info suisse Summer 2015
Communications | Sports | Business Ethics
June 2015

Integrity in Action

(John D. Morgan)
Integrity is a word that populates many lists of corporate values framed on office walls, but when pressed to explain what it means for the company, many executives have a hard time articulating the meaning of the word.  The most common response I hear is “to do the right thing.”  Which begs the question, “how do we know what is the right thing?”

Ethics is a tricky topic in business.  The obvious answer to the question above is to do the right thing for your customer.  However, as is the case with most obvious answers, the question is a bit more complicated than you may initially perceive.  First, the actions and decisions leaders are responsible for affect more stakeholder groups that just customers.  You communicate with managers, investors, elected officials, trade unions, and many other parties who influence your business. Furthermore, when you address the topic of integrity from the perspective of us-and-them (e.g. the company and the customer) you imply that the parties are working against each other, rather than in concert.  Even the Golden Rule of ethical behavior, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, implies that you may need to supress your motives and be subordinate to the wishes of others.  Treating ethics as a zero-sum game is certain to stifle progress. Rather than choosing to do the right thing for either the company or the client, integrity is doing the right thing for the relationship that connects the two. Sporting events are a good illustration of this concept.  First, understand that competition is not the enemy of integrity.  Sporting events are the quintessential example of competition, yet we recognize the importance of integrity in sport at all levels.  A wonderful example comes from the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.  during the men’s cross-country 1.5 km sprint, Russian skier Anton Gafarov fell twice and broke his ski.  Considered a medal favourite at the start of the race, Gafarov had lost any chance of finish - ing on the podium, yet he pushed on valiantly in an attempt to finish the race in front the pro- Russian crowd.  The base of his broken ski had peeled off and became wrapped around his leg, making it nearly impossible to advance up the track.   Standing nearby, Canadian coach, Justin Wadsworth, noticed Gafarov limping like a wounded animal, and in a demonstration of compassion, he grabbed a spare ski from a Canadian athlete and ran out to help the Russian skier. 

The Canadian coach knelt down and placed the ski next to Gafarov, who nodded in approval.  Wadsworth helped untangle the athlete’s leg and attach the new ski so that Gafarov could finish the race with dignity in front of the Russian fans.  No words were spoken between the two, as Wadsworth knew no Russian and Gafarov no English.  

A similar event occurred during the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Torino, Italy.  Canadian skier, Sara Renner, snapped a pole during the team sprint event.  As she struggled on an uphill section, with the rest of the field passing her by, a Norwegian Coach, Bjornar Haakensmoen, thrust a new pole into Renner’s hand. At the time, the Norwegian team had just moved into medal position as Renner had fallen back.  Renner pressed on with the new pole and eventually helped Canada win the silver medal. Norway finished fourth.

Both Wadsworth and Haakensmoen certainly wanted their respective teams to win each of these races, however both looked beyond the outcome and acted in a way that respected the relationship between the athletes and their teams. The competition is dependent on this relationship, not on the results.  Sportsmanship offers a great example of integrity in action. 

The current business environment rewards managers whom are driven by results.  As a leader, you must also possess the agility to manage relationships you have with various stakeholders, and to act in ways that advance those relationships.  To act unethically and without integrity jeopardizes the relationships you have with stakeholders and ultimately limits progress.  Just as athletes who exploit unfair advantages corrupt the game. Consider Lance Armstrong as an example.  Not only was he stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for his use of performance enhancing drugs, his lack of integrity infected the entire sport.  Almost every top rider of his generation gave into the pressure to use PE d s to be able to compete at the high level set by Armstrong.  As a result, the Union Cycliste Internationale has refused to allocate any of the Tour de France titles stripped from Armstrong to another competitor.  For those seven years, the history books record no winner.

To instill integrity within your organization, you must manage a variety of interrelated relationships all at once.  At times, the goals you have with one stakeholder group may seem to conflict with those of another. In these instances, it is wise not to focus on outcomes as you consider your next actions. You must evaluate the relationships you have with each stakeholder, and let the purpose of advancing those relationships guide your actions.  doing so will reveal opportunities missed by those who focus on outcomes alone.

Additionally, by considering the relationship before you communicate or take action, you will develop a reputation as an authentic leader who truly embodies the values of your organization.   This type of leader builds trust and loyalty across all stake - holder groups.

John D. Morgan, President of Dialogue Business Strategy, Contributor:
Mr. Morgan is president of dialogue Business Strategy, a U.S. based consulting firm dedicated to helping businesses communicate more effectively with their customers.  He is currently conducting research for a Master’s degree in Communications Management from McMaster University and Syracuse University.
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