E. Mays
About a year or so ago, a client hired me to work with their senior leadership team to improve organizational performance. In the projects’ discovery phase I came to understand that they would like to see more accountability from the workforce. After asking a few more questions it became clear that the leaders of this organization were placing the blame for lack of productivity on the workers’ lack of accountability. Without putting too fine a point on it, the leaders were saying that the workers were simply not doing what they were being told to do. To be fair, this is a common mindset and one that leads exactly to the position that this organization found itself in.
My challenge was to help these leaders shift the way that they see and cultivate workforce accountability. This sent me into the deep waters of leadership responsibility and the associated practices that foster accountability mindsets. Working with this leadership team over the past year I have acquired several key insights about achieving an accountability culture and some steps that can help you to implement your own. I will be sharing these insights through a series of blog articles, and today we commence with the topic of leadership integrity.
Without going too far into the deep end of the philosophical pool I’d like to start by considering how others perceive and experience leadership. I can say from my personal experience that I’m more open and honest with those whom demonstrate wholeness, and a sense of being who they say they are. Perfection in any person is an unattainable ideal and leaders are no different, rather strive for honesty and relatability. Not only are those traits achievable they are also more valuable. Like it or not; I, like most others am constantly scanning my interactions with others to see if their actions are lining up with their word.
When I think of someone’s word it’s more than what they say, it’s who they are and how they shoulder responsibilities. So, to me a leader’s word (or integrity) is defined two ways.
First integrity is defined by the value that a leader creates by doing what they said they were going to do, when they said they would do it, and in the manner, that it was meant to be done.
Second integrity is defined by the leaders’ ability to create wholeness through fostering a sense of fairness, harmony, and completeness.
If this seems like a big ask from leadership, well, it is, and leadership integrity maybe the most critical aspect for creating a culture of accountability. If my leader is not a person of their word then I will likely comply for the sake of my paycheck, but I will struggle with my commitment to their agenda. And, by struggle I mean that I will pick and choose which directions I will follow, as well as the level of discomfort that I’ll be willing to endure in the accomplishment their objectives. In short, I will be a flaky follower. Organizations that want more workforce accountability usually suffer from the flaky follower syndrome.
I would also like to point out that all leaders intuitively understand the scrutiny that their followers are putting them under, in some cases this will cause the leader to act small. When leaders act small they look to avoid grand or lofty goals and ideals. To act small is to seek safety by limiting commitments and expectations. Others are able to set their fear of failure aside and act big. To act big is to commit to aspirational and challenging visions of the future. To act big is to invite exposure by committing to the unknown at the risk of falling short. The question at hand in creating an inspiring leadership culture is, “how can we help leaders act big while at the same time stay true to their word?”
The reality is this: when you give your word to something big you are going to come up short in your early attempts, this is a sheer inevitability. There’s a leadership practice that can be used to increase leadership accountability and maintain integrity when commitments get broken or expectations go unmet. Some call this process honoring your word, but I like the term “integrity conversation”. It’s a very simple yet powerful four step process.
Admit your shortcoming to whoever was affected by it. Those impacted already know that you have fallen short, but by speaking it out loud you’re indicating that you are aware of it as well, and they can stop wondering if you’re blind to your own actions.
Ask them to help you understand how your shortcoming impacted them. This is a very difficult step in the process and one that most leave out, but this is where you gain great insight and relational growth.
Make a heartfelt apology. After you have received a clear understanding of your impact on others you can offer an apology that is connected and sincere.
Re-commit. Based on your current understanding you may want to modify your commitment, but often you simply give your word again and strive to keep it. If you’re acting big you may have to have this conversation several times before you get it right.
There are many benefits to teaching leaders how and when to have integrity conversations. Here are a few that I’ve experienced first-hand.
I inherently trust and respect those who dream big and demonstrate humility at the same time.
I sense that we are in this together when my leader is able to honestly share their shortcomings.
I am more open with my shortcomings when my leader is open about their shortcomings.
I have experienced accountability as a healthy learning process rather than a punishing and shameful experience.
I have seen setbacks get right sized and true causes and conditions get exposed through integrity conversations.
I strongly encourage you try out the integrity conversation process. Consider your current job and its inherent responsibilities. Is there a commitment or area of oversight that you have fallen behind on, are not giving the proper attention to, or failing in your commitment? One telltale sign of an integrity gap is that it consumes a lot of your mental energy. Once you have identified your integrity gap consider who is directly affected by it and schedule an integrity conversation.
Just this week, I fell behind on a project and had the opportunity practice an integrity conversation. I have several keynotes coming up next month and made a mental note several months ago to tune up my presentations to fit the needs of the different audiences. As is wont to happen, life got busy and complicated and I did not meet the deadline to submit one of the presentations. When I realized, what had happened I had a moment of panic because I instantly felt out of integrity with my contractual commitment. Honestly, my first thought was to simply send a duplicate of another presentation that I had already prepared. But, thankfully I quickly realized that that would have been acting small. So, I contacted the event manager and had a quick integrity conversation. I re-committed to a three-day extension of my deadline and slept well all through the night.
P.S. - I also learned that many speakers do not show the courtesy of making an apology when being late with their presentation submittals, and they are thought of as arrogant assholes.