What do we actually mean by integrity?

Would you rather be a good person with a bad reputation, or a bad person with a good reputation?

Life throws us moral dilemmas all the time, and how we choose to handle them represents our integrity. Whether it’s admitting a mistake or exaggerating an achievement, we commonly face predicaments in which it feels as though we could stand to lose by doing the right thing.

Although integrity is as much a personal responsibility as a corporate one, business has taught us why it’s so important. The path of integrity is the more difficult one to take, but it’s really the only way to prosper in the long run. We can get by without integrity, but only for so long. Because if we’re not directing our efforts towards something that we truly believe in, then we’ll never give it the energy and fortitude it requires.

This is why integrity has become one of the most fundamental entrepreneurial values. It’s an investment in the idea that doing the right thing will continue to bear fruit long after others have fallen foul of their own deceit.

But if integrity is one of the basic building blocks of doing business, then why do we even need to talk about it?

There are really two reasons why we need to talk about integrity.

  1. Everybody defines integrity differently. To some people, arriving 20 minutes late to a restaurant reservation is dishonourable, while to others it’s not a big deal. People also disagree over the instances in which lying is or isn’t acceptable. These discrepancies are cultural as well as personal, but they can lead to ambiguity in a multicultural workplace. And if you don’t fully understand integrity, you can’t be sure if you’re on the right path or not.
  2. People have an innate tendency to justify their behaviour. If you were to ask a group of people whether or not they thought cheating was wrong, the vast majority would say that it is. And yet, that same majority is likely to have cheated, on some level, at one time or another. They simply dismissed it as “not really cheating”, or something that “everybody does”. As humans, we’re so adept at rationalizing our behaviour in any given situation that we can easily lose sight of things as they really are.

Without doubt, the biggest challenge to establishing a culture of integrity is the belief that it doesn’t need thinking about.

Most people quickly declare themselves honourable without giving it much thought. If they don’t steal, and are generally polite and courteous, then they are in the clear and can leave this topic for “bad people”.

But the truth is that it’s difficult to act with integrity 100% of the time, particularly when emotions are at play and pressure is high. The world is competitive, and it‘s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “everyone else is doing this”.

Thus, to be able to nurture integrity is to first understand that acting with integrity is a choice we all continuously face. And it’s not always an easy one to make.

What is integrity?

The word integrity evolved from the Latin adjective “integer”, which means whole or complete. And this is actually a great place to start. Acting with integrity means being unerringly you, regardless of who you are speaking with and what might be at stake.

Living with integrity means being true and authentic to your world view or code of beliefs. Your actions and decisions, in every situation, are based on those principles. Your whole is never broken.

One of the biggest signs that somebody has integrity is that they always seem to be the same. It doesn’t matter who they are with, at what time; they are unfailingly recognizable. The opposite would be someone who always seems to bend to the situation at hand in order to manipulate it to their own ends. You can’t quite figure these people out, because they don’t appear to stand for anything.

The key to integrity is consistency, and nobody is saying it’s easy. If you’re having a bad day, it takes great courage and self-awareness not to let your problems affect your judgment and the way you treat others. It also takes courage to accept negative consequences for doing what’s right, which is sometimes just the way that things go.

But, as tempting as it often feels to make little compromises here and there, these quickly turn into bigger compromises. Nobody wakes up one morning and decides to live deceitfully. Ethical decay is a slippery slope brought about by small acts of laziness, carelessness and greed.

Seemingly minor diversions might seem palatable if they can earn us a higher bonus or a corner office. But they only serve to take us further from our goals. And the more disconnected we become from who we actually are and who we want to be, the harder it gets to steer ourselves back on course.

Why is integrity important in business?

Whatever industry you’re in, business will inevitably offer you opportunities to cut corners or avoid problems by behaving dishonestly. And just like with anything else in life, taking those opportunities is probably something that you will live to regret.

Doing the right thing, on the other hand, can cause more problems initially. But, because business is a long-term endeavour, it usually pays off in the end.

American billionaire Jon Huntsman Sr. famously wrote that there are no moral shortcuts in business. “There are, basically, three kinds of people: the unsuccessful, the temporarily successful, and those who become and remain successful,” he wrote. “The difference is character.”

But integrity is important for more than just protecting your business against Enron-type scandals. Businesses needs strong leaders who are unafraid of the truth. And many businesses suffer because the truth is ugly and their most influential people would rather avoid or obscure it. With each minor act of waywardness, a leader’s lack of integrity quickly spreads to the rest of the team. And then you’re left with a great liability — a unit that is not just unfocused, but poisonous too.

Great leaders, on the other hand, see the world as it really is, not as they wish it to be. This gives them a type of candor and frank expressiveness that makes them good examples to follow. They clearly have a solid set of principles and will not bend on those, which makes them trustworthy, reliable and, of course, a positive impression on other members of the team.

Leaders with integrity always err on the side of fairness, especially when other people are unfair. In fact, the true mark of leadership is remaining fair to others when you feel you’re being treated unfairly yourself.

The key is to encourage your leaders to speak their minds. If they feel afraid to do so, then you can’t expect them to develop congruence between their thoughts and actions. And that’s what all integrity is based on.

Follow the 7 Cs of Integrity

To make integrity a little easier to understand and remember, there are seven main themes that each begin with the letter ‘C’. By understanding each of these themes and how they apply to yourself, you’ll be able to assess your own level of integrity more easily.

  1. Clarity. Acting with integrity starts with being clear on what you stand for. Your principles can be unorthodox, but they should always be genuine. Clarity of purpose should be evident in all of your decisions and actions.
  2. Constancy. People with constancy are faithful, loyal and stable. You know that you can rely on them, because they are steadfast in their beliefs.
  3. Consistency. As I wrote above, consistency means acting in the same way regardless of your situation, environment or pressures.
  4. Congruence. Congruence is a geometrical term for when two shapes are roughly the same shape and size. In connection to integrity, it means that your thoughts and actions are aligned. Demonstrating congruence means speaking up for what you believe in, even if it’s an unpopular opinion.
  5. Commitment. Acting with integrity is really about doing what you say you’re going to do. If you tell someone you’ll deliver what they asked for by the end of the day, and then you don’t, it might not seem like a big deal if you just send it over the following morning. But acting with integrity means honouring your commitments, however small they might seem. It’s OK to be late, but if you made a commitment to someone then you should always let them know. Demonstrating that you commit to your principles and keep your promises makes others more likely to trust you.
  6. Courage. People with integrity are willing to face something that’s painful or even dangerous if it aligns with their beliefs. Making difficult choices always takes courage, but it’s usually the right thing to do.
  7. Concern. By concern, we mean showing regard for another person or a situation. Seeing beyond our own interests is a crucial element of integrity, and only by caring about the outcome of our actions can we be sure that we’re making the right choices.

It’s no surprise that integrity is frequently ranked at the top of the list for most desirable leadership traits. And yet, there’s still a lot of confusion about what it actually means and how to demonstrate it.

By consciously aligning our thoughts with our actions, and remaining true to our values, we can all stay on the path of integrity.

I’m Philip J. Keezer, president and founder of management consulting firm Grindstone Capital. Dedicated to hard work, learning, positivity and accountability.