Integrity. We talk about it all the time. Who’s got it. Who hasn’t. Who wouldn’t know it if it hit them in the face with a wet halibut. We know it when we see it. And we know it when when we see something that isn’t it. We profess to take it seriously. Our organisations profess to take it seriously. But still we have the occasional blip. Or worse.
In its essence, integrity is about adhering to a moral or ethical code. It’s about being honest and truthful. It’s about behaving with honour.
I like to think of it as doing the right thing even when nobody’s looking.
Of course, we don’t all necessarily share the same moral or ethical code. We don’t all hold the same truths. We don’t all see the same thing as the right thing. That said, I’d like to think that within any given organisation, or across any given society or culture, we’d probably all be within the same moral or ethical ballpark.
At a more practical level, integrity is about behaviours.
The ‘Nolan’ principles of public life, for example, talk about integrity as not placing yourself under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence you in your work. Or not acting or taking decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for yourself, your family or your friends.
Integrity is also about behaviour in the workplace. It’s about not stealing, embezzling, bribing people or engaging in other forms of corruption. It’s about not harassing colleagues or engaging in racism or misogyny. It’s about acting in accordance with your organisation’s values.
At a personal level, integrity is about acting in accordance with our own moral or ethical code, not just that of our society or of the organisation in which we work.
Our personal moral and ethical code is influenced by a range of factors, from our upbringing and our spiritual beliefs, to our lived experiences and the things we read, watch and listen to. It’s our own personal set of rules to live by, which may or may not be shared by those around us.
And yet we read daily about instances of theft and fraud. We observe corruption at all levels of government and society. We experience instances of discrimination, harassment and sexual malfeasance in organisations from which, quite frankly, we expected better.
We know what the right thing is. But still certain people seem to choose to do something else.
There’s an argument here that we all need to do more to act with integrity and to model moral and ethical behaviours. It’s not what we say, after all, but what we do.
I’d argue, though, that we need to go further. Because in my view, it’s not about what we say or what we do. It’s about what we tolerate. Even if we say something is wrong and we avoid doing it ourselves, if we let others get away with doing it, then we’re sending a clear message that it’s actually OK.
Integrity doesn’t just happen. It’s created. It’s built up by every action we take. Every decision we and our organisations make. Every email. Every phone conversation. Every Teams call. Every board meeting. Every utterance by the CEO.
And it needs to be nurtured. It needs to be protected. It needs to be defended.
Even if nobody’s watching.