Sticking to your values in a VUCA environment: The challenges of working with integrity
The acronym often used to describe an environment of noise, mess, and doubt is VUCA. These four letters represent volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It’s something that’s recognizable for many of us in our everyday lives.
Perhaps you’re managing a complex job with multiple pressures, and much of the day is spent doing a role that’s unrecognizable from the one you thought you’d signed up to. And maybe this is coupled with the responsibility you feel for your elderly parents who need attention. And your children, who not only want loving and feeding, but also need to visit the dentist and be to their swimming lesson on time.
So what comes first? How can you prioritize your precious time?
Balancing complex, conflicting priorities
With little data to draw on to help us decide, and no metaphorical “burning platform” to force our decisions, we are left to our own devices.
So, you’re the one that has to ask yourself and determine:
Does that presentation need to be perfect or is 80% good enough? Are swimming lessons that important Do my parents really need to see me that regularly?
It’s our instincts, our experiences, and our values that help us decide. Most of the time, this works for us.
However, holding true to what we feel is important—with integrity to our core values—can be tricky in light of complex social and moral contradictions. And if we try to stick to all our values to the level we’d like to, somewhere along the line we are going to break. Particularly when we are under pressure. And especially when we think no one is looking.
The danger of hypocrisy
The result can be that, the more integrity you want to have, the more you can end up acting like a hypocrite.
It is important to note that I use the term hypocrite as one given to such actions, rather than one who is a hypocrite (see Naso, 2010). So being a hypocrite and acting with hypocrisy are not essentially tied together. The literature tells us that hypocrisy can be useful for conflict resolution and reputation management, but it disregards the moral worth of a person—it doesn’t tell us anything about whether we can trust a person who acts like a hypocrite. This is the important part!
Our intentions are not necessarily in the public eye, only what we say and do. As human beings living in a complex world, we are judged by others, especially when they see incongruence between what we’ve said and what we do.
Unfortunately, we don’t always get the chance to explain and justify why we’ve done what we’ve done.
“Our intentions are not necessarily in the public eye, only what we say and do.”
Moreover, we cannot assume that others will make the cognitive leap to try and understand our intentions. That comes with time, trust, and a relationship of some sort. Only then will others say, “Oh, they’ve done THAT because of THIS. Not because they’ve intentionally set out to deceive me for their own gain.”
This also goes the other way: we judge people on their actions. Only after we have some insight into their character can we begin to understand them. But people only have a few chances—if we see behavior that undermines their values, we begin to think they’re either acting like a hypocrite or they are a hypocrite.
As an example, a few years ago, a CEO told me how he came to realize work/life balance was his strongest value. So he set up his business to reflect that way of working. Then, one day, having started very early in the morning to meet a tight deadline, one of his colleagues came in 2.5 hours later than him. Unexpectedly, he felt an angry inner voice ask, “What time do you call this?”
Feeling like a hypocrite, he realized then that his strongest value was in fact “fairness,” with work/life balance stemming from this. His colleague coming in much later than him had felt unfair.
Practicing integrity under pressure
So, what can you do?
What has been helpful for me and the people I work with in my practice of developing leaders with integrity, is to create opportunities to put yourself under pressure. This could be doing something you’re not sure you will be any good at or something that makes you cringe—and doing it anyway.
In this environment, your body will produce adrenaline, which will create a “fight or flight” response. This feeling is perfect for finding out what really matters to you when push comes to shove
Then spend some time reflecting on what happened, how you acted, and how you felt. Think about your decisions in light of what you consider to be your values. And ask yourself whether you are really being honest with yourself about why you do what you do. Or, are you telling yourself stories to justify your actions?
“Think about your decisions in light of what you consider to be your values. And ask yourself whether you are really being honest with yourself about why you do what you do.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the dark side of integrity and the implications for those of us who want to develop and work with integrity, watch my recent TEDx talk below:
Ready to further develop your ethical leadership skills? Find our more about Ashridge Executive Education Open Programs.