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In a recent leadership development workshop I ran, one woman bravely spoke her truth about the reality of the toxic corporate culture they all worked in. It was dysfunctional. Managers were petty and their pettiness was only overshadowed by the pettiness of the leaders above them. All these great ideas we were generating in the training – all this great energy – how could they keep it alive when everyone went back to their regularly scheduled work life the next day?

Enter, Reality

I welcomed this dissolution of the kumbaya moment, because acknowledging the reality of a situation – warts and all – is a critical step to claiming our own personal power to deal with it. (Reality, that is. Not warts.) In addition to giving me a chance for a short pep talk, I also jumped on this opportunity to demonstrate to these rising leaders how, even within the larger culture, they had the personal power to create their own little “culture bubbles,” with different agreements within their sphere of control on what would and wouldn’t be tolerated. (Chris McGoff has a wonderful and actionable definition of culture as the line between what a group does and doesn’t tolerate. Check out his PRIME, CULTURE

Together we developed some cultural bubble definitions that could survive within the larger, more toxic culture. And then we had an illuminating conversation. I asked them to choose the single most important principle (chosen from The PRIMES , universal principles of group dynamics) to promote into the toxic culture in order to change it. The results were conclusive: INTEGRITY  got 13 votes and the next most popular on the list only got four votes. The group believed that INTEGRITY had a better chance – beating out its closest competitor by more than 400% – to impact the culture for the better.

An (Anti) Poison Pill?

It got me thinking about culture-making projects I’ve worked on where everyone accepts defeat at the outset, because “Cultural change is impossible. Toxicity wins.” These projects stand in stark contrast to the situations where culture change happens spontaneously when new leadership comes in and – just changes it.

I believe it’s true. I believe that a value and practice as simple and strong as INTEGRITY could actually become an antidote to toxicity in corporate cultures. I believe it because I’ve seen it work and it invariably works best (but not only) from the top down. When toxic cultures bubble from the bottom up, it’s because leadership allows it to happen; but truly healthy cultures can only flow from the top down. Leadership shoulders the responsibility for being this kind of change and being the change is not the same as modeling it. When you model an attitude, it’s as though you’re wearing a jacket, which everyone including you knows you can take off when the door closes. Cultural change only happens when behavior is consistent behind and in front of closed doors.

So what chance does a single principle have to “infect” an entire culture for the better? With enthusiasm like a 400% greater popularity index, INTEGRITY is a leading contender for a simple antidote to cultural toxicity.

If It Was Easy….

So why hasn’t anyone invented this little red pill yet? The reasons are numerous, of course, but I would say that it comes down to a simplistic understanding of what integrity actually is. When I do PRIMES Leadership Development trainings  –  I always ask people what integrity means to them. People consistently use the definition we use: do what you say you’ll do. So simple. The reality of life makes following this little six word maxim challenging, of course, but primarily because we’re so used to saying what others want us to say, regardless of what is actually doable. If you know your boss wants to hear that you’ll make it back for the 3pm staff meeting when your client meeting wraps up across town at 2:45, how often do you just say, “sure boss, see you there!” and just show up late? How often does s/he let you get away with it because it’s what they want to hear?

Living in integrity has other benefits too. It buffs up your personal brand and helps you live in alignment with your higher self. Literally, you have nothing to lose. Working in integrity isn’t so hard if you give yourself permission to:

  • Be precise about what you commit to based on factors under your control (e.g., I’ll leave the client’s office no later than 2:50 and come straight back to the meeting.)
  • Be the first to recognize your own breaches of integrity (they will happen!)
  • Be consistent so that others come to believe your word is your action.
  • Let go of the guilt that you can’t do everything you or everyone else wants you to and enjoy the fact that you’re living in integrity!

Try it. Create your own little “culture bubble” of integrity. Teach your team to do the same. The higher up you are, the broader impact you can have. Go ahead, be the antidote. I dare you!

This post originally appeared on the Reclaiming Leadership blog. Check out my new self-service women’s leadership coaching website: InPowerCoaching.com.

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