Behavioral Integrity and Culture Change


INTEGRITY. This idea or construct in leader development is often mentioned as a fundamental element of character, a basic requirement. It includes what might be distinguished as “behavioral integrity” and “moral integrity”. The former concerns “walking our talk” or acting in accordance with our expressed commitments in routine, practical ways that yield the expectation in others that “if she says she’ll do it, you can count on her doing it” or “if he espouses these norms of behavior, he will enforce them.”

In this respect and relevant to shaping cultural norms, I came upon a study[1] that investigated the effect that leaders have on promoting a family-friendly work environment. It found that “When organizational climates support the work–family balance of employees, supervisors provide considerable work–family guidance to their subordinates. Yet, the extent to which climate and supervisor guidance influence employee outcomes depends on supervisors’ work-family behavioral integrity.”

What does that look like? If a leader verbally advocates work-family balance in his/her spoken guidance to employees, but then in his/her actions shows special recognition to those who arrive early and stay late, the leader may be perceived in lacking behavioral integrity: “He recommended that I make sure the doctor visits for my child are in my calendar, or that I modify my schedule to accommodate a need to do school drop-offs, but when I do these things, I fear that he sees me as a slacker.

We could probably apply this same principle to any organizational value or cultural norm that we are say we honor, e.g. expressing dissent, communicating dialogically/laterally versus hierarchically, taking risks, etc. Employees in organizations who’ve become acculturated to a hierarchical climate in which dissent may arouse defensiveness, in which lateral communication may spawn turf issues, or where trying something new and failing meets with a punitive response face a challenge, as do their leaders.

The challenge for both parties involves learning and unlearning. Employees must learn from experience, must witness, that management has really changed, that it is really safe to behave differently, that doing so will be not only be accepted but respected. As for management, they must anticipate that acting on such norms for employees may involve risk-taking. Therefore, they must show some patience and a readiness to reinforce early displays of the desired behavior change.

[1] Paustian-Underdahl, S. C., & Halbesleben, J. B. (2014). Examining the influence of climate, supervisor guidance, and behavioral integrity on work-family conflict: A demands and resources approach. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35(4), 447-463.