People judge leaders by how their actions align with their words. How aligned these two things are then triggers stories that get told, and retold, across the organisation.
People are looking to see how the messages they hear from their leaders in corporate communications, presentations, and in the organisation’s espoused values actually align with how these leaders behave day-to-day. The academic term used to describe this alignment between a leader’s words and their actions is behavioural integrity.
Behavioural integrity (BI) is achieved when what leaders say and what leaders do are aligned. Research shows that employees’ perception of their leaders’ BI has huge implications for individual, team and organisational performance. Employees who perceive strong BI in their leaders show increased trust, commitment and willingness to go the extra mile, thus improving customer satisfaction, decreasing employee turnover and improving profitability.
In 2002, researchers at Cornell University conducted a survey of 6500 employees across 76 US and Canadian Holiday Inn hotels. They asked employees to rate on a 5-point scale how closely their managers’ words and actions were aligned. The researchers then compared the results of the survey with customer satisfaction surveys and staff and financial records.
The results were unambiguous: the hotels whose leaders received a high BI score were substantially more profitable than the hotels whose leaders’ BI was perceived to be weaker. The analysis showed that a one-eighth of a point improvement on the 5-point rating scale could be expected to increase profits by 2.5 per cent. In the case of the Holiday Inn study, that translated to a bottom-line impact of over US$250,000 per one-eighth-point improvement.
In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, best-selling author Patrick Lencioni argues that the foundation of a functional team is trust. Lack of trust, he asserts, opens the floodgates to four other dysfunctions: fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. These five dysfunctions combine to sabotage even the most well-intentioned, intelligent and motivated teams. This assertion is in line with the results of the Cornell study, which found that BI is a precursor of trust and credibility.
In other words, for employees to trust their leaders and each other – the foundation of performance – they need to perceive a strong alignment between their manager’s words and actions.
This isn’t to say that BI means ‘doing the right thing’. It simply means doing what you say you will do, acting in a way that is consistent with your values and the messages you send. We may dislike someone who espouses and enacts values we consider unappealing, but we will give them some credit for representing those values honestly, thus displaying high BI.
Consider this story about former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, who is currently serving a 24-year prison term for conspiracy, insider trading, making false statements and securities fraud. One morning there was a long line of cars waiting to get into the Enron car park when Skilling’s car roared up and pushed into the front of the queue. In response to the honks of protest and frustration, Skilling just raised his middle finger.
Maybe this was exactly the message Skilling was trying to get across: ‘People from Enron don’t just stand in a queue and wait for their turn. We go straight to the front, push in, and take what is ours. And if anyone has a problem with that, we tell them where to go’. It certainly sounds like an action that was consistent with everything else he said and did while at Enron. I don’t think this is how he now behaves in the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado.
So, why do stories about leaders’ BI get retold in organisations? Why do they trigger so many stories?
Employees look to either the behaviour of their leaders, or to stories about their behaviour, to judge their character. They want to find out who their leaders are, what they value, what they are passionate about and what annoys them. This is partly so they can predict the leaders’ future behaviour and its potential impact on them.
It’s often mistakenly said that stories are just accounts of things that happened in the past. In fact, by revealing patterns of behaviour and personal tendencies, stories are also predictors of the future. By understanding how their leaders are likely to act, employees can modify their behaviour to reduce the risk to their own security, or alternatively to increase the likelihood that they will be treated favourably.
As author Tony Simons notes; “employees focus substantial attention on their managers partly because they depend on them for rewards, promotions, favourable assignments, resources and the like”.
This is why the stories leaders trigger by their actions are so important. They have a disproportionate impact on how people perceive their character and therefore their trustworthiness.