What is Integrity?

By Brett Beasley

When it comes to having integrity, small wins often matter more than grand commitments.





It’s no secret: we are facing an integrity deficit. A recent global survey found that integrity is the primary way companies can earn the public’s trust. Unfortunately, it also found that integrity is the area in which companies are falling furthest short of the public’s expectations. As a result, levels of trust are at an all-time low, both for businesses and for their leaders.



Eager to give the public what it wants, many companies have begun to “talk the talk” about integrity. As we reported previously, a study of 150 multinational companies reveals that integrity is by far the most-mentioned value in corporate values statements. Several companies have also changed the title of “Chief Ethics Officer” or “Chief Compliance Officer” to “Chief Integrity Officer.”


But research suggests that these measures alone will do little to close the integrity gap. In fact, they may make the problem worse.


Why, you ask? One challenge lies with the concept of integrity itself. Merriam-Webster reports that the term integrity is often among the most-searched in their online dictionary, and in 2005 integrity was actually the single most-looked-up word. This suggests that for much of the general public, integrity is at best a very fuzzy concept. And many of those who believe they know what integrity means may tend to associate it with incorruptibility or moral perfection, something that can seem out of reach in our personal and professional lives.


Researchers suggest that one way we recognize integrity is when we see a person act in ways that are consistent with his or her promises. That means that integrity is not a single action, but a series of actions, a reputation for consistency that builds slowly over time. And this insight helps us see integrity as something within reach by seeking small wins in our everyday encounters with others.


Integrity and "Small Wins"


In 1984, the psychologist Karl Weick made the surprising suggestion that “people often define social problems in ways that overwhelm their ability to do anything about them.” He pointed out that although it can certainly be tempting to define problems on a grand scale—after all, we want to create urgency and motivate action—this approach can often backfire. When we frame problems as large, we become frustrated and overloaded, and the quality of our thinking suffers. And if we fail, which we sometimes will, we will fail on a grand scale as well. Our failure will be more visible, and all our effort can seem wasted. But by reformulating a problem as “a series of controllable opportunities of modest size,” we can build momentum and make more stable progress as we move toward our goal.


The same is true of integrity. Although it sounds like a grand solution to any number of large social problems, integrity comes about through a basic process of clear promises, self-control, and transparency. Here’s how to reframe integrity for yourself and your organization in a way that utilizes the logic of small wins:


Promise less often, and be specific when you do promise.


As integrity expert Tony Simons has pointed out, one of the greatest dangers to integrity is overpromising. Although, as we have seen, we can overpromise in formal ways through corporate values statements, it is common to casually overpromise in informal conversations, emails, and texts. It is a good idea to regularly perform a commitment self-audit regularly to try to recognize the formal and informal ways you may be overpromising. Make a point to either free yourself from your commitments or find a way to follow through. Simons writes,


“Promise less. Put everything you have into making those promises a reality. Talk fewer values. And then celebrate those values at every waking moment.”


Another way to promise less is by being brief, specific, and local in the promises you do make. Fuzzy language leads to misunderstandings and to the perception of broken promises. Clarity and concreteness create realistic expectations that help you deliver.


Know your limits, and plan accordingly.


One of the most dangerous ideas about integrity is that a person of integrity is morally incorruptible. On the contrary, a person of integrity often understands his or her weaknesses and blind spots and makes sure they don’t inhibit his or her ability to follow through. Also, they can encourage others to speak up to make sure you do not fall prey to blind spots. Lastly, recognize that your resources for self-control are limited—particularly when you are tired or distracted or when you are facing extra pressure to meet ambitious goals.


Recover with transparency and recommitment.


Of course, the inevitable happens; you will not always be able to follow through on your commitments, no matter how many resources you have or how strong your motivation. When you let someone down, make sure to be transparent about what went wrong. Doing so shows that you respect the other person’s expectations, and you play to meet those expectations in the future. Also, look for immediate actions that show you are committed to rebuilding trust and fulfilling expectations.


The good news is that integrity is not just for saints and moral heroes—it is within reach of all of us. By setting the right expectations and following through over a period of time through a “series of controllable opportunities of modest size” you and your organization can develop the habit of small wins. Such everyday behaviors will lead to the integrity and trust that businesses need to be successful and that the public so clearly demands.

Key Points

  • Reformulate integrity as “a series of controllable opportunities of modest size.”
  • Build integrity by promising less and following through more.
  • People of integrity know their limits and plan accordingly.
  • When you let someone down, make sure to be transparent about what went wrong.




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