Create a Culture of Integrity

My friend Patrick Wilson-Welsh once asked me if I knew the key distinction between Accountability and Integrity. I said I did, but then found myself struggling for an answer.

Today, I think I get it. Perhaps I should check with Patrick.

Accountability and Integrity


Accountability is enforced externally; it is a requirement or expectation to justify actions and decisions. A person can be accountable to or accountable for, but cannot be simply accountable. Accountability requires another party.


Integrity is enforced from within; it is a quality of honesty and morality. It exists regardless of accountability. A person has integrity (or does not). Integrity does not require another party.

A key difference

Accountability is flawed. There are numerous issues, from the "it's not wrong if I don't get caught" mentality to the "that is how the boss wants it done" escape clause. Accountability can be unreliable. If expectations are not clear, if the boss is away, if people feel dis-empowered (which is likely), or if people "suck up" to the boss, the outcome may not be what is desired or expected. As a result, morale can deteriorate and lead to more issues. Ultimately, accountability of subordinate to superior creates an environment of distrust and dysfunction; this cannot scale.

Integrity does not require external enforcement. Integrity does not have escape clauses. Integrity is consistent. Integrity cannot be "sucked up" to. Integrity is reliable. And integrity scales.

Some will argue that integrity is adherence to a moral and ethical standard, but is independent of the nature of that standard. This is true. Integrity in not synonymous with morality, rather it is one's ability to be true to their own morality. This makes integrity no less desirable.

Creating a culture of integrity

So how do we create a culture of integrity?

Have integrity

Leadership sets the tone. Hypocrisy will not beget integrity. If you make promises, but don't keep them; If you expect full disclosure, but hold back data; If you promote autonomy, but punish "mistakes"; If you preach teamwork, but practice espionage; you had best expect to be surrounded by people adept at surviving in such an environment.

Hire better

It is quite likely you are hiring based on the wrong criterion. Typically, candidates are first filtered based on credentials and experience. Do they have the requisite degree/certification? Have they used our target tools for the requisite length of time? Then, they are interviewed to certify the proclaimed credentials and experience. Finally, in more progressive environments, the preferred candidate meets the team to make sure there is good chemistry; a quick check to ensure nobody resorts to fisticuffs.

Invert the selection process. Don't hire based on experience and credentials. Hire based on aptitude and attitude. Aptitude - can they learn what you need them to know? Attitude - are they a fit for your team and your company? Put the time and effort into making sure the candidate is capable of learning, willing to learn, and has values that fit for your organization. If they have the pedigree too - Hey, that's swell.

Why invert the process? Smart people easily learn new skills. Selfish people don't easily develop empathy.

Communicate expectations

Produce a values statement. Publish it. Share it. Use it in the selection process.

Develop a code of conduct. What is expected of employees in and out of work? Keep it general. Trust your employees to apply the guidelines rather than providing a tome of situational requirements.

Model specific behavior

We've covered that you should have integrity, which is paramount. Modeling the specifically desired behaviors reinforces the expectations and encourages voluntary adherence. If team members perceive a lack of integrity in leadership or among their peers, they are less likely to exhibit integrity themselves. This is not to say they will lack integrity, but they may not openly show it. An environment of deception encourages the righteous to be cautious.

Integrity Endures

Accountability works, but it is ultimately the coercion of good behavior through fear of repercussion, no matter how gentle. If you want success that endures; create a culture of integrity.