How well can you describe your own integrity to someone else? Conducting an interview for a senior executive position I asked an applicant to describe the values and principles that guide their business and professional life. They quickly summarised the answer with the single term “integrity”. Thinking they had successfully encapsulated all that was necessary in that response they paused. I countered with the question “what does integrity mean to you?”
There was an even longer pause as the candidate clearly struggled to clarify their previous answer. Having lost their equilibrium they then proceeded to rattle off the list of qualities we once would have heard from a Boy Scout – honesty, truthfulness, loyalty et cetera The interview panel seize the momentum and followed up with a question asking for examples of where the candidate and demonstrated their integrity in business life – I mean trick. The candidate eventually answered quite well but it could have been a turning point in the interview.
Do we really think about our integrity?
Clearly the candidate had not prepared an answer to such a searching question and fumbled for suitable illustrations. Understandably, it is not a topic we typically consider in our own context on a daily basis, so when we are confronted with questions about it we are naturally taken aback.
Whilst I sympathised with the candidate’s plight I made a mental note: use this technique in future where I needed to test not the actual integrity of the candidate of their capacity to react quickly and with mental agility to surprise probing questions; and prepare my own response should I ever be similarly tested.
It was a salutary exercise for I found that while I could conjure up from the deep recesses of my memory circumstances that adequately fitted the enquiry, it was much harder to succinctly describe both the situation and my reaction in a way that was meaningful and satisfactorily illustrative of my values and principles. So I decided that I needed a prompt against which to test responses to the question.
- Do I clearly understand my own values and can I explain them to others in a way that is descriptive yet suitably modest? (I have a list of my values and principles on the website. These I revisit regularly to ensure they are reinforcing my professional behaviour. However if taken by surprise I may well also struggle to explain them succinctly.)
- Can I recall and articulate situations where I have had to stand up for those values and principles? Can I do that in a way that illustrates their importance and that I truly subscribe to them?
- Do my examples provide learnings for me and if so what? Will they also provide learnings for others?
What is integrity –what is it not?
Even dictionary definitions of integrity are not all that satisfying when they merely list “attributes” such as honesty, uprightness, probity, rectitude, honour, honourableness, upstandingness, high principles, ethics, morals, righteousness, morality, nobility, high-mindedness, right-mindedness. How do these fuse into a recognisable character model?
Some of the definitions offered by candidates I have interviewed include:
- “Doing what I say I will do”;
- “Trusted to be honest and fair”;
- “What you see is what you get”;
- “Being sincere in all relationships”.
Sometimes integrity is not all sweetness and light. Sometimes it is about “fessing up” to the things that went wrong or that we failed to do and in making good those wrongs – whether they were deliberate or unintentional. Sometimes it is about being accountable and holding others accountable.
More often, the testing of our integrity is about those more personal things like avoiding the small personal biases that creep into our personalities, like pre-judging that candidate, client, customer or contractor the moment we lay eyes on them because of the way they look, speak or move. We might easily fail the test by holding our tongue when integrity dictates that we should speak up to defend innocence or expose hypocrisy.
Perhaps we don’t actually lie but our words or actions certainly can deceive. Fairness and equity can become negotiable if we are able to convince ourselves that it is permissible to favour one person over another in spite of objective merits.
We do not all need to be Jedi Knights to be known for our integrity. Observing and analysing the successes of others will usually identify for us valuable lessons of exercising integrity. Understanding the precepts that develop integrity is important and we often learn these from respected colleagues, peers or mentors. There is a Yoda in everyone’s life – you just have to find them.
(Image: Courtesy Wikipedia.com)
In summarising maybe we can say integrity is “Doing the right things for the right reasons in the right way”……. but what is right?
Like many intangible qualities integrity is often judged by how people act rather than what they say they believe. It can be judged by both process as well as outcome. That is, it is equally apparent from the means we adopt to achieve our ends.
Do we expect some people to act with integrity more than others? Some positions in society are judged more harshly than others in relation to breaches of integrity. This seems especially so for people in positions of public trust. Why is this so? Is a breach of public trust worse than a breach of private trust and if so why?
Obviously in business our cause for judging integrity is to differentiate between those we trust and those we do not. Having confidence in people we deal with and enjoying the confidence of those that deal with us assures that both parties will respect the interests of the other and thus deliver mutual benefits from the relationship.
Importantly being judged as a person of integrity has a significant influence on future dealings and reputation. Individuals and businesses who attract attention for lack of integrity in the way they do business or interact with others soon find themselves isolated.
The great philosopher Socrates put it well in saying:
“Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly be possessed of — for credit is like fire; when once you have kindled it you may easily preserve it, but if you once extinguish it, you will find it an arduous task to rekindle it again. The way to a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.”
(Image: Courtesy Biography.com)