Guest blog post contributed by Dr. Zvezdan Horvat, Senior Associate, Adizes Southeast Europe

Do what’s right, even when it’s hard!

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently discovered that Volkswagen had been cheating emissions tests for harmful gases – nitrogen oxide – on its diesel engines. 

I think we have all seen some version of this news story, but what is it really talking about? Is it talking about diesel engines and VW or, is it, to use a modern expression, about integrity in business?

Stories like this one are nothing new of course, but when large companies are involved, companies that have a significant influence on the market and are widely regarded as a leader, then that gets the public’s attention. So how can something like this even happen when it is precisely these companies that have a plethora of clearly defined ethical codes and core values, not infrequently emblazoned on posters in every office? Perhaps they don’t read them. Perhaps they read them but don’t care. Perhaps they don’t read them and don’t care.

Could a deception like this really happen in such a huge corporation without the all-wise management knowing anything about it? I am sceptical. There is the great scene in a biographical movie about Stalin. Stalin’s wife is traveling by train through the vast expanses of the steppe and the train stops. Nearby a group of political prisoners awaits transport to the gulags. One manages to escape and makes a break for the luxury train in which Stalin’s wife is sitting, oblivious to what is happening. The man runs up, and with his last ounce of strength, before they recapture him, says, “Tell Stalin, Stalin must be told what is going on!”

And now we arrive at the question of whether it is not in fact the management style of the people in key positions, combined with the drive for success, profit, bonuses and dividends and the willingness to take short-cuts to reach those goals, which has brought about this state of affairs. This goes on at all levels, but nevertheless the danger is greatest when it happens at the highest levels – the fish rots from the head down, as they say, and so the impact is greater. Articles about VW published after the scandal broke suggested that the engineers had been in fear of the CEO and his style – specifically the aggressive emissions targets he had set. What could they do, they had no choice… That’s how it is when you have an organizational climate which does not foster mutual respect and trust but, seemingly, dictatorship. There is a tool in the Adizes methodology – the cause-effect analysis – for establishing which problems are causes and which are effects. It states that in growing companies the attitudes of key people affect the corporate climate, while in aging organizations the opposite is true. This kind of thing should therefore not happen in large organizations under the influence of a key figure, but it seems in this case it did.

A few days ago there was an update – VW said that reverting the illicit changes to a vehicle, which involves reprogramming the engine, would not take longer than one hour. But if it is so easy then the whole business makes even less sense and we have to ask “Why?” The personal style, attitudes and integrity of a handful of people, and the games they play, can mean disaster for thousands. Now this seems like an organizational climate.

Dictionaries refer integrity to sincerity, principles, ethics, morality, propriety, honesty, decency, honor, pride and virtue. Out of all these synonyms I still like “integrity” the most – maybe others will prefer other expressions. A common definition is “Doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” It is the ability to act honestly and in a principled way, regardless of whether you are doing it because of your moral principles, your values or your beliefs.

In business ethics, integrity describes the way in which people live out the moral values they claim to hold to. For a person to have integrity they need to know what their moral values are and to strive towards that model in their behavior. A key feature of integrity is that it is not about conformity with rules. Albert Camus said that integrity has no need of rules. In this sense, integrity is about understanding and acting in accordance with the spirit of the law and not just according to the written rules. Perhaps this view seems somewhat idealistic, but shouldn’t we strive towards what is right, and should leaders not be the ones taking us there? This is all closely tied up with the definition of integration, a very important management role in the Adizes approach – the desired outcomes will probably come about if we are connected and integrated, without everything being written down in black and white.

I would say that integrity grows out of trust and respect – the more of the latter we have, the more integrity there will be. People differ, and we cannot expect everyone to have high standards of integrity, but the people at the top of the organization must lead. And they must work on that. We say what we think and think what we say. If we stray outside these boundaries and begin saying things we don’t really think, then we are straying outside integrity. Real leaders never compromise sincerity and integrity by resorting to deceit. There are many examples of temporary winners who got to where they were by deceit (Enron for example). Integrity means telling the truth, even when it isn’t pretty. It is better to be honest than to deceive others, since you are probably deceiving yourself too, and others will deceive you in turn.

If there is one value you should teach it ought to be integrity – success will come and go, but integrity will remain. It means always doing the right thing, regardless of whether anyone is watching or not. This takes courage – to do the right things, regardless of the consequences. Building a reputation takes years, but it only takes a second to lose it.

To end with I would quote Chedomille Mijatovich (1892): – “Without trust, without respect for what is good and condemnation of what is evil, without respect and love for the truth and hatred and contempt for deceit – in a word, without morality – human society cannot survive. The ultimate downfall of certain nations was inevitably preceded by moral laxity and discord. This truth is self-evident, hence it has long been accepted that ‘honesty is the best policy’, both in the sphere of private interests and in the sphere of public and state interests.”


About the Author

Dr. Zvezdan Horvat, Senior Associate, Adizes Southeast Europe has over twenty years of experience deploying the Adizes Methodology within organizations around the world. This article was previously published in Adizes SEE News.