Do Leaders Lose Integrity As They Gain Experience?
Welcome back to Leading by the Numbers! Over the next few months, I will bring you an in-depth analysis of each of the 11 leadership domains: adaptability, conflict management, domain expertise, empathy, execution, group facilitation, inspiration, integrity, listening, mentoring, and vision.
The data I’ll discuss was collected through the Torch leadership assessment questionnaire. Leaders use our questionnaire to rank themselves on all 11 leadership domains. Their coworkers then anonymously assess the leader in those same 11 areas. This process uncovers their strengths and weaknesses, and draws attention to any self-awareness gaps.
Leadership Integrity: Our Findings
Today’s focus is on leadership integrity, a highly valued trait in all businesses. Leaders who have strong integrity are honest, fulfill their commitments, and take responsibility for their mistakes. Those low in integrity might take their frustrations out on coworkers, pursue hidden agendas, or conduct themselves inappropriately in the workplace.
Torch data shows several interesting patterns around leadership integrity across thousands of data points. Most notably, people tend to rank both themselves and others significantly higher in integrity than in any other leadership domain. In other words, leaders working with Torch perceive their integrity as a relative strength, and their coworkers agree.
However, it’s important to acknowledge the fear or worry that may come up when someone is asked to evaluate another person’s leadership integrity. Since integrity is often seen as a fundamental trait of “good people,” receiving a low integrity score could be much more upsetting than accepting a low rating, on say, conflict management.
The high leadership integrity scores serve to remind us that 360 reviews may show bias on sensitive or fundamental qualities since most people do not want to offend or upset their coworkers.
You can see this bias in visual form in the graph of distributions below. Self-ratings are on the left and coworker ratings are on the right. The thin black vertical lines represent the median of the domain, and the crazy mountain-looking things represent the general distribution of the data (where most of the Torch data falls on the spectrum).
You’ll notice the median and the bulk of integrity ratings (in bright blue, 4th from the top) are further to the right than the rest of the domains in both self (left side) and other-reports (right side). These may look like minor differences, but they are statistically significant, which means it is very unlikely that these high integrity ratings are due to random chance.
Integrity Data Findings and Controlled Variables
It is encouraging that our integrity ratings are generally very high. However, there is a dark side to our data findings. Based on our data, as leaders gain experience, their teams tend to rate them lower in integrity.
You read that correctly! The more years of experience a leader has, the less integrity their coworkers see in them.
You might be thinking, there must be other factors impacting the decline in integrity ratings outside of experience, right? We thought so too. That’s why we looked at other influential variables like the leader’s gender, personality, and management level. There are also intangible factors to consider, such as the personal relationship between the coworker and the leader.
Fortunately, statistics allow us to control for all of these variables. We can remove the influence of outside factors to focus on the direct relationship between colleague-rated integrity and years of experience. It turns out that even controlling for all of these variables, integrity ratings still tend to fall as experience rises. This reinforces that the relationship between integrity and years of experience is independent of other factors.
What could be going on here? Why do people seemingly lose integrity as they gain experience?
Here are three potential explanations:
1. More experience leads to more exposure.
As leaders gain experience, their actions and decisions become more visible throughout their organization.
A leader who has been at a company for ten years is probably making more high-impact choices than one who has only been there for two. The higher visibility of more experienced leaders could explain why they’re receiving lower integrity ratings compared to those with less experience.
For instance, to be perceived as a leader who avoids taking responsibility for their actions, someone providing feedback must witness mistakes firsthand. Similarly, in order to be perceived as pursuing a hidden agenda, the rater must have some idea of the leader’s agenda to begin with.
As leaders gain experience within an organization, increased exposure leads to visibility into mistakes and agendas, whereas newer leaders may be less scrutinized.
2. More experienced leaders are held to higher standards.
People are more likely to forgive mistakes and occasional bad behavior from new leaders who are still learning the ropes.
For example, direct reports providing feedback for a less experienced leader might give extra leeway when it comes to missing tight deadlines that they wouldn’t afford a more senior leader.
This is because a more experienced leader often has additional responsibilities that impact a broader set of coworkers. When they fail to meet deadlines, the actions of seasoned leaders can have repercussions throughout the entire business.
As leaders gain experience, flaws such as unreliability become more memorable and might negatively impact their integrity ratings.
3. Experienced leaders no longer feel the need to please their colleagues.
At the beginning of a leader’s career, maintaining a positive image is extremely important for advancement. They tend to be extra mindful of how their actions might be perceived.
However, as a leader’s career progresses, they can become less guarded and take the impact of their actions for granted. For example, they might take their frustrations out on direct reports or hide and withhold important information. These types of selfish actions are much less likely to negatively impact their career path, if they meet larger business objectives.
Unfortunately, experience may lead people to treat their coworkers with greater indifference because they can get away with it.
Overall, leadership integrity ratings skew quite high in our data. However, for more experienced leaders, our analysis provides a word of caution. Senior leaders need to be mindful of the impact of their behavior on others if they want to keep the trust and respect of their colleagues.
Until next time,