Integrity is one of the six central building blocks of trust for entrepreneurs, along with customer focus, competence, aura, results and personality. Being integer means acting in such a way that one’s actions are in harmony with one’s own values. I go one step further and add that the actions must optionally also be in line with the communicated overarching corporate purpose. What does this mean in detail and how can it be used to communicate trust for one’s own trustworthiness?
Preliminary remark: Integrity is not to be confused with authenticity. Very often one reads how important authenticity is for trust. At least for conveying trustworthiness, this is wrong. Being authentic means that one’s actions are in line with one’s feelings. If a customer is behaving rudely and you are angry with them, it is absolutely authentic to tell them that directly and bluntly to their face. It is even authentic if you annoy him back in exactly the same way. However, if being respectful and polite is one of your values, you will first try to understand why he behaved the way he did in this situation. Maybe you even gave the reason for it. Or he simply had a bad moment, but it is completely out of character for him. You could then politely address him about his inappropriate behavior and find out together how you can come back to a common denominator. The integrity shown in this way between your values and your actions is certainly more trustworthy than the confrontation based on a momentary feeling, which may be authentic but is not goal-oriented. Since values, unlike feelings, are stable over the long term, integrity is thus a kind of big sister to authenticity.
As it should not be, we have all unfortunately experienced again and again in recent years. The keywords here are: Volkswagen, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, wirecard — all supposedly trustworthy companies with sonorous words in mission statements, board statements and publications. Unfortunately, these words are not reflected in actual actions. How is the customer supposed to have trust in a company that finds it normal to receive orders with bribes? Or to continually put the interests and bonuses of its own investment bankers before everything else? (The resulting Deutsche Bank scandals fill filing cabinets and court records). But small-scale examples can also be found in everyday life. There is the bakery chain that sweeps mouse droppings “under the table” in production, the butcher with rotten meat, the doctor who makes a few extra examinations for private patients that bring in nice money, even if they were not actually necessary, etc., etc.
The prerequisite for integrity in a company is a stable set of values, optionally supplemented by an overriding corporate purpose, and consistent alignment of the actions of all employees in the company with these values.
Knowing which values are significant for the company is helpful as a basis for every entrepreneur. This is even more true for employees. A value guide helps in the daily doing and is a guideline for decisions.
Why is such a value framework needed today? Two generations back, the Christian faith was still so deeply rooted in people’s minds and everyday lives that the underlying values were not worth mentioning. The entrepreneurs of the post-war period and in the economic miracle were people who often still went to church on Sundays and prayed in their daily lives. We can no longer assume that today. Not only does hardly anyone under 70 still go to church, faith has completely lost its power of orientation in everyday life. In addition, companies of all sizes are now multinational and multicultural. But other religions and beliefs of entrepreneurs hardly have any effect on everyday life. What is needed, therefore, is a guideline at the organizational level of the company so that everyone knows what they can and should orient themselves to in everyday life.
Values should be clearly differentiated from basic entrepreneurial coordinates. “We are oriented toward the well-being of our customers and strive for an appropriate return on investment,” is not a value for successful long-term entrepreneurial activity, but a matter of course. It therefore has no place in a catalog of values.
There are a large number of values to which one can orient oneself. Some are particularly important for the charisma of trust. These basic values are:
- Being good to your employees
Humility is one of the most important virtues for entrepreneurs. What could be more unappealing than a cocky company boss who thinks he owns the world? Of course, there is nothing wrong with a healthy self-confidence. On the contrary, it is very important. However, people who do not take their success for granted, but go through life with a portion of humility and gratitude, have a considerable amount of confidence on their side.
Everyone will understand that honesty is one of the most important values for radiating trustworthiness. Who would trust a liar? Nevertheless, there are limits to honesty at the point where one would hurt others. In day-to-day business, it can be difficult for individual employees to decide whether they should always tell the truth to customers or suppliers about why there are delivery problems at the moment, why there are delays in payment, or the like. A clear guideline is needed here from the company management — the more honest the better.
Entrepreneurs with a strong sense of loyalty are also particularly trustworthy. I often choose a new company because I want to work with it for the long term. If I now know that the entrepreneur has employee changes again and again or that essential inputs come from changing suppliers, this is not particularly trustworthy. It is all the nicer when you work trustfully and loyally with someone on a long-term basis and this relationship can also cope with the depths of business. I myself have experienced being short of cash even at short notice due to payment difficulties on the part of my customers. The supplier who treats me with understanding in such a situation and grants me an uncomplicated payment extension has my trust even beyond this situation.
Being good to your employees is another fundamental basic value for me. In many industries, this is supposedly taken for granted. As a fast-growing startup with a need for programmers and other young talent, I have no choice but to treat my employees extremely courteously. But for me, this isn’t about fitness vouchers, a fruit basket, and best of all, a ball pit. For me, it’s about a genuine interest in the needs of each and every employee. As an entrepreneur, how do you deal with your employees when things get tight financially? Do you care about them (and their families) when layoffs are inevitable? Do you give the head of development time off at his request if his child is in distress — even if his wife is at home anyway? Do you let the head of communications work from the home office even when there’s a big event, because childcare would otherwise be difficult to manage? I’ve often seen questions like that not answered as clearly as it might feel now in the Corona crisis. And I’m curious to see how we will deal with these issues after the crisis.
Being good to your employees is so important because employees are often the ones who deal with the individual customer. As a customer, I instinctively sense how connected the employee is to the company. How nice it feels when I know the employee has been with the company for 20 years. Just the other day I was at a large painting company and learned that one employee has been there for over 20 years, and most of the others have been there for more than 10 years. I automatically trust this company and the entrepreneur at the top more.
In addition, each entrepreneur can add and describe his or her individual values. These can be very different values that are important to the individual. Examples are: courage, empathy, authenticity (see above), openness, politeness.
It is important for the implementation to record the defined values in writing and to communicate them internally and externally. There are many different methods for this. I know of guidelines, small booklets for each employee, even better just a postcard with the most important points for each desk or even (not so effective) posters in the corridors. It should be clear to the employees that the values are to be practiced consistently and that misconduct will be punished accordingly. I found it very comforting that President Biden announced in his first internal employee address that he expects every employee to be treated with respect. If he overheard one of his employees speaking condescendingly about another, he would be fired immediately. Clear matter — but certainly necessary in this clarity due to the atrocious treatment under Trump.
Today, companies have a more important role for society, also due to the erosion of existing structures. Churches, unions and political parties have lost their binding force. As a result, employees in particular, but also customers and the environment, are increasingly demanding a social function from companies. What is their position on environmental issues, do they take into account the concerns of the societies in which they operate, and are they active with a positive impact on the ground? This overarching corporate purpose is summarized in the new German term Purpose.
Such a purpose can generate a great deal of charisma for the company. Last but not least, it generates an increase in trust in the company. Roughly speaking, three areas can be distinguished: Protection of the environment, needs of society and activities with a positive local impact. Companies that are committed to the environment and their surroundings beyond their narrow corporate purpose are more trustworthy than those that are not. Today, a global corporation is expected to inform itself about the production conditions in its supplier countries and, if necessary, exert influence or draw necessary consequences. But even in the case of a local craftsman’s business, my trust increases if I know that the entrepreneur spends his well-earned money not only on expensive hobbies (which are to be grudged) but also on supporting poorer fellow citizens in his environment. Or sometimes has extra money left over for a newborn baby. Or helps out in his spare time at the food bank for the needy. Or in a hospice. Or or or — the possibilities are endless.
Crucial to the impact of integrity is visible behavior. Communicating through mission statements, purpose statements, sustainability reports and similar documents is only the first step. Unfortunately, in the past such statements were often fig leaves. The relevant effect therefore only unfolds in lived behavior. This becomes visible through the greatest possible degree of transparency. There are various methods for living transparency. Statements from satisfied employees, long-term business partners and loyal customers can also be a valuable instrument for documenting the results of behavior.
It pays to have integrity. The first step is to become aware of its importance. You can implement it on your own, in a team or with the support of specialized consultants. Even small steps like the mentioned postcard with the main values can make a big step for the everyday life of your employees. It is crucial to live your values and the overriding purpose of your company in everyday life. Your charisma, that of your company and your employees will change positively. Your customers will trust you more and reward you with more new orders. I am firmly convinced of this.