By Brenda A. Barnes
People often define integrity as doing the right thing even when no one else is around. It is the ability to act with honesty and be consistent in whatever it is you are doing based on the particular moral value or belief compass you have.
Browse through the mission statements of most businesses and you will notice that almost every company includes a statement about integrity:
“We act with integrity in all we do.”
“We hold honesty and integrity as our guiding principles.”
“We are proud of the integrity, sincerity and transparency our employees demonstrate every day.”
Honorable statements, right? But have you ever wondered why they are needed in the first place? After all, integrity should be the basic building blocks for doing business. Integrity should be a given, without the need to sound off about its existence.
Yet it’s not that simple for two reasons: First is the innate human ability to rationalize behavior. For example, if you ask students whether or not it is right to cheat, most will say that cheating is wrong. Yet research suggests that as many as 95% of students have engaged in some form of cheating. Most students will justify the behavior as “not really cheating,” or just something that “everyone else does.” They rationalize their situational behavior and this will allow them to consider themselves to be honest.
As a result, no matter what choice we make, we can convince ourselves that it was made with integrity.
So this leads to the second reason why integrity is so difficult: Everyone defines integrity differently. This is further exacerbated by differences in culture—for example in some business cultures people are expected to openly do favors for each other, while in other cultures those favors would be considered bribes.
In the business world, we are all faced with integrity-based choices on a regular basis. Do we tell our clients that we made a mistake? Do we sit across the board room table from a client and tweak facts to suit our position? Do we make promises we do not keep? Not if you want to be in business for very long.
The power of rationalization and the difficulties of definition reveal integrity as a subject that is neither easy nor simple. These choices require personal judgment.
In some ways the value statements about integrity are meant to remind us that integrity is not just a corporate responsibility, but a personal one as well. If you are a manager, you can apply these values by setting aside time with your team to share integrity dilemmas and discuss the thinking behind individual decisions. If you are a business owner, you can lead by example. If you say you are going to do something, do it. If you make a promise, keep it. If you mess up, own up to it. And if you are an employee, realize that you are part of something bigger than yourself and that you have a duty to carry out your job duties with the best interest of your employer and clients in mind.
Doing the right thing may be challenging but imagine our world if we all did.