Going for integrity

In March 2018, the Australian cricket team became embroiled in scandal as two of its players admitted to ball tampering in a match against South Africa. Both players were subsequently suspended as was the Captain. The team’s coach, Darren Lehmann, later resigned.

Photo by NAPARAZZI

Photo by NAPARAZZI

As one of the people asked to review the Australian cricket team in the aftermath of this ‘ball cheating scandal’, seeing the thousands of letters written to the head office at Cricket Australia was overwhelming. To use a descriptive term, a ‘bullshit detector’ had gone off, and the world was outraged. A massive failure of integrity had been so publicly exposed within Australia’s most cherished sports team.

Such moments occur not just in sport. The word scandal in the UK is associated with phone hacking or MPs’ expenses.  And we appear to be in an environment where corruption around governments globally is not reducing.

Instances like these demonstrate why a rigorous analysis of a governance concept like ‘public integrity’ is so crucial. And, why as Director of the Centre for Ethical Leadership in Australia, I was glad recently to work with the team at the Blavatnik School of Government, around their research into integrity and corruption.  I see these issues of integrity play out repeatedly across organisations. In this blog post, I share five lessons on integrity from my own experience that make sense of the research, which help address issues that occur all around the world in different forms, not least in government.

1. Go for integrity not merely countering corruption.

Organisations, like people, are moral agents with a moral compass. A small deviation can have a massive effect. Long term integrity has to start with an organisation defining its sense of purpose and its moral compass. In doing so, organisations can put in place an intricate system of measures that ensure the organisation is capable of acting with full integrity.

Go for the intergos, the whole, and from there address corruption as the end point of a longer-term process of deviation and degradation.

2. Start with the organisation

I have never forgotten a workshop with a European headquartered resource company 15 years ago when the news broke that their leaders had lied about the level of reserve oil levels. The silence and shock gave way to a quiet voice at the back who said, ‘we were all in on this.’

Almost always in cases of corruption, collusion lurks. The key is to address the core of the organisation – to review governance, the capability of the leaders, delegated authorities and the like. It is almost certain that a post mortem on the performance management records of people found to have breached integrity will reveal gaps. Everyone has a story after the event about what they were really like. So, fix the organisation first and correct the ways that the organisation has deviated from its stated purpose in order to restore integrity.

3. Don’t just ‘sheep dip’ the leaders.

I would love a pound for every time I was told to see if I can set up an ‘integrity course’ that would fix the Australian cricketers by next summer. Such a ‘sheep-dip’ approach, if theoretically possible, would only trivialise the real issue. It is better to examine if and how the players were in part the product of a culture that facilitated such behaviours. Hence the thorough review process.

Corruption flourishes when a sense of entitlement creeps in. It is moral psychology at work – as human beings we often ‘rationally-lie’ to ourselves about our own behaviours and then explain away what we did as the right post-fact. Making leaders moral is reliant on ensuring everything around them facilitates them to act with integrity, so they do not rationally-lie.

4. Avoid minimum standards approaches

In this respect, one of the greatest traps in pursuing integrity is the snake and ladders type game of ‘crossing the line’. Usually known as minimum standards approach, this is just an invitation for the well-practised game of ‘almost’ crossing the line. Like one famous episode of Yes Prime Minister, the jug can’t be worth more than 50 Euros, so it is valued at 49.95.

Away from sport, the Catholic Church in Australia historically resisted the option of mandatory reporting to police of those members of its clergy reported to have abused children. Better to stay with the lesser standard of church law and deal in-house. A recent Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse by Religious Authoritiesfound that Australia has the highest rate of sexual abuse of children in the world. The Commission found that since 1950 religious orders had as many as 40 percent of its members involved in paedophile activities.

Minimum standards can lead to maximum damage, especially when public officials accept the same low bar.

5. Make integrity live and real

Pursuing integrity must be done actively. A previous Head of the Department of Education in the state of Victoria in Australia devised a scheme that involved an intricate system of pooled finance across clusters of schools who in each case had relatives looking after the books. The scheme ultimately enabled systemic fraud. While compliance can be part of the answer, it can also breed the virus of passivity that when the systems are fixed, all will be fine.

Focussing on integrity violations belies developing rituals and conversations about ‘values-issues’, a concept borrowed from the safety culture of mines. Members of organisations who have dilemmas or a sense of unease must be able to raise them in their team. Such moves enable individuals to keep the moral compass alive and to help an organisation grapple with what the right thing to do is. Importantly such devices keep an institution true to achieving its purpose through legitimate means.

After all, isn’t that what all those letter writers really want – to watch a cricket game played with integrity and, a la the Barmy Army, sing and drink the day away, hoping above all else to beat those Australians in a game that is fun and fair!

Peter Collins is the Director of the Centre for Ethical Leadership based at Ormond College at the University of Melbourne.

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