In the best of times, the foundational quality employees look for most in their leaders is integrity. It tops other must-have leadership attributes such as good judgment, competence, vision, humility, and a fierce ambition for collective success, that a workforce expects from their managers, according to a literature review by psychologist and Hogan Assessments co-founder Robert Hogan.
Legendary CEO Jack Welch had this to say about integrity, in his book Winning: “People with integrity tell the truth, and they keep their word. They take responsibility for past actions, admit mistakes and fix them. They know the laws of their country, industry and company – both in letter and spirit – and abide by them. They play to win the right way, by the rules.”
But there is another kind of integrity that affects the quality of the relationship leaders have with their subordinates, and that’s interpersonal integrity. Particularly during this time of prolonged uncertainty and upheaval, it’s a muscle leaders need to flex more than ever.
Leaders who are perceived to have interpersonal integrity enjoy better relationships with their employees, which in turn increases engagement, improves performance, and raises productivity, leading to overall organizational effectiveness. Low-quality relationships on the other hand lead to sagging performance and even retaliation by employees against their leaders.
Having interpersonal integrity is a powerful trait that concerns our behaviors toward others. At its most basic, it involves our understanding of who people are on a personal level, what they do on a regular basis, and the recollection of meaningful conversations we may have had with them.
One leader at a manufacturing plant who was in one of my workshops seemed to be having a rough day, and I asked if I could help with anything. Through tears she told me that her cat was in the hospital and might be suffering from kidney failure. I said I was sorry; having a 20-year-old cat myself, as well as two 17-year-old dachshunds, all of whom are like children to me, I added that I hoped the cat would recover quickly. Three months later I returned to the company for another workshop and ran into the leader with the cat. When I asked, she said her beloved pet had passed on. Two days later the firm’s HR leader stopped me in the hallway to say how much it meant to her colleague that I remembered our conversation months earlier.
Having interpersonal integrity means you care about the people you work with and show it in your interactions with them.
Particularly now, with most people working from home in an environment of uncertainty and in ways that are unfamiliar, managers need to emphasize empathy and show flexibility in order to restore some semblance of psychological safety that helps people perform at their best.
As with everything else concerning leadership—this is a balancing act. You can lose your perspective on this quality by placing inordinate weight on maintaining harmony and protecting people’s feelings, and doing so at the expense of holding people accountable and having the difficult conversations in which leaders frequently need to engage. I’ve seen many leaders who let close relationships and personal feelings for someone interfere with doing what’s right for the business and the rest of the team. It requires keen self-awareness to maintain a balance between being an inclusive leader who acknowledges people’s contributions and shows concern for their well-being and one who can spell out business expectations and hold people to them. This potent blend of leadership styles can earn you the respect and the engagement of employees and spare you from being labeled a “pushover.”
Practicing self-awareness will help you perceive if your interpersonal integrity at work is in balance. Some questions to ask yourself include: Do people seem to feel comfortable sharing their personal issues with me? Do these conversations dominate our individual interactions? Do people try to take advantage of my kindness and compassion? Do I have trouble getting results from people? Do I impose consequences when people don’t follow through on their commitments, or do I seem to be having the same conversations over and over without getting results?
The answers to these questions will help calibrate your approach.
Hogan once quipped at an assessment conference in Prague: “70 percent of American employees would take a pay cut if someone would fire their boss.” He continued, “People care more about how they’re treated than how they’re paid.”
For leaders it pays to get that balancing act right.