Category Archives: Integrity

Zero-tolerance – boon or bane?

Was IBM’s Thomas Watson Sr. right when he asserted that failure was the fastest way to succeed?

Innovators and scientists will assert that failure is vital to invention. Today, organizations that place innovation high on their strategy have built in an acceptance of failure with sound exit strategies. Failure-tolerant leaders thus try to create a culture of intelligent risk-taking. They do not see failure as the opposite of success. They are  analytical and non-judgmental. Above all, they are open to looking at lessons learnt in dissent and failure.

The question is – can organizations apply the same principles of innovative performance when they manage policies on behavior? Can they bring greater relevance to the so-called ‘zero-tolerance’ policies in organizations?

Don’t get me wrong – I am no softie on bad behavior. Instances of theft, fraud, violence, harassment (including sexual harassment) and other similar ones certainly warrant surgical corrective actions. Employees must feel safe and work in a fear-free environment in a company of repute. And maybe the principle of ‘zero tolerance’ aims to provide that assurance.

But here is a niggling thought. Beyond looking at it as a strong principle and belief, can more be done to not shut the doors to a real possibility – that organizations can learn something meaningful from what perpetrators of wrong behavior may want to say in their defense?

In short, can ‘zero-tolerance’ policies veer away from merely punishing errant employees to actually fix problems?

That brings us to an important point of how guidelines to implementing policies are drawn up. Yes, providing uniform applicability is vital. Yes, providing employees and managers the comfort of clear guidelines and consequences is important. But should they be made so comprehensive that there is no room to exercise discretionary judgement? If people relationship is so critical in an organization, why make the policy so cut-and-dried that there is no wiggle room to contextualize an employee’s behavior?

One of the important competencies for good managers is critical thinking for good judgment. This calls for less evaluation and more interpretation, less praise or penalizing, and better analysis. Do rigid directives of a ‘zero tolerance’ policy encourage such thinking?

Making decisions in a vacuum eliminates the closer look to remove assumptions that could result in wrong decisions. Even when employees evidently violate clear limits, researching the issue and giving them an opportunity to respond could provide valuable insights that need not take anything away from an organization’s firm principles.

No policy can spell out every type of situation that may arise – nor can there be a pat script for all difficult conversations or decisions. Policies should be written on the assumption that their employees intend and mean well – this will ensure higher adherence and performance.

In formulating policies, even the so-called ‘zero-tolerant’ ones, companies need to be cognizant of how they write them. They need to know the different nuances of understanding amongst employees that will impact how they will eventually put them into practice. This is all the more important where managers have greater latitude to make decisions. Managers should be trained to make optimal decisions from policy guidelines. The ideal way to tackle this is to strongly inculcate values and principles into the corporate culture, and ensure leaders are true role models, leading by example.

If done right, employees will recognize policies with pride and trust for what their organization believes in. It will create voluntary participation in a collaborative environment that fosters higher behavioral standards.

And then perhaps there may not be a need to resort to the extreme step of classifying certain policies as ‘zero tolerant’!


That slippery eel called decisiveness

“…But I must make decisions everyday that I hope are just. I don’t know right from wrong all the time. I wish I did. But what I can’t be is indecisive…”

I so agree with Frank Underwood, said the weary leader to me the other day. (You see, I am his inner compass that he often converses with).

Let me take half a minute to explain what the quote is all about. Frank Underwood, as the US President in the TV serial ‘House of Cards’, speaks these words. Yes, it is just a script. And yes, Underwood is Machiavellian to the core and not worthy of emulation.

And now, let us go back to my friend.

His burrowed forehead was etched with the burden of others’ expectations of him to be decisive. Of course, he knows that this burden came with his trophy of leadership. And he is trained to handle it too.

How easy is it to be just, ethical and decisive, I goaded him.

Not easy, duh – he was scathing. And not as simple as you think either. And here’s the scary part, he said. People are so unforgiving even if they perceive that we failed to vault over any of those three criteria.

That my friend, I said, is the crown of thorns you wear as a leader.

Tell me, he quizzed. What is it that people want of us as just and decisive leaders?

A mirror does not have all the answers. So I turned to the definitions in the Marine Corps Leadership book. Decisiveness, it summarizes, is the ability to weigh all facts, and act calmly and quickly to arrive at a sound decision. Justice, in their lexicon is the practice of being fair and consistent. Integrity means being honest and truthful in what you say or do.

Oh, please… he cringed. Can’t you see the how the power of perception is stacked against us? What seems calm to you may look like bristling to others. A sound decision to others may look like unhinged thinking to you. As for being consistent, once is good enough for some, while for others even ten can be ‘flashes in the pan’! Fair, honest, truthful – there are so many innovative interpretations!

Good points, I agreed. So why don’t we start with intent?

He warmed up to the idea. Let’s say I have the unquestionable intent of being just and ethical, he said. Depending on my personality and beliefs, my conviction gives me two broad ways to act.

Go on, I said.

I could want to achieve the most good for most people. I would then ask myself – what are the overall future effects of my action? Who are the people who will be impacted? My ethical decision will be to act for the best outcomes for most of the people.

Fair enough, I agreed.

Or I could be the leader to whom acting in the right manner is most important. What is the right thing to do, I will ask myself. What are the actions I never should take? This will be my lodestar for ethical decisiveness.

But intent is only half the story, isn’t it, I nudged. When you take decisions for others shouldn’t you smartly factor the impact of outcomes?

That’s where it gets muddled, he rued. I agreed with him.

Of course, there never will be a perfect decision. Even your most cynical critics will concede that. A good leader like you will be smart and intelligent to foresee all the implications of your decision – upside and downside. And I am sure you will also have plans to tackle the fallout in each case.

But what about the dangers of perception, he quizzed.

You cannot get away from that reality, I said. And integrity is your best shield here. Can you transparently maneuver the truth without manipulating it? Can you own your decision with conviction and without the arrogance of authority? Can you open some windows of hopeful change for those who see your decisions as closing doors for them? And can you live with the pain of not being liked by everyone – without hurt, rancor or derision?

His furrowed brows had straightened quite a bit as he set out on his next decision. I know he will be back again to look into me as his mirror. And I went back to my work of polishing it for clearer reflection.

Character – the value beyond excellence

A recent HBR article drew attention to a study that revealed organizations with highly principled leaders performed significant notches better. Specifically, their average return on assets was five times over companies whose leadership did not enjoy confidence in their character.

Now that we have dispensed with the need to prove the obvious, let us turn to the trait we call character. The study identified four moral principles—integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion—as the cornerstones of character. Interesting aren’t they? Especially as we use the first two more as jargonized parlance, and look down on the next two as the very antithesis of strength and aggression to achieve results for shareholders.

Character. We are in awe of it when we feel it, and when the leader radiates it. Yet precision eludes us as we grapple to define or describe it.

A bulb tellingly flashes in my mind. Is my character where my head and heart joins? Where my thoughts, feelings and actions seamlessly move in total harmony into my behavior? A behavior that I do not hide in my self, but bring to life through my relationships with others?

Each of us constantly makes signature decisions about how we interact with others. When our behavior enhances the well being of others, character springs to life. It is the discovery and sustained practice of promoting the most good for the most people.

I hear the impatience. Sounds great, but can we be realistic please?

So here goes the realist’s argument. In a bottom-line-driven economy what role can character possibly play in organizational success? Honesty, compassion, forgiveness – don’t tell me these can help deliver the top-line and bottom-line goods.

But the HBR survey did just that, didn’t it? It found a strong and robust relationship between strength of character and business performance.

So, back to the annoying idealist.

Meet goals, crank profits? Hmmm…not enough. Use both head and heart to orchestrate an inclusive high-performance? Now we are talking!

For starters, let us look at the leadership competencies we spout, and tweak them to infuse ‘character’.

“Pursuit of Excellence” – going above and beyond the ordinary to achieve goals, is that what they say?

Character adds transcendence as a vital dimension – to display courage, creativity and positivity to do what is right rather than pursuing the expedient.

“Drive” – the vigor that achieves stretch goals through execution excellence, say the pundits.

Character weaves positive humility into it – self-awareness, the ability to reflect and motivate, and gratitude to colleagueship that makes success possible.

“Accountability” – we look at this as a broad umbrella of ownership.

Character threads humanity through empathy and magnanimity to forge followership as its fundamental strength.

“Results-driven decisiveness” – we define it as the ability to make sound, timely and defensible decisions, especially in crises.

Character percolates integrity, temperance and justice – and lends authenticity to success in today’s profit-maximizing context of business.

 The good news is that it is not important to ascertain if we are born with character. We just need to develop it and keep honing it as we act and lead. As the HBR study reveals, it is neither a subjective construct nor a ‘soft’ and non-quantifiable strength in a world that looks for hard data.

As we move up the ladder, we sometimes become unaware of the repercussions of the outward display of our character. Self-awareness is the key, especially to the nuances that infuse character to critical leadership competencies. Importantly, we do not have to wait for a destination for such awareness to kick in. Frontline and middle-level managers will do well to focus on social intelligence and integrity; senior leaders will do better to be open to honest feedback. For character is as much a winning differentiator by its presence as it is a crippling blind spot by its absence.

Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir…

Way back in 1971, the US State Department created its official Dissent Channel. It defines itself as ‘a serious policy channel reserved only for consideration of responsible dissenting and alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues that cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels and procedures…’

Responsible dissent. What is it?

Could it be the sustainable quality to stand up for what really matters, disagree and then come together again once the issue is resolved?

If so, how do we push ourselves into the right dissent? And what is the right balance in creating an environment that makes dissent a part of the workplace culture and not a standalone event?

The responsibility and accountability lies on both sides. Employees must learn how to question authority, and leaders should know how to listen to feedback and handle disagreements.

Let me wear the dissenter’s cap first. I disagree with my bosses on an issue – their stance bothers me, and the bother does not look like going away. I realize that speaking my mind to and disagreeing with power can be risky at best and dangerous at worst. Do I or not stick my head ‘above the parapet’?

The voice of reason in me should ask – how personally responsible am I for the thing I am concerned about? What personal level of attachment do I have to the issue? What is the power I have to do something about it?

I realize that the first tough questions are for me to answer, not my bosses! And so my mind makes a practical checklist of the costs and benefits. Job security, professional relationships, acknowledgement of merit and courage, respect…

Once I remove emotions through this checklist, the second set of questions emerges. Is this conflict that I am about to create a healthy one? Do I have a purpose that goes beyond my self-interest? Will it create value? Am I pointing my energy in a productive way in the right direction? Can I look at the road ahead, and not in the rearview mirror?

And what happens when I wear the cap of authority?

As a leader I must be open to constructive dissent. I must recognize and appreciate the courage and professionalism of the person who has stepped forward even if I do not agree with him. If I prevail I must ensure he retains his dignity and is rewarded for his risk taking.

Good leadership creates an open and two-way communication system that encourages speaking the truth to power centers. Only then will the quality of decisions improve – moving as it will from ‘What would my leader do?’ to ‘What do we think and do?’

When such a culture is created, dissent will be compelling and speak the language of what is possible. It will be a discipline and not a war. A discipline that pushes us, on either side, to find our ‘energy sweet spot’ that fires up more of our creative arsenal that makes us unique, innovative, and passionate. A discipline that, over a period of time, will build an auto immune system in our organizations to check and correct power abuses, errors and ambiguity.

When accountability collides with the vagaries of change

Nostalgia has this habit of throwing up awkward memories that first imprison you with uncomfortable truths – and then liberate you if you have the honesty to admit your inadequacy and draw lessons from them.

A couple of weeks back I was reminiscing about years ago when my kid took me to task with serious reproach and disappointment for coming home from work later than I had promised I would. Never mind if I had remembered the promise and left early but was stuck badly in a traffic jam. The outcome was what mattered to her – do not make your intentions your commitment, she was clear, even then.

That set me thinking about a very important dimension of accountability. To what extent do we factor in the critical element of change when we commit ourselves to  responsibility and ownership? Or do we at all?

I played the spoilsport that day to challenge my commitment to accountability. I asked myself this – when I say ‘I’ll do my best’, do I base my commitment on merely what I see or intend to do today? Am I actually saying that I will do it as long as it goes according to what I think will happen without any changes or roadblocks? Or am I committing myself to do exactly as I promise, come what may, come what changes or problems?

The more I thought about it, the more I was unsure about the pedestal of accountability I placed myself on with pride.

This is a valuable lesson we need to take to our workplace too.

Let us rule out certain scenarios here. We are not the conniving ones who mask our real intentions and say yes. Neither are we the weak ones who say yes knowing fully well that we cannot do what we said yes to – but do not want to be seen as someone unwilling to step up and do our part.

That makes us the earnest ones, the honest ones who really do mean to fulfill the commitment we give our peers, our teams and our leaders. But even as we do so, do we ask ourselves “Am I aware of what can go wrong?” “Can I overcome hurdles as they arise?” “Am I competent to manage the imponderables?”

These answers are what lead to the real meaning of ‘Am I really committed and accountable?’ The Oz definition of accountability perhaps comes close to defining this – “Accountability is a personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results”

We live in a world of constant change – this is an obvious reality. Equally realistic is the fact that each of us has our individual boundaries that does not take into account negative changes under which we can or cannot perform to what we commit.

Once we acknowledge this, we can now place our idealistic layer of our will to meet our obligation and agreement, to overcome problems when they occur and to be creative about our counter actions. This gives us the fortitude to surmount factors that threaten our success, to renegotiate responsibility with integrity when faced with changing circumstances, and to be answerable with corrective fixes for resulting consequences.

This truly does liberate us – even as we make our commitments, and subsequently as we meet them. We will find ourselves focusing our energy on finding solutions to meet our obligations rather than finding loopholes to skirt accountability. We will then shy away from allowing game changes to become deal breakers.  And we will make smarter deals with our determination and persistence in managing those unexpected and unintended breaches of accountability.

When personal principles clash with organizational muscle

The recent case of a contractor in the  National Security Agency choosing to leak information on the agency’s data gathering program resurrects the dilemma of how we tackle the conflict between what we perceive is right and whether believing we are morally right gives us the license to break the law. It once again reveals the truth that there are far more hues of gray than we can be comfortable with when we encounter such situations.

While questions of right, wrong, treason, security will rock the headlines in this specific case, let us take this to a scenario in our everyday work-life. What would you and I do if we were faced with a situation where we had to do something that clashed with our beliefs and principles?

Would I keep silent because I believe the organization is entitled to do what it thinks best, or because I do not want to rock a comfortable boat? Or would I move to the other extreme of blind crusading to hurt and mow both the trees and the weeds? Or would I take the role of an influencer firm in my intent to make a change – knowing fully well that I may succeed or not in the entirety of the outcome, but can shape the thinking of my colleagues, peers and powers-that-be to what is right?

This is how the needle moves from making the issue bigger than the individual. While the origin of our action arises out of our personal belief, its clarity should not be muddled by a self-righteous ego on one end to helpless cowardice on the other. The first questions we need to ask ourselves are – do my principles resonate with a general “good-for-all” motive? Can I open my thinking to organizational perspectives that conflict with what I think is right – do they warrant merit too?

The distillate of such fractionalization of thoughts (pardon me going back to my chemistry days!) will then be clearer to show how you can link your personal principles to your organization’s bigger social responsibility. And then it is not a conflict of which matters more, but a solution-finding exercise of how we can marry the two. You go past the nonchalant “why should I care”, the rabid “let me show them” or the apathetic “whatever” to a more satisfying “what can we do together”.

Whether or not the motives of the NSA contractor were malicious, a couple of his statements struck me.

“…There are many other secrets I could have revealed if I wanted to harm national security, but that was not my aim”

“…My intention was to disclose those details that could spark a national debate..”

“..the greatest fear I have regarding the outcome…is that nothing will change”

Taken at face value, they pose good learning points for many of us who grapple with right and wrong, acceptability and the non- of it.

Lesson#1 – A negative outcome as a goal is a very bad idea, and shows the hollowness of our beliefs.

Lesson#2 – As long as I restrict my principles to how I act and what I do, it is fine. But when I wish to paint it on a wider canvas, inclusiveness of thought and deed, of cause and effect is vital.

Lesson#3, and this is the most important – it is not about whether I fail or succeed. From the end result point of view, my first steps may land me in a puddle or a ditch, and I may slither the slopes awfully – but if I can maintain my integrity and get up again to attempt it with greater wisdom, greater intelligence and greater conviction – and lesser anger, lesser frustration and lesser negativity – that is what matters.

Ultimately, it is about feeling proud that I dared to believe…and I dared further to humble myself to ask, to gather, and pass the baton on to others who are more capable of crossing the finish line.