What’s This "Integrity” Thing And Does It Really Matter?

Carmen O'Shea

I received the best kind of compliment the other day. The mom of one of my young son’s classmates told me that my son had acted as an upstander for her son when others were making fun of him. She told me my son is being raised with character and integrity. Wow. That made my day. Especially since half the time I’m not sure if the lessons I’m trying to transmit to my kids are making it through, or even sometimes if the messages are the right ones in the first place! But it also got me thinking about this idea of integrity.

Integrity. It’s a concept that’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it – or when you don’t. Integrity forms the backbone of all relationships, including relationships at work. People have to believe that those they’re collaborating with will act with integrity, and in turn they themselves act accordingly. It’s a compact of trust. If this belief is undermined, trust decreases, and everything devolves from there.

So what is integrity exactly?  Here are some of my thoughts about how you might experience it.

Integrity is acting with honesty, even when the truth is difficult to admit.

Integrity is choosing to be an upstander, even when that choice is not easy, and even when it might negatively affect you personally.

Integrity is sometimes not conforming to public opinion unless that’s the right thing to do. It’s making your own decision about the best path forward, even when that path is not well-trodden. This is otherwise known as taking the high road.

Integrity is being consistent in word and behavior, even when it’s embarrassing or more convenient not to.

Integrity is treating everyone with respect, from an intern or janitor to the CEO. Integrity is recognizing the fundamental truth that we’re all human beings with similar drives, concerns, fears, and hopes, despite the extent of our titles, wealth, or popularity.

Integrity is resisting the urge to gossip – in every way. What is gossip, you ask? In my book it can be anything from active, premeditated backstabbing to knowing glances or eyerolls, to jumping in with a comment without knowing the full picture, to “innocent” questions and chatter about someone’s situation at work or lot in life. You never know the full story unless you talk to the person affected (and even then you might not know the whole story). It’s juicy and sometimes power-solidifying to perpetrate a rumor or jump into a scintillating discussion. But it’s not right. Think about how you would feel if someone was doing/saying the same about you – if you hesitate in the least when thinking about this, you have your answer as to whether or not it’s acceptable.

So in other words, integrity is doing the right thing, even when it’s hard to do, and even if nobody sees you doing it. In today’s political and business climates, it sometimes feels like anything goes. It can feel like there are no standards of right and wrong but only of expedience. It can feel like long-term relationship-building gets sacrificed in the interest of short-term gain. But if we keep integrity, and all it implies for our behavior, at the forefront of decision-making, our relationships, our teams, our companies, and ourselves will benefit in the end.

Can you teach integrity? Well, I’m pretty sure you can model integrity in your choices of how to speak, how to act, and what to say. Like so much else in life, living integrity as an active personal, professional, and team value far outshines simply talking about it. When leaders share negative results directly with their teams, when managers are forthright about their peoples’ performance, when a CEO takes two minutes to speak to a new employee, when a colleague calls out rotten behavior instead of just ignoring it or responding in kind, when teammates feel comfortable sharing concerns with their manager without fear of retaliation, when an employee resists the urge to ever so slightly fudge that number or inflate that job title – these are all ways we can embrace integrity in the workplace.

It is by no means easy to act with integrity, especially when those around us may not adhere to the same standards. When so much of our professional lives can seem a calculus of political jousts and feints, making the choice to consistently act with integrity reminds us of who we wish to be and what we want to be known for at work and at home. It’s really the one thing that matters when tasks, teams, salaries, and conflicts are stripped away…. and the one thing that truly can’t be faked.

What do you think? Does this capture what integrity means for you? How can we model it as employees, as leaders, and as people?

Integrity isn’t only for humans; it must be woven into our AI applications, too. See Empathy: The Killer App for Artificial Intelligence.

Carmen O'Shea

About Carmen O'Shea

Carmen O'Shea is the Senior Vice President of HR Change & Engagement at SAP. She leads a global team supporting major transformation initiatives across the company, focused on change management, employee engagement, and creative marketing and interaction. You can follow Carmen on Twitter.