Integrity Is Not About Doing The Right Thing

If we all agreed on what the “right” thing is, we wouldn’t have religion and politics, we wouldn’t have departmental fights, and we wouldn’t get into spats with those that we live with.

This is why “doing the right thing – even when no one is watching” has never worked for me. It doesn’t help someone make a decision about what to do.

Another commonly cited way to think about integrity is the headline test: if you wouldn’t want it on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow, don’t do it. That also doesn’t work for me.

Few people that made decisions resulting in a negative headline realized that was what they were doing at the time. This places a very high level of faith in the average person to be able to understand all of the ways in which each of their actions could be connected to everything else and interpreted.

On top of that, many systems and cultures inadvertently encourage behavior that isn’t beneficial to the bigger picture by imposing competing metrics or failing to match actions to words.

This is where integrity comes in. It’s about holding yourself to your own word.

When this doesn’t happen, you as an individual can end up not liking yourself. And when it doesn’t happen at a company level, your employees end up not liking you.

First, think about it at an individual level. If you tell yourself you’re going to workout every day this week, and you only do so one day, you probably don’t feel very good about yourself at the end of the week. The thoughts going through your head probably aren’t very nice. You may be beating yourself up, calling yourself names and thinking about how you “always” fall into this pattern.

You didn’t follow through on your own commitment. You’re never coming through for yourself. Of course you don’t like yourself very much when you keep treating yourself that way.

Now looking at it at a company level, the same thing applies. It’s about doing what you said you were going to do. Because your commitment is to other people rather than just yourself, it’s critical that you have a way of clarifying and tracking those things that you say you will do.

It’s checking to see that that when you say “we’ll make sure to keep you informed,” you do so at a frequency the person or group expects. Or when you say “this won’t add too much to your workload,” that you clarify what that means and create an actual plan to ensure that comes true.

It’s paying close attention to all of the great visionary things that were said when a big change was announced, tracking and communicating as the weeks and months and years go on, and clearly stating how you are following through on your original intention.

This doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind. Much like individual “you,” company “you” will learn new things as time goes on, and you will need to pivot. What does not work is pivoting without acknowledging the pivot.

Let’s go back to the workout example. If you tell yourself you’re going to do a workout every day this week, and you do six but miss the seventh because you pulled a muscle – that’s a legitimate reason.

A legitimate reason is something unexpected or out of your control, and does not include running out of time because of a failure to plan appropriately or changing your mind because you decide you want to eat ice cream all day instead.

In the case of a legitimate reason, you may be disappointed, but you’re unlikely to be disgusted with yourself. You tell yourself it’s okay, you provide yourself with a legitimate reason, it closes that mental loop, and your “self” is unlikely to beat yourself up.

At the company level, you have to close the mental loop for others by communicating. Many leaders forget to communicate as frequently as necessary during a big change, and those that do communicate can forget to anchor that communication in a way that matches it to the last agreed-upon reality.

In other words, they may remember to state the new direction, but they don’t connect the dots back to how it changed from the original decision. Sometimes, the conversation needs to sound like “We said we were going to do “x,” and we learned “y,” so now we are moving forward with “z.”

And sometimes the conversation needs to sound like “we said we were going to do x, and we completely missed the mark. We acknowledge that puts additional strain on you, and it does for us as well. Here’s what we are going to do as a result.”

These conversations keep you in integrity. When the last agreed-upon reality isn’t referenced and your part of the change isn’t explicitly owned, employees may hear “we decided as leaders that we are allowed to eat ice cream all day, and we don’t care about what we originally said and how that impacts you.”

You must close the mental loop, connect the dots and acknowledge the pivot. Not only does it help you keep the respect of those around you, but it helps keep everyone on track. They now understand that the direction changed, and this keeps them from going back to complete work that perhaps should have been abandoned in the switch.

It keeps people from resenting the organization, and it helps ensure best use of resources.

Integrity is not about doing the right thing. It’s about doing what you said you were going to do, acknowledging and taking ownership of when you don’t, and creating a plan to help you maintain consistency with words and actions in the future.

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