The power of character (Yale Leadership Expectation: Demonstrate integrity & character)

While productivity and financial goals are usually viewed as a manager’s primary objectives, leaders are also responsible for ensuring standards of moral and ethical conduct. Indeed, a major cross-cultural study found that the Character/Integrity aspect of ethical leadership was endorsed as important for effective leadership across 62 global societies. Whereas character refers to “the pattern of intentions, inclinations, and virtues” that provide the ethical or moral foundation of behavior, integrity is a fundamental component of character and involves the ability to engage in ethically correct behavior, regardless of external pressures. This article describes how character powerfully contributes to meeting some of managers’ key leadership challenges.

What are the benefits of setting and exhibiting a high standard of integrity and ethical behavior?
Managers find it far easier to reap the rewards of high integrity and ethical behavior in the workplace if they personally can “walk the talk.” According to social learning theory, leaders powerfully influence employee behavior through acting as a consistent role model. That is, a written standard is more likely to become a cultural norm for the team if the manager sets a personal example. Everyone then benefits through improved conduct and relationships.

Empirical research also indicates a positive relationship between a leader’s integrity, ethical behavior, trust, and employee engagement. If a manager has integrity and behaves in a trustworthy manner, employees will come to trust their leader – they’ll assume that the leader will make decisions with the employees’ best interests in mind. Data further shows that trust in the manager to make informed and fair decisions promotes employee engagement. This climate of employee engagement results in more employee drive and commitment to the work. The ultimate outcome, of course, is a more productive, effective organization.  

Does character relate to communicating candidly and respectfully?
Yes! People who speak candidly and respectfully –not aggressively or cruelly– report higher levels of job satisfaction, confidence, and results. Tips for candid and respectful communication:
•    If the communication involves a sensitive or touchy topic, where opinions differ, emotions are strong, and the stakes seem high, it’s always preferable to take some time and organize your thoughts first.
•    Concerning disagreements and conflicts, resist the “Fundamental Attribution Error” – our human bias toward assuming others are acting out of malicious intent or a personality flaw; in other words, because something must be wrong with them.
•    Instead, assume positive intent. Most people genuinely want to do their best and to be viewed favorably by their colleagues. If you assume the worst, you will respond negatively instead of helpfully. Everyone deserves at least one chance to see things differently and make adjustments. You can help them do this if you are compassionate and considerate in the way you view the other person.
•    Use empathy. It helps you gain objectivity if you can put yourself in the other party’s shoes. Consider how the situation they are in may be driving the behaviors to which you are reacting.
•    Get clear about what you want to accomplish. What outcome are you aiming for in this conversation? Keep a healthy outcome – for yourself, for the other, and for the relationship – at the center of the conversation to keep the focus more positive.
•    Be objective in the way you present your information and maintain an even tone. This will prevent misperceptions of your words and intentions.
•    Be present for the conversation. Minimize distractions and focus your attention. Listen actively. Strive for mutual understanding. If you listen well the other person will feel heard and respected.

How does the workplace benefit from conflict resolution?
Research shows that workplaces in which team members are equipped with the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes to resolve conflicts effectively are happier and more productive. Conversely, every unaddressed conflict in the workplace wastes an estimated eight hours of time in gossip and other unproductive activities. Now multiply that by all the issues that are not being resolved.

Fortunately, managers can take several practical steps to help their employees resolve conflicts:
•    Provide and encourage training. People can learn the skills needed to greatly improve their handling of conflict, and Yale HR offers a variety of courses targeting these needs:
o    Navigating Conflict
o    Mastering Difficult Conversations
o    Communicating for Results
o    Speak, Listen, and Be Understood
In addition, there are many high quality online learning courses concerning candid and respectful  communication that you can access via our LinkedIn Learning resource: Online Learning | It’s Your Yale
•    Ask people to manage their conflict at the level it arises, instead of pushing it up the organizational chain. It’s better for the culture of the organization if the leader doesn’t have to drop in and fix problems that team members could handle on their own.
•    After people appear to solve their conflict, the manager should follow up to ensure that the immediate problem has been resolved and the root cause has been addressed.

What about psychological safety and its impact on organizational success?
“Psychological safety” is crucial to a team’s success, according to the concept’s creator Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership and management at the Harvard Business School. She says psychological safety describes “a workplace where one feels that one’s voice is welcome with bad news, questions, concerns, half-baked ideas and even mistakes.” All staff members should feel like they can ask questions, raise concerns and pitch ideas without undue repercussions. If psychological safety is present, team members, regardless of their diverse backgrounds or identities, feel comfortable speaking up, asking challenging questions, engaging in productive dissent, and suggesting innovative ideas. Psychological safety is one important means for an organization to leverage all of its talent.

How can leaders create psychological safety? Instead of pretending that they know all the answers, managers should emphasize the challenges and uncertainties that lie ahead, and be honest about what they don’t know, Edmondson says. When managers are open about their own limitations or mistakes, people feel like their own “developmental journeys and feelings of uncertainty are legitimate.” In the end, it is actually the leader’s character that most contributes to a climate of psychological safety and its impact on organizational success.