I first had the pleasure of meeting Ron Carucci in 2016, when we were introduced by a mutual friend and sat down for a chat that would ultimately become the basis for his Forbes article “Six Dangerous Excuses to Compromise That Could Land You in Prison.” Since then, Ron has been a personal and professional colleague and source of inspiration for my own work.
So, in 2019, when he published an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “4 Ways Lying Becomes the Norm at a Company,” I dove right in. It represented a 15-year longitudinal study, where Ron and his team “analyzed 3,200 interviews that were conducted as part of 210 organizational assessments to see whether there were factors that predicted whether or not people inside a company will be honest.”
Ron shared how organizations with poor cross-functional collaboration were nearly six times more likely to have people withhold or distort truthful information. Given that cooperation, collaboration, and communication is essential for any ethics and compliance program or initiative to succeed, I found this research both fascinating and troubling. However, Ron did shine some light on the challenge, sharing how “a 25% improvement in cross-departmental collaboration … led to a 17% improvement in truth telling behaviors.”
The only element missing from the piece was the “secret sauce” in getting to that 17 percent improvement. Ron puts an end to that mystery in his recently released book, “To Be Honest: Lead with the Power of Truth, Justice and Purpose.”
The book’s proposition, as Ron states in the introduction, is that while “we all want to believe we’d be the honest hero” when facing an ethical challenge, would we? When confronting headwinds to our ethical and integrity DNA, “what influences how we choose one option over another?”
The book breaks those challenges down into four dimensions of organizational honesty. It’s a fundamental, fun, and inspiring read, enabling everyone in an organization to build “honesty as a muscle” and to operationalize aspirational goals and principles into an individual and group ethical capacity.
One of the four dimensions is “unity between groups,” which expands on Ron’s cross-functional collaboration research. In “To Be Honest,” we now have a roadmap to address the perils of organizational disunity, which can derail even the best-intentioned ethics and compliance framework. So, I thought I would ask Ron a few questions as to how we can address and mitigate poor organizational unity.
Q. Ron, thank you for your time and this discussion. First, given our global (and well-publicized) scandals, why are we still reading about honesty, and why are you still writing about it?
A. Well, I suspect as long as there are humans, in all our glory and depravity, there will be scandals. It’s important to never forget that none of us are immune. The entrance to every slippery slope is engraved with the words, “At least I’m not as bad as …”
I wrote the book because, as I suspect many of us are, I was soul-weary over the Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, and Theranos-type stories. I thought, ‘We can’t just have that many evil people in the world!’ I wanted to understand under what conditions honest people would tell the truth, behave fairly, and serve a greater good, and under what conditions they would lie, cheat, and serve their own interests first. I’d hoped that if we could prove these conditions were predictable, that would mean the side of our better angels would be replicable and the dark sides preventable. And I was beyond thrilled when the data came back suggesting exactly that. I didn’t start the research out to write a book, but once I saw the data, I felt compelled to write it.
Q. Were you surprised back in 2019 when weak cross-functional collaboration was among your four ways lying becomes the norm? Now in 2021, do you consider the issue just as persistent and stubborn in how it can distort and dilute honesty and integrity?
A. I was certainly surprised it was the largest factor. Remember, we define honesty as more than just not lying. With the bar as high as it is, truth, justice, and purpose now define honesty—saying the right thing, doing the right thing, and saying and doing the right thing for the right reason, even when it’s hard.
When you think about the overwhelming complexity of cross-functional relationships in an organization, they are inordinately difficult to make work. They are the places that push against our tribalism; where collaboration might force the they’s and we’s to reconcile; and where our egos are most challenged to let go of our biases and agendas in the service of a greater organizational story. So, when I think about it, it makes perfect sense that there is so much honesty at stake, and at risk, at those critical seams of organizations.
Q. One of the more prevalent and stubborn challenges that you address is organizational silos. Yet, those siloes exist by function; region; business unit; and even in smaller groups, like a sales team. Is there an initiative E&C leaders can take to address those silos which might help to stitch them together so they are unified under the shared interest of honesty, ethics, and integrity?
A. E&C leaders are the perfect bridge builders because they often sit outside an organization’s mainstream politics and can act as the ideal ‘Switzerland’ between potentially rivaling or disconnected functions.
For example, rather than working with discrete departments or divisions, E&C leaders should consider gathering those at the seams, where the ‘ethical fungus’ of misconduct grows. So, rather than just working with sales, bring together sales and marketing. Or, rather than just working with supply chain, bring together supply chain with R&D and logistics. By facilitating a dialogue between key areas where unresolved conflict lurks, E&C leaders become the ‘seam stitchers’ the organization needs.
Q. You address “healthy and natural tensions” between corporate goals. Even the tension between the pressure to succeed and the pressure to comply can be healthy if proactively addressed. Speaking to the E&C community, how can they help the workforce to appreciate they never have to sacrifice integrity to succeed and are never alone to deconflict those tensions?
A. Well first, just naming the tensions helps acknowledge and somewhat disarm them, expelling them from the churning guts of anxious professionals. The key here is granular examination of the challenges.
I remember one sales leader lamenting, ‘I feel like marketing just put a bounty on my highest customer segment’s head with their new campaign.’ You can hear the pain in their helpless sense of ‘what am I supposed to do now?’ Rather than leaving things to chance, this is the place where E&C leaders can convene the key players to discuss and resolve the unhealthy tensions that get created across seams when there’s no healthy mechanism to discuss them.
Q. You use Skanska as an example of an organization that had workforce safety in its DNA and how it leveraged that mindset to expand integrity and honesty across the organization. Can you expand on this some more?
A. Skanska is one of the world’s largest construction companies but was facing significant safety challenges at its worksites. Rather than injury reduction metrics, it emphasized worker safety and care.
As is the case when changing cultural norms, success in one area earns the organization the right to expand into others. Having made dramatic headway in the area of safety, Skanska has turned its attention to diversity and inclusion. In a predominantly male-dominated industry, gender diversity is difficult to achieve. But the same vulnerability and commitment to each other through safety can parlay into commitment to one another in broader ways.
Once your organization has experienced the ability to shift its entrenched norms, you dislodge disbelief, opening people’s minds to the possibilities of other needed changes.
Q. How can our compliance peers help their business colleagues appreciate the power of their ethical voice?
A. I believe most leaders want to shape honest cultures but naively assume their declarations and intentions are sufficient. We have plenty of catastrophes that demonstrate that’s not the case. The fastest way to influence those in the C-suite to act is to care about what they care about—to link your agenda to theirs.
In the case of E&C leaders, that’s a no-brainer. Enterprise performance is what those leaders are (sometimes to a fault) focused on, and things like leadership, culture, ESG, and other tertiary causes get short shrift. That is short-sighted.
My research revealed the most honest companies outperform their peers on every metric anyone in the C-suite cares about. The greatest levels of performance and innovation are unleashed in environments of the greatest honesty. Help your C-suite clients see the connection, and you’ll have their attention for life.