Integrity in Leadership – Who Needs It?

While highly valued both in the East and West, integrity may not always be necessary to get commitment from subordinates in China


"In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence and energy,” superstar investor Warren Buffett once said. “And if they don't have the first, the other two will kill you."

To leaders from the West, it might seem obvious that integrity is a prerequisite for good leadership. But those leading teams in China might be surprised to find that it’s not so important, as long as they demonstrate support for their subordinates.

Recent research* conducted in the US and Taiwan found that cultural differences have a significant impact on the relationship between the perceived level of integrity in a boss and the degree of commitment workers had to that boss. This is no small matter – Companies are increasingly worried about employee engagement, with Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2015 showing that culture and engagement had become the No. 1 priority for companies around the world. And commitment to supervisors is the most important aspect of organizational commitment.

So how does a supervisor get commitment from subordinates? Mutual support is the hallmark of commitment, but this usually can only be achieved in an atmosphere of trust, which itself comprises three elements: ability, benevolence and integrity. The first two are reasonably self-explanatory, but integrity requires a little elaboration: It represents a set a values in the supervisor that are applied consistently and that the team member finds acceptable. It is also the most important of the three in creating trust. 

A supervisor should be able to generate commitment by a) demonstrating integrity, and b) demonstrating support for the subordinate.

The research looked at workers in two types of culture: “dignity” and “face.” Dignity in this context is an internal attribute that endures, whereas face derives from status and the opinion of others, meaning it can be gained or lost through social interaction. In face cultures, integrity is important, and in fact revered as the highest level of virtue. But when face is at stake, a face culture can accept compromises in integrity. The fact that integrity doesn’t come easily in face cultures means it is not frequently expected. But in dignity cultures, integrity is regarded as the norm.

Workers in San Diego, California, were taken to represent the dignity culture, and several large cities in Taiwan offered the face culture participants. The results showed that the Californians placed much greater importance on integrity than those in Taiwan, although it was respected in both cultures.

The study also showed that in the dignity culture, neither integrity nor perceived support for subordinates alone was enough to engender commitment – both were required. In Taiwan, on the other hand, leaders needed to demonstrate either support or integrity to earn the commitment of their reports. 

The authors argue that in a dignity culture such as that in the US, without integrity there can be no trust, and without perceived support, there will be no reciprocation.

In a face culture, however, the perceived support of the supervisor is enough for the subordinate to reciprocate with commitment. As integrity isn’t expected of anyone but the most virtuous, a leader with integrity might gain a little more commitment, but not much – the relationship is enough.

Conversely, subordinates will also commit to a supervisor who exhibits integrity, even if they provide no obvious support to the subordinate. In face cultures, relationships of mutual support are necessary because they can provide protection in an environment where trust and integrity are hard to come by. If the leader can really be trusted to be fair, there is no need to for him/her to display support to subordinates in order to get their commitment.

What does this mean for those working in cross-cultural environments? Those leading Western teams need to be trustworthy and supportive of their subordinates – there’s no way around it. But for Chinese teams, if the leader is struggling to convince team members to trust him or her, then merely demonstrating support can get the desired commitment in the short term.

However, as the authors warn, large multinational companies do better when there are recognized processes being implemented by leaders with integrity, rather than one held together by personal relationships. So as Chinese companies expand, and especially as they grow overseas, being “in” with the boss may have increasingly marginal influence. 


*Original research: Cheng, C.-Y., D.-Y. Jiang, B.-S. Cheng, J. H. Riley, and C.-K. Jen, 2015, When do subordinates commit to their supervisors? Different effects of perceived supervisor integrity and support on Chinese and American employees: The Leadership Quarterly, v. 26, p. 81-97.