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Integrity: The Great Taboo

Countless money, energy, emotion and time are spent on designing organizational culture almost always starting with defining one’s mission and values.


And yet, after all of this investment, the same four values tend to come up just in different forms or with different names or slogans. For simplicity, I like to call these the Four I’s: integrity (trust, do the right thing, etc.), interpersonal relationships (respect, listening, inspiring others, etc.), initiative (proactivity, thinking outside the box, etc.) and innovation (change, growth, etc.).


Most people define integrity as “doing what you say you’re going to do.” In other words, integrity is a relationship between your past self (“the sayer”) and current self (“the doer”).

According to this definition, integrity requires you to do something; integrity starts with the potential to do something.


This definition also states that you need to say something about what you’re going to do — set a goal, state an intention, declare a future. Even if that is just to yourself.


When your past self’s declaration matches your current self’s action, you have integrity in that moment.


Integrity is revealed through one’s actions over time but can never be perceived directly. It precedes us through our reputation, and remains long after our interactions are over. And unlike our interactions with others, integrity is pervasive filling the space between the moments we spend with others.


Unlike interpersonal relationships (which we will discuss in a future article), integrity is ultimately about your relationship with the truth.


When integrity is weak, the other values suffer as well. When we talk about the integrity of a system, we are referring to the strength of that system and its ability to withstand pressure from ultimately inevitable outside forces. For every action, there is an equal and opposite action. And for every system, there is an equal and opposite one.


Every one of us — whether individual, group, team or organization — struggles with integrity. It’s one of the reasons that integrity is one of the Four I’s that everyone identifies internal strength as critical to success.


I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t privately struggle with his or her integrity, his or her shaky relationship with the truth. This struggle doesn’t tend to improve in response to shameful accusations or moralizing but through listening.


Existential philosophers have known this for decades often phrasing it as the struggle to be authentic about one’s inauthenticity. This questioning of one’s sense of meaning, purpose or value is even called an “existential crisis,” after all, and often leads to either depression or to transformative breakthroughs in one’s appreciation for themselves, others and for life in general.


Challenging the mismatch between our intentions and our actions is hard. Especially when it requires us to challenge others (especially those with more formal authority than ourselves). And yet, failing to challenge inauthenticity can lead to a different type of crisis: one of conscience.


Challenging someone’s integrity is the great taboo. No one wants to hear it. Most of all ourselves. You can try to fool yourself by limiting your goals, saying everything is “fine,” and keeping your mouth shut when your current self is betraying the declarations of your past self.


Integrity begins with a possibility, takes shape with a stated goal or intention, and becomes real through action. A failure to see possibility leads to an existential crisis. A failure to state intention leads to depression. And a failure to act leads to a crisis of conscience.


So, what goal or intention are you willing to declare and put into action?

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