The Integrity Issue

I read many statements of corporate vision, declarations of mission and explanations of values. What can I say about them? Like having the United Nations around, they’re better than nothing. But in 2020, perhaps we can do better.

Most leaders wrote mission statements for 2020 months ago. It went into the Board pack for the first round of budgeting. Most organisations have a declared vision, that shouldn’t really change unless something cataclysmic happens in a business sector or to the company.

But when we come to values, we need a little more effort to define expected staff behaviour. Here are two words frequently used in value statements, along with the issues they create:

Innovation. An established favourite because no one wants their business to be stuck in the mud. But few people understand the difference between innovation and creativity. They are not interchangeable. Creativity is the ability to have ideas. Most of us can do this, and the state most people call daydreaming is when we often get our best ones. For staff to have ideas they must feel safe to make suggestions. Our employee engagement surveys tell me that this doesn’t happen as often as it should. Innovation, on the other hand, is the process of turning ideas into reality. That is an altogether more complex process, requiring strong collaboration and a great deal of discretionary effort (employees willingly doing more than they are paid for). Again, our research shows it’s hard to build a culture that enables this. Two common management behaviours are guaranteed to limit innovation. First, the line manager taking credit for innovation that was not her own. Second, the converse: managers persecuting employees for innovation that doesn’t work.

Integrity. More widely used, and more likely to create disappointment than almost any other word in value creation. When Boards talk about integrity they mean ‘we hope our management and staff won’t steal’. If that’s the hope, then the language needs to be more direct. You see, integrity actually means conduct that conforms to an accepted standard of right or wrong: doing the right thing. Most of your employees won’t understand the word and if they did they would then have to decide which accepted standard to adhere to. They might choose from their family or community values; from the behaviours they see in their bosses; or from the actions of public figures. It doesn’t take the brains of an Archbishop to realise that the further up that ladder they look, your staff will find some very confusing examples.

Write your values in plain English and make them action words, not vague concepts.