Here’s the funny thing about integrity: It’s one of the most crucial ingredients of effective leadership, but it’s notoriously hard to measure. One reason is that integrity is somewhat contextual; psychologists have found that the same person may act with integrity in some situations but not others. And it’s true that corrupt, mischievous work cultures tend to unleash deviant behaviors even in those who’d behave ethically under other circumstances. By the same token, “prosocial,” ethical cultures discourage naughtiness, forcing even those with relatively little integrity to act in uncharacteristically moral ways (at least for a while).
So if you’re not sure how well you should trust your boss, the first place to look is at the work culture he or she operates within. If your organization is comprised of a pretty upstanding bunch, there’s at least a decent likelihood that your supervisor will need to conform to it.
But it isn’t quite that simple, either, and make no mistake: Your relationship with your boss–and the level of trust between you–is crucial to your overall job satisfaction. The alarming rates at which workers are considering greener pastures this year have a lot to do with those relationships. A whopping 84% of U.S. employees often come into conflict: being too focused on our achievements and careers makes us selfish and can justify nasty behavior towards others; but being too nice and deferential to people can harm our own career prospects, especially if we let others take take advantage of our generosity.
Luckily, scientific research suggests that one of the best ways to evaluate managers’ integrity is through the their subordinates’ perceptions and expectations of them. In other words, you might be a pretty good judge of your boss’s character simply because you interact with them so much. If fact, just asking employees to assess the likelihood that their managers may cheat, misbehave, or deceive them can actually be fairly predictive of whether they actually will. So if you and your colleagues think you can trust your boss, you’re probably right. And if you don’t, you’re probably right, too.
That said, you can’t always judge a book by its cover. Some highly desirable personality traits may actually indicate poor integrity while other, less appreciated traits do the reverse. These are a few things to watch out for.
As behavioral economists have shown, creative people tend to engage in dishonest behavior more frequently than others. One theory for why is because they have a vivid imagination to generate alternative “truths.”
So if your boss is particularly creative, they may be better equipped to bend the truth and make stuff up, then use their imaginative mind to find a justification for it. (Nietzsche similarly noted that while honesty is lazy–it simply involves recalling facts and one’s own experience–deception takes a lot of effort, creativity, and intelligence.)
Psychologists also know that creative people are generally more unconventional, thrill-seeking, and antiauthoritarian, all upping the chances that they may have fewer moral inhibitions when situations incentivize breaking the rules.
Some bosses, of course, are charismatic without being psychopathic; others are psychopaths with zero charisma. However, some bosses are both, and this can be quite dangerous.
From an evolutionary perspective, it isn’t hard to imagine that charisma evolved in part as an adaptive decoy strategy for hiding psychopathic tendencies. When you’re able to charm and schmooze others, you can get away with quite a lot, and people won’t even notice. In a similar vein, bosses with high social skills and emotional intelligence may use them to scheme–successfully.
When you are incredibly skilled at influencing others, you need to have a great deal of moral inhibitions–integrity–to not take advantage of them. And fortunately, many of those people don’t. Others do, though, and Machiavellian and psychopathic bosses (the two traits are closely linked) are remorseless manipulators who feel little empathy and take pleasure in breaking the rules–think Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in House of Cards. Managers with this personality profile may be great fun in some situations, but you should beware working for them.
When it comes to integrity, boring and predictable is good. Arguably the most relevant factor when it comes to assessing integrity is emotional intelligence (EQ). Yet contrary to popular belief, people with high EQ are neither overly spiritual nor overly emotional.
The best way to think about emotional intelligence is in terms of emotional stability–or the reverse of neuroticism. It’s also been linked to higher levels of self-control, risk-aversion, and agreeableness. That means that bosses who are predictable, cool-headed, polite, and maybe even a little boring as a result are likely to have higher EQ and, subsequently, good integrity.
In short, if you and your colleagues think you can trust your boss, you probably should, especially if they’re dull, uncharismatic, and uncreative. There probably won’t be any books or movies memorializing their wild exploits, but you wouldn’t want to work for the “Wolf of Wall Street,” either–trust me.