Motivating People to Act with More Integrity

A word cloud of the words " integrity " and " principle ".
by Deborah Bell

As Vice President, Consulting, Deborah conducts assessments, manages consulting projects, and designs and delivers custom solutions. She enjoys building relationships with her clients and uncovering their needs so she can serve as a trusted adviser and business partner.

Most people report that Integrity is an important value that is part of an individual’s character.  Fewer people may know that personality traits influence a person’s character and predict acts of Integrity (and low integrity) well.  One set of these traits falls under the Honesty/Humility domain in the HEXECO model of personality (which is subsumed under the Agreeableness domain in the Five Factor Model).  However, research shows that detecting low levels of this personality domain in ourselves and others is difficult.  And, if we can’t see it, we can’t change it.  

Let’s take a look at two recent studies and their implications:

Study 1: Who wants to change and how?¹ 

Individuals who were low on the socially desirable personality domains of Extraversion, Conscientiousness, and Emotional Adjustment reported a goal of wanting to change (i.e., increase) these aspects of their personality. This suggests an awareness of their lower standing on the domain.

In contrast, individuals who were low on the even more socially desirable domain of Honesty/Humility did not report a goal of wanting to change (increase) this aspect of their personality. However, after they were given feedback on their low standing, they reported that they did want to change (i.e., increase) this aspect of their personality.  Those individuals also reported that of all the feedback they received, they were most surprised by their low scores on the Honesty/Humility domain. 

Key take-away:

People low on the Honesty/Humility domain tend to lack awareness of their standing on it.  Once they are informed of it, they want to change it.

Study 2: Are Supervisors and Coworkers likely to witness CWBs²

When supervisors’ and coworkers’ ratings of Counterproductive Work Behaviors  (e.g., discussing confidential information with an unauthorized individual) were compared to an individual’s confidential self-report of those behaviors, supervisors and coworkers failed to witness several CWBs that the individuals reported exhibiting. This suggests that low integrity behaviors often fly under the radar.

Key takeaway:
Others often fail to observe behaviors reflective of low Integrity.  If they can’t see it, they can’t rate it.

Practical Implications for Hiring and Developing People

  1. Because people low on it don’t realize it: A self-report psychometric tool designed to measure the HEXACO model or The Big 5 (if it measures the full domain of Agreeableness) will be more predictive of low integrity behaviors than a self-assessment (e.g., directly asking candidates to rate how honest they are or to provide examples of times when they acted with integrity.)

  2. Because we tend not to be good judges of others on it: The tool mentioned above can be used to fill in gaps from a 360-degree feedback process.

  3. Because desire to change happens with self-awareness: By giving the person feedback on their standing on this domain relative to others, they are likely to have a heighted willingness/desire to change.  This is a critical precursor to actual behavioral change.

While no one wants to hear that they have low Integrity, that is the very thing they need to hear to spark awareness and desire to change.  Well, maybe not exactly in those words.  Focusing on behaviors that signal Integrity detaches it from an evaluation of their character and provides concrete examples of what to do differently.  A developmental report written by a business psychologist and feedback from a coach can help to motivate the individual to activate behavioral change.  


¹ Thielmann, I., & de Vries, R. E. (2021). Who wants to change and how? On the trait-specificity of personality change goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 121(5), 1112–1139

² Carpenter, N. C., Rangel, B., Jeon, G., & Cottrell, J. (2017). Are supervisors and coworkers likely to witness employee counterproductive work behavior? An investigation of observability and self–observer convergence. Personnel Psychology, 70(4), 843–889.

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