We all know that leadership can be difficult, trying to balance workplace priorities with the needs of your people. What can upset many people at work is when they see leaders display a lack of integrity in their behaviour.
When we see a leader display a lack of integrity, does this mean that the leader is malicious? Are they out to get people, to stomp on others and are they just plain evil?
No, I don’t think so.
And that’s the reason for this post. I think even good leaders can display a lack of integrity, when normally they wouldn’t.
In this post, I’m going to look at some of the key factors that I’ve noticed seem to bring out this behaviour based on my own leadership experience and my experience working with and coaching other leaders.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #137: Falling Into Bad Leadership Behaviour? Do This!
What Does It Mean to Show a Lack of Integrity?
What does integrity mean? The Cambridge dictionary says it is:
“The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles that you refuse to change.”
In my own words, I’d say that people can rely on you to do the “right” thing, and to speak up when you see something bad happening.
So when do we see this integrity being broken? A leader may show a lack of integrity by:
- Failing to manage the poor behaviour or performance of certain people in their team
- Claiming credit for the work of others
- Favouring certain people over others
- Failing to speak up when they see something unethical (or bad) happening; or
- Focusing more on the needs of their own manager than their team.
I’ve seen all of these and more in my leadership travels, and they can be extremely damaging for a leader’s reputation and relationships.
The common theme in many of these behaviours is self-interest. And if we look at one of my favourite tools, the Trust Equation, we can see that “self-orientation” is the destroyer of trust.
Common Factors Causing Leaders to Show a Lack of Integrity
Now, let’s look at why this lack of integrity might show up, even in the best of leaders!
Why? So we can avoid falling into the integrity trap ourselves, of course.
1. Workplace Relationships Can Cause a Lack of Integrity
In my opinion, workplace relationships can be one of the most common causes of a lack of integrity. We often work closely with others in times of stress, which can form close bonds and friendships at work.
This only becomes a problem when a workplace friendship causes you to look the other way, or play favourites.
Instead of having a tough conversation with your workplace friend, you may instead feel compelled to protect the friendship, even if it means doing the wrong thing by others who don’t deserve it.
So how should you manage this?
Well, I once saw it put nicely by Martin G. Moore (the “No Bullshit” Leader) that we should be friendly, but not friends with people at work, when we hold a leadership position.
This means we should obviously be friendly with the people we lead, but we should stop short of socialising too much, or building relationships that are too intimate.
This can involve a degree of self-restraint, and you may need to set clear boundaries with people whom you have a close relationship.
Drawing the lines clearly will help to prevent you from slipping into bad behaviours where you overlook the misdeeds of people close to you, or develop a bias that favours them.
Learn More: Power Dynamics: Are They Impacting Your Team?
Learn More: Setting Boundaries at Work: Why It’s Crucial.
Fear is everywhere in our workplaces.
It could be fear of failure, fear of the unknown, or fear of being fired. You name it, there’s a fear for it.
Leaders experience fear because they are often under pressure and stress.
They may be desperate to please the boss, rather than get in trouble. And they may do this at the expense of their own team.
A leader may show a lack of integrity for fear of having a tough conversation. Instead, they’ll take the path of least resistance to avoid the discomfort that the difficult conversation can bring.
It’s good to identify what scares you at work.
Being let go?
Being yelled at?
Or feeling like you’re not good enough?
Whatever it is, the better you understand your own sources of fear in the workplace, the better you’ll be able to cater for them by taking action to reduce the fear.
Otherwise, what can happen is that leaders will behave in a way that shows a lack of integrity, because it’s less scary than the other alternatives.
When you’re running scared, you don’t care much what your team thinks about you, and that’s a problem.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #123: Common Leadership Fears and How to Challenge Them.
3. Lack of Career Options
Closely related to the fear factor is a perceived lack of career options for the leader.
I’ve come across many leaders who are desperate to keep their jobs. This could be because they:
- Need a high salary to maintain their lifestyle
- Are hooked on the prestige of their role. They don’t want to go backwards because they’ll “lose face”; or
- Have been in one organisation for so long, they don’t feel comfortable going anywhere else.
This feeling of being locked into a role can cause leaders to show a lack of integrity, because they’ll do anything to keep their job. Even if it means treating people badly, or failing to speak up, to keep the boss happy.
Keeping the job becomes more important than the feelings or the wellbeing of the people we lead.
How to Keep Your Career Options Open
If you feel like you’re being boxed into your role, you’re at risk of falling into the lack of integrity trap.
Many leaders become complacent, failing to work on themselves. Before long, they’re desperate to stay in their role and they’ll do anything to keep it.
The solutions are simple, but they take effort. Here are some ideas:
- Keep your network strong, even in the good times. This means both within your organisation, and outside. You never know when you might need your network to help you find a new opportunity. You can do the same for others, too.
- Live within your means. Sure, you could afford a really expensive house. But if it puts you in a position where you need a very high salary to keep it, you’re an integrity risk. Scale down your needs, and your options widen; and
- Keep your skills and qualifications current. Don’t become complacent. Keep learning and developing. Study and gain relevant qualifications. This will help you appear more employable to other organisations.
It’s worth keeping in mind that your life outside of work impacts you in your leadership role.
They aren’t separate, because you are the same person, no matter where you are.
Work on your life outside of work, and you’ll feel more confident speaking up, taking risks and showing integrity without feeling like you have no backup plan.
Learn More: Want Leadership Freedom? Focus on These Relationships.
4. High Pressure and Workloads Can Cause a Lack of Integrity
When leaders are under stress for long periods, cracks begin to appear.
Needing to work harder for short periods might be OK, but over time, all this stress and pressure builds up.
Leaders who are under stress tend to release the pressure by focusing harder on their own priorities.
Let’s say your boss is putting you under pressure to finish the “Johnson report” and you only have until tomorrow to get it done. You have meetings all day, so you’re not sure when you’ll find the time.
Then one of your team members drops by with a problem they need some help with. You’d love to help, but you’re distracted. Even when you sit with them and try to focus, you find your mind wandering to the impending deadline.
Or, you tell them you can’t help them right now, and to come back in a few days. Or perhaps you’ll take a shortcut, telling your team member to help you with the report and forget about their own problem for now.
This might not sound so bad, but focusing on your own priorities at the expense of others falls into the “self-orientation” category of the trust equation I mentioned previously. This means when you take self-centred action, you are eroding trust.
Over time, this makes a difference to the relationship you have with your team. Your people might just see you as somebody who lacks integrity, but in reality, you’re just swamped and unable to lead the way you want to.
Managing your workload is an enabler of good leadership and can help you show up the way you want to, rather than showing a lack of integrity.
For some ideas to help with this problem, try the resources below.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #156: Let’s Dismantle the Cult of Busyness.
Learn More: Too Many Priorities: What to Do When You’re Asked to Do It All.
Learn More: Too Busy at Work? Try These 5 Things.
Even Good Leaders Can Show a Lack of Integrity
When we see leaders doing bad things, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that they are bad people, or they don’t care about others.
While this could be true, I don’t think it’s the case most of the time. You are more likely to show a lack of integrity when you are in an environment that makes it harder to show up the way you want to.
Keep the factors above at the front of your mind to reduce the chances of falling into the integrity trap.
And if your environment is making it hard to show up with integrity and lead well, then maybe it’s not a good environment for you.
Have you noticed any other factors which entice good leaders to do bad things? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments!
Thanks Ben, thought provoking as always.
Thanks for the comment Tim!