Build Integrity In

In today’s world, organizations must focus on fostering an ethical environment

by Henry J. Lindborg

According to Philip B. Crosby, “quality is integrity.”1 When we track global corruption2 or contemplate the abuses of power giving rise to the #MeToo movement, we may ask how to add integrity to our measures of effectiveness. We naturally focus on the character of leaders and celebrities—both of whom have power—who have been called out in the press for exploiting others.

Their employers express shock and regret, affirming corporate values, promising to investigate and do something about corporate culture beyond the bad apple. We sometimes find that these cultures have been toxic for decades, promoting and protecting narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths who damage livelihoods, lives and entire organizations. In the past, we spoke of building quality in. Now it’s necessary to build integrity in.

In my 30 years of experience, developing mission, vision and values statements along with codes of conduct is challenging work. Further, after they’ve been written, documents can be ignored, even when they’re created with stakeholder input and accompanied by training that communicates rules, means to report misconduct and consequences.

From the perspective of auditors for enterprise risk management, these must be supported by the “tone at the top”—ethics deployed from the board throughout the organization. Again, it’s not easily measured or attained because complex systems and leadership dynamics are in play. The Ethics and Compliance Initiative,3 however, has made significant contributions to the understanding of how a culture of integrity is built. Since 1994, it has measured the state of corporate ethics through a well-respected survey with a risk-based orientation.

According to the 2018 iteration of the Global Business Ethics Survey,4 69% of 5,000 U.S. respondents reported to their organizations misconduct they observed—an all-time high. At the same time, 44% felt retaliation for whistleblowing, double the percentage in 2013, the last time the survey was administered.

While instances of observed misconduct declined 15%, 16% stated feeling pressured to compromise ethical standards, a 23% increase—not a good sign for cultural change. On integrity, 20% said their culture is strong and 40% found it weak.

According to the Ethics and Compliance Initiative, findings on culture strength have changed little since 2000. Some factors underlying slow progress in cultural change include poor implementation of ethics programs, limited awareness of them and—something important to me—low trust of supervisors’ and managers’ word and their commitment to ethical behavior, clear indicators that the “tone at the top,” if present, remains there.

Such findings echo what has been observed in deployment of quality since the 1980s. (Think of Crosby’s quality management maturity grid.) In this case, we are viewing quality as integrity, and leaders’ values and character beyond commitment to quality as operational effectiveness are spotlighted. Unfortunately, where power resides—at the top, in the middle or supervisory management—abuse may follow.

Focusing on the top, how do destructive leaders thrive? One study concludes that such leaders­—whose charisma masks their narcissism and drive for personal power—are the first element in a toxic triangle that includes oppressed or similarly-minded followers, and a conducive environment with weak checks and balances.5

Conducive environments enable those in power to act without constraint in an atmosphere of secrecy and fear. Those at the top, senior leaders and the board remain oblivious or complicit while followers give up, leave or—worse still—mimic the bad behavior.

The best guide to these dynamics and what to do about them is Robert Sutton’s The No [Jerk] Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't.6 In a 2004 Harvard Business Review article, Sutton talked about two tests of toxic behavior:

“The first is: After talking to the alleged [jerk], do people consistently feel oppressed and belittled by the person, and, especially, do they feel dramatically worse about themselves? The second is: Does the person consistently direct his or her venom at people seen as powerless and rarely, if ever, at people who are powerful? Indeed, the difference between the ways a person treats the powerless and the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know.”7

Sutton applies these tests to everyone because power differentials are found across workplaces, making us all responsible. Sutton’s insights present a challenge: How do we address such potentially divisive and seemingly subjective evaluations of character? Given the recent revelations of wrongdoing in businesses and industries, entertainment and news, colleges and universities, with their financial and human cost, how can we not? Quality professionals ought to be at the forefront of seeking solutions and becoming the voice of global integrity.


  1. Personal communication in response to my survey of “quality values.”
  2. Transparency International, www.transparency.org/.
  3. Ethics and Compliance Initiative (ECI), www.ethics.org.
  4. “2018 Global Business Ethics Survey,” ECI, www.ethics.org/ecihome/research/gbes.
  5. Art Padilla, Robert Hogan, and Robert B. Kaiser, “The Toxic Triangle: Destructive Leaders, Susceptible Followers, and Conducive Environments,” Leadership Quarterly, 2007, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 176-194.
  6. Robert I. Sutton, The No [Jerk] Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, Business Plus, 2010
  7. Ray Kurzweil, “Breakthrough Ideas for 2004,” Harvard Business Review, February 2004, https://hbr.org/2004/02/breakthrough-ideas-for-2004.

Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement in Fond du Lac, WI. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board. He is a past chair and current member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Career Workforce Policy committee.

Great article. I'll especially keep in mind some concepts ("tone at the top", "toxic triangle", Sutton's "The No [Jerk] Rule...") whenever I work clients, especially with management.
The article also made me think of a business integrity issue I've seen: a large pharmacy near me touts its corporate vision "To be America's most-loved pharmacy-led health, well-being and beauty company". However, they have no problem selling cigarettes. According to the National Cancer Institute, "smoking is the leading cause of premature, preventable death..." and "...harms nearly every bodily organ...". I'm curious if other readers consider this to be a lapse of integrity.
--Jonathan Patridge, 07-12-2018

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