Business leaders must ‘Walk the Talk’ to be truly effective

Business leaders and managers should display ‘behavioural integrity’, rather than ‘moral integrity’, in the workplace if they want to improve employee productivity, team performance and company profits – according to research from RSM Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.

Hannes Leroy and colleagues conducted a study which looked into behavioural integrity and tested for any added value when compared to more traditionally recognised moral integrity. They found that behavioural integrity has a stronger impact on both employee performance and company profits.

Leroy states, “Most people will agree that integrity is a key ingredient in effective leadership – but the traditional view is that integrity is intrinsically linked to a set of moral principles. But behavioural integrity is simply defined by whether a leader ‘walks the talk’ or ‘practices what they preach’ regardless of whether their actions are moral or not.”

The study suggests that the upturn in performance under leaders who display behavioural integrity is most likely a result of clearer communication. The team found that when a manager ‘walks their talk’ they send out unambiguous signals to their employees about how they expect followers to act – and as a result, performance improves.

“Related research suggests that even when actions are not moral, employees would rather know what the leader expects of them, than not”, says Leroy.

And the good news for managers is that because this type of integrity is less about having the right type of ‘character’ or ‘morality’ there are opportunities to develop it.

“Firstly, try to gain an awareness of what you value as a leader: you cannot be true to yourself if you do not know what that self is. But it doesn’t stop there: you also need a good understanding of what the organisation values and is thus demanding of you as a leader. Knowing the difference between both will help you highlight value conflicts you face. Followers can’t know all these conflicting forces – ultimately they will judge you on your words and deeds.

“Knowing the potential for conflicts, it is important as a leader to become politically skilled when talking about what you expect from your people. This means taking the perspective of your audience, sometimes not speaking, applying discipline in aligning your words and deeds and offering a good explanation of when words and deeds do not align.”

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