Recently I came across an intriguing article published by the Center for Creative Leadership and authored by WA Gentry, KL Cullen and DG Altman titledThe Irony of Integrity – Center for Creative Leadership.
This is one of the few papers I have come across that suggests through their research that ethical attribute issues are connected to role design and role performance. They focused on four character strengths (integrity, bravery, perspective, and social intelligence) and considered how there presence and permanence featured in the performance of senior and middle leadership roles.
Of the four character strengths, I would consider integrity primarily an ethical attribute and the other three less so. Why? Because in many organizations, integrity is often featured as one of their core values. And, I consider values as operational expression of some of an organization’s ethical values.
What was startling for me was that while integrity was an important performance characteristic of senior leadership roles, it was less so in middle leadership ones. In middle level roles, social intelligence was the highest attribute. The article goes on to examine why this might be the case:
- Senior roles have considerable symbolic and context setting authority and power. These roles are wittingly/unwittingly the “setters of example” in their organizations, hence integrity would be important if even for its utility in giving people a clear picture of what is expected around walking the talk.
- Middle roles because of their location in the organization (middle nodes of balancing demands and constants) have to more effective at managing their relationships up, down and laterally.
To be clear, the research does not in any way that I can interpret suggest that the four attributes are not important, only that which is pre-eminent differs between these two leadership roles. What I found intriguing was that this finding was surprising and disturbing.
I find it neither surprising nor disturbing. In previous posts I have explored the place and role of values including ethical ones in performance (My Values have a price, whereupon I will abandon them!, Post Script: TM Values and Ethical Behaviour, Talent Management, Values & Ethical Behaviour). One of the learnings for me is that role design incorporates specific value considerations if we care about performance. This framing of role performance will logically lead to the conclusion that values will vary in significance (like the CCL study reports) and even presence (some values may be mission critical for some roles and not at all relevant in other roles). Note, I am not suggesting that we want some people to have integrity and others not to have any. I am suggesting that the significance of integrity in a role performance may be pretty mute as a factor. This is purely a utilitarian perspective on the issue.
Why is a utilitarian perspective useful for us to keep in mind? Because if a value is of no/little material use in role performance, then those in the role will not necessarily connect to the value (in a case where it is trumpeted loud and wide within the organization) and discount it as there is no frequent reinforcement of the value’s value.
So what? Well in the role itself it might not be a big deal for the rest of us. But what if an incumbent gets promoted into a role where the particular value is important? The CCL report authors note this potential risk: where a middle manager gets promoted into a senior one where integrity becomes a critical aspect of role success.
When I was exploring in my mind I did not have access to the CCL’s research report, I was merely exploring a logical implication of some of my approach to talent management’s assumptions. This report at the very least suggests that I am not on an irrelevant thinking side road.