If you ask company executives to reveal their “core values,” integrity is always one of their first answers, says Joel C. Peterson, chairman of the board of JetBlue Airways and a Stanford University professor of management. The single most important ingredient to business success is trust, Peterson says, and trust starts with integrity.
Entrepreneur and angel investor Amy Rees Anderson borrows from C.S. Lewis’s famous quote, defining integrity as “doing the right thing all the time, even when no one is looking—especially when no one is looking.”
Related: 6 Essential Traits of Good Character
Anderson offers many examples of acting without integrity: CEOs who overstate their projected earnings because they don’t want to be replaced by their boards of directors. Competitors who lie to customers to seal a deal. Customer service reps covering up mistakes because they fear clients will leave. There’s no shortage of high-profile major lapses, too: Bernie Madoff’s long-standing operation of a Ponzi scheme considered to be the largest financial fraud in U.S. history, Michael Milken’s conviction for violating U.S. securities laws after being the one-time toast of Wall Street, and Major League Baseball star Alex Rodriguez’ use of performance-enhancing drugs.
“Do what is right; let the consequences follow.”
But what does a person acting with integrity look like? Positive examples may be harder to find. Anderson, who lectures on entrepreneurship at the University of Utah, believes “there aren’t enough of us saying that sometimes it’s better to lose than to lose your integrity.” A plaque in Anderson’s office reinforces her philosophy: “Do what is right; let the consequences follow.”
That holds true in both personal and professional relationships. “If you don’t have integrity, it bleeds over into other parts of your life,” she says. Peterson agrees, saying that integrity can’t be compartmentalized—that “there is a kind of integrity across all of our behaviors.”
“A Ton of Work”
Acting with integrity can be difficult. “There are plenty of situations that are not altogether clear,” says Peterson, who has collected examples of integrity challenges during his long career in business and academia. In one of them, the chief financial officer of a company where Peterson served on the audit committee was unjustly accused of wrongdoing by a regulator.
“The dilemma: You are spending shareholders’ money to protect the CFO, and if you just fire the guy it would all go away. On the other hand, that’s the wrong thing to do, and it could destroy this man’s life,” Peterson explains. So he asks whether you make that decision according to your own standards or the standards of shareholders to whom you answer. “We fought. We said [the regulator’s action] was wrong. We won’t cave, and we won’t be bullied.” The outcome: The regulator dropped the matter, and the board’s audit committee sent a message to the company that “integrity matters here.”
This is the stuff of management and leadership, and it takes a ton of work to build.
The committee’s action represents the “organizational integrity” that Peterson deals with in his own professional life and in his management and leadership courses at Stanford. Organizational integrity is “a broader notion that embraces the idea of alignment, where what you do and what you say are consistent,” Peterson says. “Think of a bridge or a structure with integrity; they’re all bolted together in a way that can withstand shocks. This is the stuff of management and leadership, and it takes a ton of work to build.”
“Talk to the people around you” to get a handle on your integrity, recommends Tony Simons, author of The Integrity Dividend: Leading by the Power of Your Word. “Find ways to get honest feedback from others. You need to find out if—and that goes double if you’re a boss—you have the appropriate level of trust. Integrity stands as a driver of trust.” Anderson advises that you “let those around you call you out…. Be willing to have people police you. Your trusted advisers [should be] people who will tell you whether you’re acting with integrity or whether there’s a better way to handle something.”
As for building your integrity and modeling it for others, Simons, Peterson and Anderson offer these suggestions:
To your staff, your investors, everyone. If you break a promise, you must apologize, but don’t let this become a pattern.
Doing so affects you professionally and personally (practicing your faith, staying fit, being present for family, etc.).
“Stop and soberly reflect on whether you are 100 percent sure you can deliver,” says Simons. “You need to be dispassionate in that evaluation.”
No one can say yes to everything and follow through on it all.
As well as how you make longer-term commitments (e.g., attending events, completing projects, etc.). Use this introspection to become self-aware, keep score and improve. (You can also use this behavioral yardstick for determining whether others act with integrity.)
Reread that email or report before you send it; plan what you’ll say in oral presentations and phone calls. “Fuzzy communication leads to broken promises,” says Simons. Ask someone to proofread written communications and point out ambiguities before you distribute them.
You might need to stop certain actions (e.g., speaking impulsively or sugarcoating your responses). And you might need to improve on others: building your personal courage (because fear holds you back from acting with integrity—Peterson’s CFO might have been fired without others showing courage). Issue apologies “faster, simpler and aimed more at containing the damage [you may have done] than at justifying yourself,” says Simons.
Peterson advises to take great care with the language you use, especially when dealing with sensitive issues such as sexual preference, racism and religion.
“Do not do business with them,” Anderson writes in a blog post. “Do not associate with them. Do not make excuses for them. It’s important to realize that others pay attention to those you have chosen to associate with, and they will inevitably judge your character by the character of your friends.”
Gauging Your Integrity
Do you act with integrity? You can make an accurate assessment by asking yourself these six questions devised by Don Phin, a lawyer, author and vice president of Strategic Business Solutions at the compliance and training solutions company ThinkHR.
- Am I willing to say what I’m thinking?
- Am I willing to risk being wrong?
- Do I want my child or someone else I love to do that? If not, then why am I doing it?
- Does this conduct make me a better person?
- Am I Ieading by example?
- Am I taking 100 percent responsibility?
Related: 7 Steps to Shape Great Character
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in January 2015 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy and comprehensiveness.