ARTICLE

TOP DOWN OR BOTTOM UP, AND ALWAYS FROM THE INSIDE OUT: ELEVATING PERFORMANCE STARTS WITH INTEGRITY

By James McPartland

One of the greatest paradoxes in life and business is that a focus on results leads to the achievement of better results. Having spent time as a CEO, I can tell you I’ve tried. My attempts to work from the outside in to modify my behavior and that of others never seemed to be enough to bring about the change I was looking for.  While I consider myself fortunate and blessed to have climbed the ladder of success, the greatest gift I came to discover was this:  To significantly elevate the bottom line in both business and life, change is best begun through personal responsibility at all levels; from the top down, bottom up, and always from the inside out.  In other words, it starts with YOU, asking yourself an honest question:

Am I living with Integrity?

CASE STUDY: CEO "ADAM"

Some time ago, I learned a lesson on the limits of what can be accomplished in trying to regulate the human behavior of others. Having been brought in to coach a team by a CEO I’ll call “Adam”, the communicated goal was to assist Adam’s executives in meeting several performance objectives. We discussed the challenges the team was experiencing and the obstacles they believed stood in the way of meeting their goals. We also identified the results they were dissatisfied with (most of which related to margins and market share), then looked at possible causes. The company was definitely in a competitive industry and market, however the employees were capable and well experienced.

Upon digging deeper, we noticed a trend of inconsistent product delivery and installation dates, in addition to an erratic pattern of communication that stretched from the leaders and team members, reaching as far as the suppliers and customers. Sensing these two problems were linked, I asked Adam and his team to help me uncover the reasons for the missed deadlines and troubling flow of inconsistent communication.

Though the team made a good effort at taking me deeper into their company’s culture, the answer was not immediately obvious. Adam had hired a 5-star team, including a highly regarded and experienced vice president of operations, multiple veteran engineers, a project manager, experienced sales leaders, and a strong finance team.  The company was advancing their IT platforms and now had a top of the line CRM system, the best in class procurement and manufacturing systems, solid vendors and suppliers who worked hard to keep their business. The financial plan, while aggressive, had participatory buy-in across all channels and departments, and the incentive systems were aligned so that everyone shared in the profits.  Producers were highly compensated.  What was wrong with this picture?

Upon further investigation of the company’s culture, I learned that it was common for employees to be late to meetings. Those meetings then often ran over the allotted time and still failed to accomplish everything on the agenda, if there was an agenda. Emails and calls from company leaders and even clients were ignored or answered late. It seemed that the cumulative effect of these seemingly small oversights, combined with a few inevitable factors (which were beyond anyone’s control), was leading to a failure to meet project timelines for clients.

I met with Adam to discuss a strategy for getting things back on track.  He told me later that he expected me to propose some new form of discipline to get his team in line. Instead (and to his surprise), I explained that I believed Adam could elevate his company’s performance to a whole other level if he and his leadership team began with making some basic adjustments to their own behavior.

At the heart of my advice to Adam was this:  Stop trying to change the behaviors of others to achieve the results you seek, and focus instead on conducting yourself with integrity by practicing self-awareness.  While unforeseen circumstances can make it impossible to keep our word at times, we should always seek to honor our word by making whatever amends necessary when such circumstances occur.

A NEW MODEL OF INTEGRITY

I offered Adam a model of integrity I came across several years ago through a course I took by three inspiring individuals (Michael C. Jensen, Werner Erhard & Steve Zaffron) who wrote a groundbreaking article titled Integrity: A Positive Model that Incorporates the Normative Phenomena of Morality, Ethics and Legality.  In the article, Jensen, Erhard & Zaffron posit that integrity is not an otherworldly ideal that is unreachable in this life. Instead they frame it as

a state of being in which one honors one’s commitments by either fulfilling them or acknowledging the failure to fulfill them, then offering to make amends.

In essence, their model is based on taking complete responsibility for one’s words and actions. They argue that this shockingly simple concept has profound implications for performance in business.

I gave Adam two closely related assignments.

ASSIGNMENT #1: 

DISCUSS BREACHES OF INTEGRITY WITHIN LEADERSHIP TEAM

The first was for Adam to sit with his key leaders and facilitate a discussion of the common ways in which they had each violated their own integrity. The outcome of that discussion was that he and his leadership team agreed to start taking every verbal and written commitment they made very seriously.

This didn’t mean that they would live up to every promise they made; after all, life happens (traffic, family emergencies, or we simply forget things at times), but rather that if Adam or one of his leaders broke a commitment, they would acknowledge it.  It could be as simple as calling someone to say, “Hey, I know I said I’d be at the meeting, but I won’t be able to make it.” If due to their absence, harm had been done in the process, they would offer to make it right.  Adam and his leadership team agreed that they would hold each other accountable for demonstrating integrity at work, yet everyone was encouraged to implement the behavior in their relationships outside of work as well.

I’ll interject Adam’s story briefly to mention that when I began to adopt this model of integrity in my own life, I immediately became habitually cautious when it came to making commitments.  I learned to regularly perform a cost-benefit analysis prior to making decisions.  Performing this analysis is something many of us subconsciously do regularly in life.  Unfortunately we often do so only after we’ve committed ourselves by saying “yes”, leading us down the damaging path of breaking our word and therefore being out of integrity.  We often realize all too late that the cost of keeping our word is more than we are willing to pay.

Upon my next check-in, Adam explained his evaluative discovery that he and some of his key leaders had been saying “yes” to almost any invitation without giving each invite much forethought.  If company employees were going out after work on Friday, the human resources director would casually agree to join them when asked.  Yet she often wouldn’t show up. The same went for other social engagements: It was emotionally easier at the time of the invite to accept rather than decline, and yet the end result was that the leaders would often fail to follow through on their spoken commitments.

Adam soon realized that the casual approach to commitment his leaders exercised in social situations was carrying over into how employees viewed their commitments when conducting business.  These tiny breaches of integrity within leadership were being reflected and even magnified in how Adam’s employees approached their individual assignments and responsibilities, such as failing to return emails and calls, showing up to late meetings, and ultimately neglecting to meet project deadlines.

ASSIGNMENT #2:

CONFRONT INTERNAL BREACHES OF INTEGRITY > DAILY MEETING

The second assignment I gave Adam was to make time in his daily schedule for one more meeting… a meeting with himself.  In their article on positive model of integrity, Jensen, Erhard & Zaffron contend that many of our most serious breaches of integrity are the ones that no one else may ever hear about- the commitments we make and break to ourselves.  On one hand these breaches of integrity may not seem as grave, because they do not appear to hurt anyone else.  But, like the alcoholic who drinks alone in his room, breaking our word to ourselves lays the foundational habit for the promises we break to others. The easier it is for us to cheat ourselves out of the yoga class or early bedtime that we promised ourselves, the easier it becomes for us to cheat other people.

Confronting these internal breaches of integrity uncovers, discovers, and discards the hypocrisy of holding others to a level of performance that we ourselves fail to meet.

To realize the ways in which we break our commitments to ourselves, we must set aside time for self-examination.  Authentic self-reflection doesn’t warrant criticism or self-condemnation, but it does require honesty.  Too often, “daily affirmation” sessions can become regular exercises in self-deception.  It is only with sincere self-evaluation that we can face who we really are and reach a level of self-awareness liberating us to become who we really want to be.

A daily meeting with ourselves allows us to examine whether or not we are keeping our word to ourselves, and those around us. To be effective, we need quiet, uninterrupted time to think through the events of the day (or the previous day), and accurately determine where we went wrong and how we can do better. Many people find it helpful to “think on paper,” by jotting down their thoughts in a journal or notebook.  Done correctly, this meeting with yourself results in a genuine, humble approach to the day and the people you encounter in it.

I continued to check in with Adam on a regular basis to see how things were going. The implementation of this new attitude was definitely an adjustment and took more effort than he and his key leaders initially anticipated.  Adam admitted to missing the “meeting with himself” on several occasions, especially during the first couple of weeks of practicing the exercise. Yet his mere willingness to admit that he missed the meeting was a significant step in the right direction.  After all, the exercise was not about being perfect. It was about being honest and taking all of his commitments seriously.

ACHIEVE POWERFUL RESULTS THROUGH THE PRACTICE OF INTEGRITY

Over the ensuing months, Adam and his leaders found that this new understanding and practice of integrity was having a noticeable positive effect on the company culture and its employees. Far more powerful than any meeting or seminar was the example he and his leaders had set. Now, if Adam said he was going to send the people in marketing an article to read, he either did it right away, or called them to let them know when to expect it and apologized for the delay.

Employees in Adam’s company were unaccustomed to hearing their leaders take ownership of their commitments, yet as a result of the change, they were prompted to do the same.  Each individual came to recognize his or her own contribution to the problems that the company was facing, yet because the needed change was modeled from the top down and reinforced from the bottom up, those recognitions came without creating an environment of blame or criticism.  Everyone broke their word at times, but by admitting to it, an atmosphere of humility, flexibility, and ultimately community was created within the workplace.  Co-workers within the company were eager to give one another the latitude to be human, while becoming much more careful in the commitments they made.

In the end, the adjustment needed for bringing about elevated performance in the company didn’t require any special activities or time commitments outside of normal work hours. It was a simple change in mindset and attitude toward the communication and interactions that occurred throughout each day.

Through modeling the practice of integrity and having his company employees catch on to it like wildfire, Adam and his key leaders ultimately found they had a more connected workforce, increased productivity, and happier clients and suppliers. Customers and vendors soon began asking about the change, eager to learn more about this new model of integrity.

When an entire organization cultivates a culture of integrity, everyone needs less oversight and can be trusted with greater flexibility and freedom. Over time, this adds up to saved time and money, effectively leading to elevated performance and productivity.

While laws will always be necessary to guard against the most egregious behavior, the external regulation of human behavior can never effectively regulate the human heart.

Change starts with self-awareness from the inside out, and is best initiated from the top down, and amplified from the bottom up.

If you’re a key leader looking to elevate the performance and improve the culture of your organization, work with integrity in all you say and do, and watch the ripple effect of positive change permeate not just your organization, but all aspects of your life.

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James McPartland | Keynote Speaker, Author, Executive Coach