Creating a Culture of Integrity One Relationship at a Time

Have you been following the Volkswagen emissions scandal (also dubbed “Dieselgate”)? If so, you know that VW has gotten caught intentionally programming many of their diesel engines to meet emissions tests only during lab testing. Emissions during driving were up to 40 times higher. 

VW Group CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned from his position and is also stepping down as head of the Porsche holding company that owns a majority of VW stock.

Several other top executives were suspended, and major auto recalls are in effect.

Theories abound about what leads a reputable company to behave this way.  They range from the “rogue engineer” theory (just a couple of bad players acting alone) to the culture of engineering organizations in general. (For more information check out this recent article.) 

Nancy Southern has written an excellent article addressing this question using a slightly different lens. She, too, approaches the scandal from the point of view of culture. But her emphasis is on what it takes to create a culture of integrity.  You can read her full article here.

What stood out for me most strongly is the notion that organizational integrity is fundamentally about right relationships. She cites Marvin T. Brown who

“reminds us that the term integrity comes from the notion of integral, which relates to wholeness and the ‘right relationships among parts of a whole’ (p.5).”

She goes on to write,

“This meaning of integrity expands the responsibility of leaders to develop organizational cultures that foster the right relationships among all the members of an organization, customers, vendors, communities, and our natural environment that make up the whole of the organization.”

What fosters right relationships, I wondered.  What can individuals working in such organizations do to promote right relationships? If it’s just a matter of culture, that leaves the individual with little leverage to influence organizational conditions.

What came to mind is the regular use of so-called “soft skills” such as:

  • Empathetic listening
  • Asking questions that help people think for themselves
  • Focusing on learning rather than blaming
  • Sharing the big picture perspective
  • Transparent communication

The business relevance of these soft skills is sometimes a hard sell. In our Leader as Coach Mastery Program, participants struggle with taking the time to learn and apply these skills while maintaining a focus on the core of their business.

The VW scandal may be a great reminder that without actively working to cultivate right relationships, business will eventually suffer.

In addition to the fallout from the scandal to date, VW is set to pay out something like $7.3 billion to correct the emissions issues. Who knows what other consequences will ensue from their failure of integrity. Next time you question whether it’s worth taking the time to use your soft skills, ask yourself how this contributes to a culture of integrity. Is it worth it?


Nancy's website is