If you ask company executives to reveal their “core values,” integrity is always one of their first answers, says Joel C. Peterson, chairman of the board of JetBlue Airways and a Stanford University professor of management. The single most important ingredient to business success is trust, Peterson says, and trust starts with integrity & honesty.
Borrowing from C.S. Lewis’s famous quote, defining integrity as
“doing the right thing all the time, even when no one is looking—especially when no one is looking.”
There are many examples of acting without integrity:
CEOs who overstate their projected earnings because they don’t want to be replaced by their boards of directors. Competitors who lie to customers to seal a deal. Customer service reps covering up mistakes because they fear clients will leave. There’s no shortage of high-profile major lapses, too: Bernie Madoff’s long-standing operation of a Ponzi scheme considered to be the largest financial fraud in U.S. history, Michael Milken’s conviction for violating U.S. securities laws after being the one-time toast of Wall Street, and Major League Baseball star Alex Rodriguez’ use of performance-enhancing drugs.
“Do what is right; even when you think no one is looking, for someone is always watching.”
What does a person acting with integrity look like? In today’s fast-paced chaotic dysfunctional world, positive examples may be hard to find. I believe there are far too few moral people out there today willing to stand up and say: “sometimes it’s better to lose than to lose your integrity.”
That holds true in both personal and professional relationships. If you don’t have integrity, it bleeds over into other parts of your life. Integrity can’t be compartmentalized. There is a kind of integrity that spans across all our behaviors.
Acting with integrity can be difficult.
There are plenty of situations that are not altogether clear, they lay in the gray areas of life as we refer to them. One professional example of this:
The chief financial officer of a company was unjustly accused of wrongdoing by a regulator. “The dilemma: You are spending shareholders’ money to protect the CFO, & if you just fire the guy it would all go away. On the other hand, that’s the wrong thing to do, & it could destroy this man’s life.”
So, you ask whether he makes that decision according to his own standards or the standards of shareholders to whom he answers. “We fought. We said [the regulator’s action] was wrong. We won’t cave, & we won’t be bullied.” The outcome: The regulator dropped the matter, & the board’s audit committee sent a message to the company that “integrity matters here.”
Integrity is the stuff of management & leadership, and it takes a ton of work to build.
The committee’s action represents the “organizational integrity” that we should be dealing with in our own professional life & in our management & leadership. Organizational integrity is a broader notion that embraces the idea of alignment, where what you do & what you say is consistent. Think of a bridge or a structure with integrity; they’re all bolted together in a way that can withstand shocks. This is the stuff of management & leadership. It takes a ton of work to build but, once built, it is unmovable.”
Talk to the people around you to get a handle on your integrity. Find ways to get honest feedback from others. You need to find out if—& that goes double if you’re a boss—you have the appropriate level of trust. Integrity stands as a driver of trust. Let those around you call you out…. Be willing to have people police you. Your trusted advisers should be people who will tell you whether you’re acting with integrity or whether there’s a better way to handle something.
As for building your integrity & modeling it for others, I offer these suggestions:
Fulfill your promises.
To your staff, your investors, everyone. If you break a promise, you must apologize, but don’t let this become a pattern.
Doing so affects you professionally & personally (practicing your faith, staying fit, being present for family, etc.).
Before you make a commitment…
Stop & soberly reflect on whether you are 100 % sure you can deliver. You need to be dispassionate in that evaluation.
Get comfortable with saying no.
No one can say yes to everything & follow through on it all. It is okay to say No, I am not interested in that, or No I cannot do that.
Examine how you react in knee-jerk situations…
As well as how you make longer-term commitments (e.g., attending events, completing projects, etc.). Use this introspection to become self-aware, keep score & improve. (You can also use this behavioral yardstick for determining whether others act with integrity.)
Polish your communication skills.
Reread that email or report before you send it; plan what you’ll say in oral presentations & phone calls. Fuzzy communication leads to broken promises. Ask someone to proofread written communications & point out ambiguities before you distribute them. Say what you mean & mean what you say.
Consider the habits & skills you need to develop to enhance your integrity.
You might need to stop certain actions (e.g., speaking impulsively or sugarcoating your responses). And you might need to improve on others: building your personal courage (because fear holds you back from acting with integrity. Issue apologies faster, simpler & aimed more at containing the damage [you may have done] than at justifying yourself. It is better to apologize for thinking you have offended someone and find out you did not, then to have offended someone and never apologize to them. Take great care with the language you use, especially when dealing with sensitive issues such as sexual preference, racism &religion.
Avoid people who lack integrity.
Do not do business with them. Do not associate with them. Do not make excuses for them. It’s important to realize that others pay attention to those you have chosen to associate with, & they will inevitably judge your character by the character of your friends.”
Gauging Your Integrity
Do you act with integrity? You can make an accurate assessment by asking yourself this list of six questions.
- Am I willing to say what I’m thinking?
- Am I willing to risk being wrong?
- Do I want my child or someone else I love to do that? If not, then why am I doing it?
- Does this conduct make me a better person?
- Am I Leading by example?
- Am I taking 100 percent responsibility?