In theory, “integrity” is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. But “moral principles” can mean a wide range of things. Which principles should we prioritize? If your morals change does your perceived integrity suffer? At the end of the day, every individual has to answer these questions for themselves, but a few key tips can help along the way.
What does it mean to have integrity?
If integrity is honesty and strong moral principles, how can these play out in real life?
One way can be to recognize histories of oppression, acknowledge privileges and biases and accept culpability in systems larger than oneself. Moral principles can then be the tenets that guide everyday action away from oppressive systems in an honest and reliable way.
One example of an employer that is attempting to follow this model is the City of Seattle, which, through its Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) committed to working at all levels to eliminate identity-related disparities in the workplace experience. When Seattle’s RSJI began over a decade ago, it was the first U.S. city or major employer to focus on institutional discrimination, leading with race. Whether it is an employer or an individual, having integrity means taking off the blinders and being honest, in addition to acting in a consistently truthful, reliable and appropriate manner.
Why is integrity important in business?
Integrity is important in business on a number of levels. On an upper-management and corporate level, integrity can be the difference between exploiting workers and providing meaningful jobs, it can be the difference between climate change destroying the planet and having somewhere to live for generations to come. It can even be the difference between a political system for-profit and a political system for the country.
On a tactical level, integrity in leadership is vital if leaders are going to stand up for what they believe in and support their employees. At the same time, leaders with integrity surround themselves with people who will teach them, who will call them out and who will advise them. The Entrepreneur published an article about integrity in a leadership qualities series, which said, “Integrity means telling the truth even if the truth is ugly. Better to be honest than to delude others.” In practice, this means anything from acknowledging oppressive systems to being honest about implicit bias to surrounding yourself with people who will help you fight for what you believe.
But what are the benefits of having integrity in the workplace if you aren’t C-Suite or a team leader? Besides the obvious qualities of honesty (not hurting other people, likability and greater emotional intelligence), making integrity a priority at your job can increase your chances of promotion, earn you lasting relationships with coworkers and help you establish your place at work through meaningful interactions with others.
How to make decisions with integrity.
1. Educate yourself.
We can’t be truly honest if our heads are in the sand. That said, you can’t know everything or expect yourself to always be able to educate yourself in the best ways in the blink of an eye. Making decisions with integrity isn’t about doing things perfectly with 100% of the information — it's about doing your best. Do the research, be honest with yourself about when you know enough of the relevant information and then move forward. Trusted advisors are helpful for this step.
2. Be aware of your core values — implicit, imagined or concrete.
It is easy for us to go through life unaware of the value systems we are using to judge people and situations and even to make decisions. After you have the background info, being aware of the values (and biases) that drive you is the next step to intentionally choosing and developing the core values that you want to be associated with.
We also have imagined values, values that we think are important to us but really don’t drive our behavior. These are important to acknowledge if we want to incorporate them or let them go. Finally, concrete values are values that we are aware of, that we have chosen consciously to be our core values and have internalized to the point that they affect our behavior. Tallying these different types of values and biases is important to do before making a decision with integrity.
3. Make decisions with conviction…but admit it when you’re wrong.
If you have done the background research and spent time evaluating your values and biases, you deserve to feel good about your decision and stick with it. Of course, you should also know that doing research, acknowledging your position and feeling good about a decision doesn’t necessarily make it the right decision, and in time, it may become clear that another path would have been better. That’s OK: part of making decisions with integrity is saying (and knowing) that you did your best at the time and now that you have more information, it’s time to use your “strong moral principles” to work together to create the best of a bad situation. Admitting you’re wrong shows to others that your ego isn’t more important than doing the right thing, and you are still a reliable worker, friend, boss, student, etc. — even if this situation didn’t turn out the way you thought it would.
4. Remember: making choices with integrity is a constant and intentional process.
Like driving well, having integrity is not necessarily hard, but it is learned, and you have to give it continued attention. Otherwise, your implicit biases will make your decisions for you. Fortunately, like all habits, making decisions with integrity becomes easier as it's exercised.
In the end
Integrity is vital for workplaces, from upper management to employees: both must have the honesty to admit when things aren’t working and the moral principles to change them for the benefit of all. In life, being honest with oneself is often the hardest kind of honesty. But, as with any form of integrity, honesty is the first step, and personal growth, emotional intelligence and healthy relationships are the potential outcomes.