How Integrity Drifts

Business People. Successful Business Partner Shaking Hands in thWhen news comes out about the bad decisions made by companies like Takata, accused of sacrificing safety to profits in its airbags, and even more recently, Volkswagen, where employees knowingly colluded in deceiving emissions testing equipment, we shake our heads, wag our fingers at these deviants, and proclaim with certainty, “It couldn’t happen here.”

But how can we be so sure that our company’s and our work group’s integrity is really as pristine as we believe it to be?  How do good people all fall into the trap of sharing in such egregiously bad decisions?

The truth is that we all have the seeds in our organizations of the weeds that, if not promptly uprooted, can one day become what looks kind of like the lawn to us.  It starts in small ways.  Integrity drifts over time, in small decisions first, in a process that sociologist Diane Vaughan refers to as the ‘normalization of deviance.’  Small decisions that are not consistent with the organization’s culture and credo are made, they’re rationalized, and then other decisions are made, consistent with the earlier decisions, not with the stated organization culture.  Over time, the prick of conscience disappears and people have convinced themselves they are doing nothing wrong.  Soon the ‘deviant’ behavior has become the norm.

How do we, as leaders, recognize this drift in integrity before we are unconsciously operating outside our values?  Consider these warning signs:

  • “The rules don’t make sense (or are counterproductive).” When you start to hear that people are ignoring or circumventing policy because it seems to have no purpose, or works against the best interests of clients or others, it’s time to review the policy, not ignore the deviance.  There may be excellent reasons for it that are poorly understood and need to be clarified.  On the other hand, leaving a useless policy in place invites any policy to be treated lightly.
  • “Everybody else does it.” The cruise ship Concordia ran aground off the coast of Italy in 2012 while on an unauthorized route between an island and the mainland.  The crew defended their deviant routing by pointing out that many cruise ships made the same deviation to give more spectacular views – knowing that there was additional risk in the passage.  Organizations need to make conscious, thoughtful decisions about their risk tolerance and stick to it unless evidence changes their minds – not the poor practices of competitors.
  • “It won’t matter that much.” The 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion was a direct result of a team consistently noting a flaw in the same element of the spacecraft during launch conditions, but each time rationalizing it as having a low probability of creating a major problem.  Risk is a function of both probability and impact – and the team failed to consider the impact if the assumption of low probability proved wrong.  Leaders need to challenge both the rationale for low probability (people have a bias toward believing what they’ve done is good), and the consequences/impact should assumptions be incorrect.
  • Knowledge of important policy seems spotty.  If knowledge about how to behave is poorly understood, it invites interpretation that you may not welcome.  In the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Art theft of 1990, the night guard allowed two thieves in because they were dressed as policemen.  The security guard didn’t have instructions for what to do if police showed up asking for admission.  On the other side of the equation, Johnson & Johnson won kudos for the rapid and consistent handling of the Tylenol capsule poisoning situation in the 1980s.  The company’s credo of a sacred duty to those who used its products was not just posted on its walls; it was debated and reconfirmed and clearly understood by everyone in the organization.  Disaster scenarios were part of management discussions.  If policies are important enough to write, they need to be frequently reviewed, debated, updated, recommitted to, and translated for everyone in the organization.
  • The models at the top are inconsistent. In one company, padding expense reports was clearly stated as inconsistent with company policy, yet executives charged personal clothing, spouses’ travel expenses, and other things to expense reports, which were summarily approved and reimbursed.  When rules for the goose are not applicable to the gander, it’s an open invitation for integrity drift.  Andrew Fastow, the former Enron CFO who spent five years in federal prison, mused, “A robust ‘code of conduct’ can be emasculated by one action of the CEO or CFO.”
  • The pressure is on. Whenever there is intense pressure to meet a goal – NASA’s promise to launch shuttles 60 times a year, B.F. Goodrich’s desperate attempt to regain an Air Force contractor’s favor as a supplier by promising an aircraft brake that was ultra-cheap and ultralight, and resulted in brakes that were guaranteed to fail – create pressure throughout the organization to overlook best judgment in favor of offering something to meet even the most impossible goals.  When the pressure is on, leaders need to stop to ask what’s being sacrificed in pursuit of the goals.  With that, the message that integrity matters is heard; without it, it is assumed to be secondary.

Leaders are unwise to assume that integrity is natural and automatic.  It needs to be nurtured and protected in an organization; it is an active, not a passive activity.  Having a clear set of values for the organization is a great first step, but assuring the organization is living those values every day in every situation is part of a leader’s role.  Being alert to the weeds that begin to sprout in the lawn of integrity is critical to a leader’s ultimate success.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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