Executive Education

Creating Social Change with Integrity: Five Actions for Leaders

The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 ignited protests throughout the world. Citizens demanded police reform and an end to racial injustice. For many, Floyd’s murder was an addition to the long-term social change topics that occupy our attention:  climate change, voting rights, hunger, and food insecurity, and gun violence. The list is far from complete, and many anticipate that concerns will continue to rise. For businesses and their leaders, the list of social issues in the US and worldwide can seem overwhelming.

Many companies have spoken out about their support for these and other issues, and those statements are essential.  However, many employees and consumers are increasingly skeptical of companies that jump on the bandwagon and take little action.  Company executives have reason to worry.  A 2020 Gallup poll indicated that only about 40% of employees in France, Germany, Spain, and the UK and 36% in the United States think that their employer would do what is right if they raised a concern about ethics or integrity.

To succeed, leaders and their organizations need employee trust. Trust is the specific ingredient that facilitates employees doing their best work resulting in growth and innovation. As Peter Drucker, that esteemed management and leadership commentator, observed, “Trust is the conviction that the leader means what he says. It is the belief in something very old-fashioned, called integrity.” Without integrity, brands and companies often lose value and damage their reputations. For example, when Volkswagen was caught cheating on US air pollution tests, the consequences were severe — over 750,000 cars were recalled, and the company has now paid over $30 billion in fines and penalties.  In other words, integrity contributes to business success.

Integrity is defined as “being honest and principled.” It is the compass that directs and guides individual and team behavior.  Integrity informs our actions and affects our views of collaborators and competitors.  Integrity influences and shapes the activities, perceptions, and profitability of businesses. To succeed and to respond successfully to social change and justice issues, leaders must build brands that communicate their actions to do the right thing.

Executives are often aware of the barriers to addressing social justice topics. Among the obstacles leaders encounter in advancing social change is knowing that stakeholders want different things: a positive action on one issue may seem a setback to others. Moreover, C-suite leaders have personal views on social change, and a lack of internal team alignment on what’s important to the brand may contribute to inaction.  At the Board of Directors level, some are risk-averse in commenting on topics and fear consumer or employee retaliation. Many leaders simply don’t know where to start.

There are five starting points for leaders and their teams as they embark on addressing social change and leading with integrity. Organizations flourish when leaders and employees can recognize their full potential and have a solid moral and ethical sensibility founded in integrity.

Revisit and reinforce organizational values

Purposeful behavior springs from espoused corporate values. Values are the cornerstone to crafting a vision, mission, purpose, and goals that direct meaningful behavior.  Values guide choices and actions. They help to frame decision-making and provide a means to define and achieve success. They help us to engage with each other, and they are insidious in their influence. Influential leaders know that values guide and shape behavior. Is integrity a value in your organization?

Create opportunities for engagement

When we lead with authenticity and integrity, we create climates where people bring their best. Leaders should avoid setting agendas without stakeholder input.  For example, an all-white male management team may address and act in ways that don’t bring full consideration to social change and justice topics. When we value the ideas of others, we create pathways that let employees know that they are both appreciated and valued. Our actions must be responsive and inspiring to the communities in which we engage and operate.

Set goals and provide tools

Leaders and their teams must avoid “all talk and no action.” Raising issues and topics without solutions or stakeholder involvement is a recipe for disaster. Given the critical role that managers have in employee engagement, it’s crucial to keep them involved and provide resources that ensure success. Managers can have conversations, for example, about race or gender when they have the tools and resources to support them. Goals provide a means to measure our accomplishments and progress. What gets measured has meaning in organizations. Plans will assist others in following up on their agreements and promises and contribute to positive feelings about an organization.

Keep lines of communication open

If we want to involve an organization in far-reaching change, it’s essential to maintain an environment that values open and transparent communications. Companies encourage leaders to say “hello” and engage with employees in ways that demonstrate dignity for the individual, respect for others, and grow inclusion by celebrating and valuing diversity. Leaders should clearly articulate the rationale, needs, and desire for corporate and individual efforts that promote social change.

Be accountable

When we are accountable to others, we “take care of business.” We’re clear on what needs to happen and the goals we seek to achieve. Rather than deal in abstraction, leaders are clear on who, what, where, when, and how.  They make statements that are easy to understand and are specific. They check in with others to ensure progress, and they close situations well. When we act with an awareness of accountability, we enable our focus on the critical goals that have been identified. Being aware of our “best” provides us with the vision to avoid and abandon old habits and ways of thinking that are no longer relevant. For examples of companies that are matching their words and actions on social change, consider the actions of Disney ($5 million in contributions to nonprofits addressing social justice), Nike (a new social justice campaign on the fight for equality), Peloton (a half-million-dollar contribution to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund) and others.

Much of our life takes place in the organizations in which we work. The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us that work is what we do, not merely a place we go. When leaders address social change issues, they demonstrate their integrity and reinforce the positive values they have established for themselves, their teams, and their organization. Organizations flourish when people have the opportunity to realize their potential, including addressing the important topics of our time.

The path to progress and a better world, where all benefit, is to chart a leadership and organizational course with integrity. If we want to create lasting change, we must recognize that we are all in this together and that together, we rise. Good leaders will embrace these actions and bring us closer to improving individual business and all human enterprise.

Written by Mike Horne.

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Mike Horne
Mike Horne is a visionary advisor, leader, and partner to those working on complex people, group, and organizational challenges. He opens doors for people to be and do their best. As a changemaker, Mike Horne works with a deep sense of confidence and dedication. He is the author of Integrity by Design: Working and Living Authentically.

Mike Horne is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn.