Dr. Phil Said It, so It Must Be True: Behavioral Integrity

How is your behavioral integrity?

Let me start with a quote from Dr. Phil: “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” I’m not an avid watcher of Dr. Phil, but this particular line has always resonated with me. It is with this line in mind that behavioral integrity came into focus during the interviews. Thus, I also sought out the work of Cornell University’s Dr. Tony Simons, a globally recognized leader in the field of behavior integrity in the workplace. According to Dr. Simons, behavioral integrity is the “perceived pattern of alignment between an actor’s words and deeds.”1 It is in these psychological contracts that trust is developed in the leader-follower relationship. However, Simons explains, leading with complete behavior integrity has two sources of complexity. First is the simple nature of business complexities. The goalposts move on a project due to circumstances changing on the ground, and at times conflicting priorities arise. Second is the potential for communication breakdown.2

Although circumstances do impact direction and communication can break down, it is another form of behavioral integrity that I want to focus on. How many of you have had encounters, professional or private, where somebody tells you they’re going to do something and then doesn’t complete the task? When you follow up with them, they provide a roster of reasons as to why the job didn’t get done. For many of you, it’s easy to accept the justification for missed meetings, project deadlines and so on because you do the same. One of my best friends lives in New York, and we often talk about the city’s professional life. He’s told me that when someone says to you “I’ll call or text you to go grab a drink,” don’t hold your breath — the phrase is meaningless. Everyone knows it’s code for “I’ll see you when I see you.” So that led me to ask him, “How do you trust someone?” He just kind of shrugged.

Take a moment and reflect on a leader who has typically stuck to their word. How did this leader make you feel? Like they’ll be honest and are someone to be trusted? Now take a moment and reflect on a leader who struggled to follow through, who always had an excuse as to why commitments were left on the table. What kind of relationship would you have with this leader? Finally, ask yourself, where do you fall along the spectrum? Could you be complicit in a lack of follow-through?

Over the past 20 years I have come across many well-intentioned individuals who have difficulties setting boundaries for fear of disappointing their colleagues and friends. It is human nature to not want to disappoint your peers, so saying “yes” all the time is easier than saying “no.” The irony is that saying “yes” with no follow-through is worse than saying “no” at the outset. You end up letting your colleagues down and creating a potential vacuum of trust, at the minimum low expectations of follow-through.

What’s more, authentic leaders who are exceptionally high in behavioral integrity are committed to creating and managing expectations within the organization. When expectations are managed and trust is developed, organizational culture thrives and allows the leader to have the difficult conversations. In either case, when an authentic leader creates and fosters behavioral integrity, expectations in the organization are cultivated and managed, horizontally and vertically. When an authentic leader’s actions and behaviors are congruent, levels of trust, loyalty and engagement are raised.

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  1. Tony Simons, “Behavioral integrity: The perceived alignment between managers’ words and deeds as a research focus,” Organization Science 13, no. 1 (2002): 18–35.
  2. Tony Simons, “What message does your conduct send? Building integrity to boost your leadership effectiveness,” Cornell Hospitality Report 14, no. 24 (2014): 6–10.