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Leading Change with Integrity

Most are familiar with common dictionary definitions for integrity as “moral uprightness” or “adherence to a moral code.” Dictionaries also define integrity as “the quality of being complete; unbroken condition; wholeness; entirety.” But what does that mean in the context of leading change?

Harvard’s Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of Flow) provide some clues. In their book, they defined “good work” as effective, engaging, and ethical; looking at the whole picture, work is not whole or complete unless it meets those three criteria. In that context, leading change is also not complete, whole, or unbroken, unless it is effective, engaging, and ethical. Leading change with integrity means adopting such a “triple-E” framework executing change initiatives and evaluating their merit.

Most of us have participated in or perhaps led change initiatives to improve organizational effectiveness; cost reduction efforts, consolidations, and the “reengineering” craze of the ’90’s are examples. Leading change with integrity requires attention to organizational effectiveness and at least equivalent consideration of its ethical dimensions and affect on worker engagement.

Estimates indicate that about 70 percent of organizational change initiatives fail, in many cases no doubt on account of short-sightedness or incomplete attention to the whole or complete picture. Sustainability of change efforts and indeed sustainability of our organizations will require a more holistic, or “integrious” orientation; adoption of a “triple-E” perspective is more than nice-to-have, it’s a must-have.

The news is littered with examples of strategies that failed to give adequate attention to all three “Es” and subsequently backfired or derailed the whole organization. Apparel companies relocating operations overseas purely to reduce labor costs, paying insufficient attention to working conditions, and labor practices, are examples. Short-term labor cost savings are often eroded by the cost of adverse publicity, and the chances of ever creating a work culture that engages not just hands but hearts and minds are remote.

Leading change with integrity requires attention to four dimensions:

1. IDENTITY – an organization’s “3 Ps:” purpose, principles, and priorities. We know that a sense of purpose motivates, and it is cited in most “best companies to work for” lists as among chief motivators of millennials. Most of us also want to know what our organization stands for, its principles and values. Especially in a tight job market, applicants are seeking organizations with values that align with their own. At the very least it is essential that change initiatives not violate an organization’s purpose or principles; at best they can be opportunities to reinforce them. In addition to communicating what will change when embarking on a change initiative, it is important to clarify what will not change. As the Nepalese proverb reminds us: “Open your arms to change, but do not drop your values.”

My experience as a consultant confirms research findings that on average 60 percent of an organization’s workforce does not know its strategic goals; we can likely not over communicate the intent and rationale of change initiatives and the third “P,” strategic priorities. If we don’t know where we are going, we will all end up someplace different.

2. AUTHENTICITY – “Be the change you wish to see . . .” (Mahatma Gandhi) People watch our feet more than they hear our words; leaders especially must be true to their organization’s “3 Ps” and to changes that they advocate. Truth and transparency are “coins of the realm” leading change. Lacking information in times of change, we are prone to fill the gap by making things up; leaders need to fill the gap more intentionally.

3. ALIGNMENT – Some organizations’ actions are so loud we cannot hear what they are saying. It is important not only that leaders model the way, but that hiring, promotional, pay practices, and organizational structure are aligned with purpose, principles, priorities, and desired changes. Sustainability requires growth and adaptability; are mechanisms in place to help the organization and its members grow and adapt to stay aligned with external changes?

4. ACCOUNTABILITY – Are we measuring what matters? Adopting a holistic or “triple-E” framework means attending equally to measures of worker engagement, organization effectiveness, and ethical practices. Applying integrity’s definition of “completeness, wholeness, and entirety” to ethical practices calls for a broader interpretation of business ethics than is common. Beyond adherence to laws, regulations, and obvious moral codes, leading change with integrity calls for stewardship, a sense of responsibility for the impact of our actions far removed from our immediate realm. We need to adopt more “7th generation-type thinking” as modeled by indigenous Americans, discerning what impact decisions and actions may have on future generations.

Conscious attention to these four dimensions constitutes a “triple play,” helping assure that we lead change and lead our organizations in ways that nurture worker engagement and ethical practices as well as organization effectiveness. Customers, workers, and communities are seeking more than merely transactions with institutions today. The rise of B corporations, organized to provide social benefits, is one indication; Fortune magazine’s latest “100 Best Companies to Work for” issue is another. Sustainability of change initiatives and of organizations themselves will depend on engaging workers, customers and communities that expect higher levels of integrity, with capacities to adapt and grow adopting a more holistic or “triple-E” framework. The online Master’s in Organizational Leadership program of Saint Mary’s University Minnesota is distinctive in its attention to developing holistic leaders, leaders who create sustainable value by nature of their focus on attracting and engaging a talented workforce, cultivating ethical cultures, and improving organization effectiveness.

About the Author

Al Watts is a part-time instructor in the Master of Organizational Leadership program at Saint Mary’s. For 35 years his consulting practice has been focused on helping organizations craft more clarity, commitment, and alignment around their purpose, principles, and strategic priorities. He is the author of Navigating Integrity – Transforming Business as Usual into Business at its Best, which expands on how leaders can leverage integrity to achieve exceptional results.