Whether implied or assumed, there is one “super value” that needs to be embraced for respect to take root within all levels of an organization. That super value is integrity. This element is so essential that without it none of our other actions associated with respect will be viewed as authentic.

To understand the nature of integrity, it is best to first look at it through the lens of things, not people. Think of integrity in terms of design, process and structures. For example, consider a simple steel bolt. By itself, it’s both insignificant and harmless. When we use the steel bolt in the construction of a bridge, brake pedal or jet engine, it takes on a whole new level of importance. We assume that it’s been, 1) designed and manufactured properly for the application in which it will be used (the right material, hardness and dimensions), 2) will hold together whatever pieces it connects, and 3) will perform reliably under any imaginable condition. We also assume all the pieces around the bolt will do the same. We rely on every component used to manufacture an end product to work as expected. When it doesn’t, bad things can happen. The failure of one insignificant bolt can weaken an entire structure. If the bolt is in a critical location, it can cause catastrophic failure.

What does it mean when integrity is applied to human systems? First, let’s make an important distinction. Integrity is different from morality and ethics. Both these elements involve subjectivity and judgment. Integrity doesn’t, at least not in the same way. Moral and ethical conduct implies adherence to a subscribed set of behaviors that have been deemed just and proper for the members of a specific group or community. They can vary from group to group. While mission statements and codes of conduct have an important place in defining cultural norms, what works successfully within one company culture (a law firm, for example), could inhibit optimal performance in another (a hospital system.) In contrast, integrity is more about how consistently the stated moral and ethical expectations are applied within a culture.

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionable integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army or in an office. – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Acting with integrity has several requirements.

1. We unconditionally keep or honor our word in all situations.

Is there a difference between keeping and honoring? Yes. Sometimes, it becomes impossible to keep a previously made commitment. For example, we promise to attend a meeting on a certain date and time, but can’t due to a canceled flight or family emergency. In this case, honoring our word would require that we do the next best thing. This might include arranging a video-conference or immediately rescheduling the meeting regardless of the unexpected costs these actions might involve.

2. We communicate only what we know to be completely true.

This does not mean there won’t be times when we can’t, for legal reasons, share certain elements of what we know. It does mean that we disclose those exceptions when they are present. It also means that we don’t allow people to act on assumed information that we know to be false. An example of this would be for a company to continue to promote and sell a product that it knows is unsafe or doesn’t perform as advertised.

3. We are clear about our intentions and the reasons behind what we say or do.

Related to the previous requirement, this element can be thought of as the “sunshine” clause and involves the transparency of our intentions. If a salesperson recommends a product or service to a client, it should be because it represents the best alternative that he or she can offer to meet the client’s needs. If, instead, the recommendation is oriented more toward helping that salesperson win a contest or hit a quota when a better solution is known, then
the integrity of the recommendation is in question.

4. We behave in a manner consistent with what we believe to be “right.”

This includes meeting stakeholder’s expectations. If I am a financial advisor, this means I act in the best interests of my investor clients. If I am a doctor, I make recommendations and suggestions that I believe to be in my patients’ best interest.

Doing what we believe to be right, even when others around us don’t, is one of the most courageous gestures we can make in the name of integrity. Arguably, the right thing in any specific situation can be subject to different interpretations based on the competing standards and expectations of various groups of stakeholders. For example, most fast-food restaurants market and sell products they know are inherently unhealthy due to saturated fats, highly processed carbohydrates and caloric density. One could argue that, from the perspective of consumers, it is wrong to sell any products that are scientifically or medically proven to be harmful.

On the other hand, anyone who owns stock in these companies rightfully expects that their leaders are doing everything in their collective power to grow revenue and profits. If there is a grey area in determining what is right and what isn’t, this is the place. If we are committed to integrity, we are required to make the decisions that impact the majority of our stakeholders favorably. Otherwise, we need to be clear in our communications if we pursue the best outcomes for one particular group over another.

Why is integrity such a significant component of respectful work cultures?

At the personal level, the perception of integrity in our actions reinforces the belief in others that they arc valued and important. It supports the notion that their ability to work in a predictable environment that takes their well-being into consideration is the primary value guiding our conduct around them. The direct result of this perception is trust, and some level of trust must exist through our interactions with other if we are to reach the state of respect.

The higher our position within the organization, the more impactful this trust dividend becomes. That’s because it sets the tone for our superiors and subordinates. Culture trickles down in an organization, and leadership behaviors set the tone for every one else. As powerful as personal integrity is for enabling individual engagement, systemic integrity can become a strategic asset. It helps lead to a platform of trust and predictability that encourages an entire organization to engage.

Editor’s note: the preceding article is an excerpt from The Respect Effect: Using the Science of Neuroleadership to Inspire a More Loyal and Productive Workplace by Paul Meshanko. For more information, visit RespectEffectBook.com.