Sunday, September 23, 2007

Integrity vs. Convenience by Michelle Kunz

Carmine Coyote's blog entry for September 21 asks a very important question: Can you display integrity only when it suits you? Inspired by Peter Vajda's article "Integrity at work – how do you stack up?" Carmine argues that striving for absolute integrity adds undue stress and guilt to already overwhelmed individuals who may find that under certain circumstances it makes sense to simply compromise their integrity in favor of simplifying a tense or demanding situation.

Peter Vajda states that integrity is "a lot like being pregnant. Either you're pregnant, or you aren't. There's no middle ground." Either we act with integrity or we don't. This is a tough position to take, and his quiz asks some very hard questions. I cannot pass with 100% perfection. The perfection word has tripped us up again. That and a lack of clarity around what is integrity.

What is integrity?

Integrity, according to Encarta, is "the quality of possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles or professional standards." The second and third definitions are also helpful in extending our understanding: "the state of being complete or undivided" and "the state of being sound or undamaged." Taken together, one who acts with integrity not only possesses and steadfastly adheres to high moral principles or standards, but is also complete, undivided and undamaged. This state of being complete, undivided and undamaged is due to the fact that such an individual does not act in a way that divides them against themselves. They hold themselves in a state of deep respect and honor.

Whose standards?

The problems we experience with integrity begin when we fail to stop and ask ourselves whose standards we possess and expect ourselves to adhere to. It makes sense that whenever those standards are externally imposed we will at some point find ourselves in conflict with them and probably choose to ignore them. There may or may not be an external consequence for that choice, but most people will experience some sense of guilt or shame for going against principles they claim to honor but fail to actually follow in their real life actions.

A better choice is to take the time to define our own values and standards. When we narrow down our most important values to no more than five (it is almost impossible to focus on any more than about five) what we have left is a set of core defining principles around which all of our actions and attitudes can be compared. When we align our actions, attitudes and beliefs with these core principles, we are living in integrity. Because they are prinicples we defined, we see the direct correlation between living these values and an improvement in some area of our life, depending on what values we defined. Making choices becomes easier, saying no becomes easier, and guilt is manageable because when we say no to something external, we say yes to something internal.


A mid-level manager is working 60 hour weeks. His wife complains frequently that he is missing his son's soccer games and isn't home to engage with her. She questions his values around family. He experiences a great deal of shame and guilt because he thinks he ought to be a better husband and father, but he doesn't know how to balance the demands of his job with the demands of his family.

During a coaching session, we define his core values as Family, Financial Freedom, Authenticity, Integrity and Honesty. As we explore what these values mean to him, we uncover that he has deep concerns regarding paying his mortgage and a strong desire to earn a promotion which may be available to him in the next year so he can provide some additional discretionary income to his family. He has a strong commitment to providing for his family's financial future, and a desire to fulfill his wife's desire for nice things in their home.

On closer inspection, it turns out that his working long hours serves two of his five core values: Family and Financial Freedom. By working long and hard he has a better chance at getting that promotion, and therefore providing for his family's financial future and filling their immediate desires. He has not seen it in these terms before because on the surface it looks like his values have been in conflict. But the long hours are less about his career and more about his family. Where he is out of alignment most is in Authenticity and Honesty. He needs to have a discussion with his wife to express with authenticity and honesty how his working long hours serves those other two core values. This will put him into better integrity over all. With her feedback he can make adjustments if necessary as he gains a better understanding of his family's financial needs and desires.

At first glance, it may have looked as if the answer was "work fewer hours and spend more time with your family". Perhaps after receiving feedback from his wife the answer will be more along the lines of "work 55 hours and spend one hour per weekday playing with your son". The point here is that until you define your core values, you don't really know what the answer is. What appears to be the answer might be a lousy compromise that will make you feel guilty about something else. You end up trading guilt for guilt.

Relationships - Integrity = Lack of Trust

When people choose convenience based integrity, which means they adhere to high principles only when it is convenient, no one knows what to expect. Who defines when it is convenient? When is that definition made public? Typically that decision is made on the spur of the moment and under duress. Or in rebellion. Or in any number of other situations which are purely self serving. How can anyone count on you when your integrity changes without warning? Trust simply cannot exist under such conditions, and this is a requirement for powerful, engaging, dynamic leadership.

Trust requires reliability -- people have to know what to expect from you. Your commitment to your self-defined set of values makes you reliable. Your actions align themselves in a way that makes sense because they are defined by your values. Even if people do not agree with your values, they at least know what to expect, and this increases their ability to trust you.

What many people dislike about absolute integrity is that it requires absolute responsibility for our actions. When we find ourselves out of alignment, we cannot affix blame to outside circumstances or other people. We have only ourselves to look to for accountability. And this is a key difference.

Blame vs. Accountability

When you practice convenience integrity, you get an easy way out any time you need an excuse as to why you choose an action which does not align itself with your values. You simply blame it on the extenuating circumstances. "The boss required it." "I needed a break." The assumption is that you've done something wrong and you need to provide a reason why. When you practice absolute integrity, there is a better choice: accountability.

Accountability and responsibility are interchangeable. Blame, however, is not. Blame is always negative. Accountability and responsibility are neutral. This difference is crucial. When we look within to examine our behavior in a situation where our actions did not align with our values, we can give ourselves permission to be neutral. We can simply be in discovery mode. What were the circumstances? What were we thinking and feeling? What other values came into play? What other choices might we have made instead which would have better served our core values? What kept us from making those choices? What can we do differently next time?

This mode of discovery allows growth to occur. Convenience integrity does not allow for growth because of the convenience factor. It's like eating fast food: no work, little nutrition. The blame game encourages excuses rather than discovery, and we go nowhere. But we still feel guilt, even while we feel relief. Because we know that we have divided ourselves and we are now unreliable.
Powerful leaders know it requires courage and inner strength to live with integrity. They do not fool themselves into thinking it requires perfection. They realize the values they define are there as a guide for their actions, and they seek to choose those actions mindfully. When they make a mistake, they freely admit it, learn from their experience and adapt. This adaptive ability strengthens their alignment with their core values. As a result, they become more reliable and trustworthy, which encourages others to have greater confidence in their ability to lead.

No comments: