It’s a missing ingredient of our time. Possibly the missing ingredient.
Let me tell you why.
But before I do, let me ask what it means to you. It’s one of these words that gets slung around in personal and leadership development circles, especially if you get into a discussion about values. But would you really know integrity if you saw it?
And I think that’s been part of its problem till now. It’s been up there as some high and mighty principle. But few people could describe why it’s relevant on a day-to-day basis.
Which is why I like Michael Jensen and Werner Erhart’s work on integrity. Because their definition cuts to the chase.
For them it’s simple. Integrity talks fundamentally of the wholeness of individuals, relationships or systems. There’s no implied value judgement in their view. Instead, they say, wholeness is an aspect of our being. It’s in our nature to expect things to be whole and complete. So when something lacks integrity, it affects us.
Things don’t jive for us the way they should. They don’t feel right. And whether we’re conscious of it or not, deep down we know.
Having integrity means honouring your word
How do you have integrity?
Well, to have integrity as an individual you must honour your word.
In an ideal world everyone would make commitments only to things they could deliver on. But life’s not like that for most of us.
Recognising that’s so – we’re human and goalposts change – we can nevertheless honour our word. Honouring your word means keeping your word, or whenever you won’t be keeping your word, saying so to everyone impacted:
a) that you won’t be keeping your word
b) that you will keep it in the future and by when, or that you won’t be keeping it at all
c) what you will do regards the impact on others of your failure to keep your word
In a nutshell: own your shit and clean it up.
What that looks like to you or me
I got excited about this as a concept because it made me realise how much better the world would be if we all adopted that philosophy.
Maybe you think you don’t have a problem with integrity. Oh yeah? Check out these scenarios:
- You pack your diary full of appointments and then end up late for meeting after meeting. You say “sorry” to the people you keep waiting, but you can’t help feeling that in-the-moment pang of guilt.
- You’ve a report you’ve committed to get done by a certain date and you’ve just been unable to get to it, so you say nothing and hope no-one notices. You feel a mixture of relief and disappointment in yourself when you send it off late with an apology note.
- You promised yourself to eat healthily and get to the gym three times this week. But it’s been a crappy Monday. Wolfing down that tub of ice-cream in the evening gives only a fleeting sense of comfort, before the self-loathing voices kick in again.
You may think that these things count for nothing. That they’re all part of the human condition and “the way things are” when you work for yourself or do a big job. But the impact on ourselves, and on people around us accumulates as, drip after drip, we create the experience of not having integrity; of not honouring our word.
The bigger integrity challenge
When you start to really understand this, you can begin to see just how integrity is missing from life on a wider scale.
Look at Nick Clegg and his now infamous 2010 election promise to cut student fees, which he reneged on as soon as he got into power with David Cameron.
Or the whole sub-prime crisis of a few years back that was caused by mortgage products that had no integrity, sold to people who would struggle to pay, while a number of derivative traders made billions betting on their failure.
Once the banks had been dug out of their integrity gap, all kind of measures were implemented to ensure “something like this never happens again”. Regulatory frameworks were reviewed. Ethics training and the like was introduced.
I’m not suggesting that these don’t have their place. But isn’t it a little sad that integrity has to be legislated for?
And in any case we’ve subsequently had examples like Tesco, who inflated its prices for a while, only then to drop them back to what they had been charging while claiming to be offering a “Big Price Drop”.
Everything starts with our word
What I’m personally discovering from trying to stay more and more in integrity with myself is that life goes better; I feel better about myself; my relationships are better. And I see the impact it has on my work too.
For example, I recently got the timing wrong of an international coaching call and wrote to my client:
I’m so sorry. This is entirely my mistake. I put our call in my calendar for 2.30 GMT not CET….
I realise that my error means I’m out of integrity with you and apart from anything would like to ask you how I may meaningfully correct that.
Not only did he write back and say that my putting it that way had really made him think, but also over the weeks that followed I watched him consciously choose to stay more and more in integrity with himself, in what has been a tough business situation for him.
He came to coaching to smash some of his own glass ceilings. I think his insights on integrity served as a bit of a hammer for him.
Because really, if you have integrity, and you encourage others to live with integrity, you can achieve so much more and feel so much better.
It’s not a nice to have thing. It’s fundamental.
Start with yourself
So, don’t wait for the government to legislate on it, or for your company to write an integrity policy. Start with you and start now.
Where are you keeping your word to yourself? Where not? What are the ways in which you can clean up your act? How will that serve you? And how will it serve others around you?