Integrity is a word you hear almost every day, but it’s not a word that people spend a lot of time thinking about. If you try to define it, what would you say?
The word integrity evolved from the Latin adjective integer, meaning whole or complete. 1 In this context, integrity is the inner sense of ‘wholeness’ stemming from qualities such as honesty and consistency of character. As such, one may judge that others ‘have integrity’ to the extent that they act according to the values, beliefs and principles they claim to hold. Doesn’t that in turn depend on specifically what those values, beliefs and principles are? Integrity was one of the most challenging chapters to write in my first edition of this book and we have noticed that on our experiential learning workshops it is also often the hardest one for participants to actually conceptualise and make sense of.
This is because integrity will vary from person to person, often significantly so. What you value and the principles you hold may not be the ones that I value and uphold. You can think of integrity like a moral compass, holding true to your values and beliefs and choosing to live by these in your day-to-day life. In many ways, integrity is about character. It is what you do when no one else is looking, and is of course heavily dependent on what we believe to be right, our values and how we choose to behave. For instance, is integrity about little things such as following through on a promise, or big things like not fiddling your expenses or speaking up to defend a moral issue? Or is fiddling your expenses a little thing and not following through on a promise a big thing? And surely, moral issues may vary from person to person too?
Integrity can be defined as ‘integrated’, meaning congruent words, actions and thoughts and, therefore, congruence between what you say and what you do. In plain English, this is about walking the talk. First of all, we need to make a distinction between principles and values as these are often interchanged. Principles and values can be thought of as the ‘rules of life’ that each of us chooses to live by. Principles are about the expected behaviour of a society, and these in turn have a collective influence on everyone. So principles might include concepts such as fairness, justice, diligence, honesty, compassion and even how we define integrity.
Values, on the other hand, are personal, subjective ideals, beliefs and individual traits that a person can feel affinity with and so they are not necessarily related to principles or standards. They may also change over time and through life. Values can include concepts such as freedom, security, power, creativity and adventure. How those values, in turn, are interpreted will also vary from individual to individual. After all, adventure could be defined as anything from a bungee jump to a love of travel or risky behaviour, which may have negative consequences.
Values and principles are important because awareness of these helps you to understand who you are. If integrity is about being true to yourself, having your own ‘moral’ compass and a strong connection between what you say and your actions, then values and principles will, to a certain extent, define how you express your integrity.
When we talk about integrity, we sometimes miss out on the importance of consistency, honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions.
Consistency is about being the same regardless of the situation. It’s about not being unpredictable and not making decisions or communicating based purely on mood, emotion or feelings. Consistency in terms of your actions and behaviours has to be an active choice that you make – for example, if you just had an argument with someone before walking into your next meeting, consistency means that you will make a conscious choice to shift gears and let go of the negativity of that conversation and not bring that to the next meeting or even the next person you encounter that day.
Honesty or accuracy of one’s actions requires intentionality and thought. How honest or accurate are your behaviours, actions and words with other people on a day-to-day basis? How kind are you - is there a link between integrity, kindness and honesty? Are there times when you are thoughtless and therefore behave out of line with your values?