By Frank J. Rich
If we can do little without the “follow through” of discipline (last week’s column), integrity may be the foundation for everything we hope to achieve. Some may see the priorities in virtue differently—kindness may be the “politically correct” leader on the list of them. Oddly, none of the lists of virtues name this one as above. Justice may be the closest, but “integrity” is what underlies all virtue.
A simple rule of business is that organizations make promises to their customers and stakeholders and then proceed to deliver on them. Business is little more, and it need not be. But just what does integrity mean, and what does it look like in the workplace?
Integrity is the internally consistent framework of principles that is reflected in one’s behavior or actions*. When everything we do is derived from the same set of principles or core values, we are exhibiting “integrity.” Thus, those with a heightened sense of what’s “politically correct”—perhaps the issue of an alter-cultural and quasi-moral religiosity—find themselves outside this model of integrity. “Him/her” and “waitperson” are examples.
Integrity is revealed in behavior from moment to moment, but it is honed over years of character building. We have it or we don’t, and it looks like the following:
- Accepting responsibility
- Keeping one’s word
- Keeping the vigil in the little things
- Being honest
- Standing up for what’s right
- Maintaining honor and virtue
- Being morally upright
- Making “right” choices, not just “the right” choices
- Finding solutions, not fault
Though it is common to hear someone pronouncing his integrity (people who make a point of outlining their virtues usually are bereft of them), integrity either is or is not evident in one’s behavior. If our foundation is one of integrity, our decisions, demeanor (low anxiety), and style will reveal it. Telling another that we “have it” is just so much conversation. Consequently, the view that we can operate without it by suggesting that “it’s just business” is no more than an excuse for corrupt character.
In a conversation some years ago a friend told me that he was planning to build and occupy a new facility for his very successful company. After congratulating him I remembered that he had just taken occupancy of the building he was in, and I asked if he was planning to occupy both. “No,” he replied. How then, I asked, would he exit from the long-term lease he had with the landlord? “I’ll get my lawyers to find something wrong with the lease and break it,” he said.
We were good friends, so I felt comfortable (and compelled) to tell him what I thought of his solution. My final words to him were, “If you entered the lease in good faith,” (he was in the commercial real estate business and knew the principle well) “why not negotiate good terms for a buyout of the lease?” I left it at that.
Whether making good on a simple promise to deliver a report when agreed to, or moving to multi-million dollar digs, the principles of right behavior remain the same—integrity first. Anything less is called “situational ethics.”
Though a noun, integrity is very much a product of action theory, that is, behavior caused by an agent in a particular set of circumstances. The fruits of integrity are revealed in actions. Thus, integrity is better understood (and distinguished from its kissing cousin “honesty”) by the behavior it elicits. To be clear, honesty requires integrity; integrity produces honesty—they are more action verbs in this context.
The agents in honesty (most behaviors) are desires and beliefs. Perhaps, this is why most organizations include a document of their values and beliefs in employee manuals. A simple example is my desire to be refreshed on a hot day and the belief that the lake of cool liquid in front of me is water, leading to the bodily behavior of submerging myself for a swim.
In simple theory, the desire and belief jointly cause the action. Some have added intent as basic to beliefs and desires. This is perhaps why, when asking a child to decide his own punishment (for an offense both he and his parents agree upon), he typically metes out more stringent terms than his parents would have devised. His underlying sense of integrity and intention to do right and please his parents overcompensates for his behavior with more rigorous punishment.
On balance, the theories suggest that a desire (plus a belief) about the means of satisfying that desire are always what is behind an action. The aim of agents (in acting out behavior) is to maximize the satisfaction of their desires. This idea of prospective rationality underlies much of economics and other social sciences within the framework of rational choice or action theory, a structural foundation for understanding and often formally modeling social and economic behavior.
Integrity has its price—failed commitments, premature loan demands, handshake agreements between friends, etc. are common to our experience. However, if we are to first believe, then integrity always has a greater value, whatever the price. In our efforts to succeed (at any cost), we would do well to be reminded of the words of Albert Einstein, “Try not to become a person of success, but rather, a person of value.”