Every clan has its rituals and code of behavior. This is true of organizations big and small, from a girls softball team to a Rotary Club to any organized religion, and is just as characteristic of unconventional enterprises as it is of mainstream ones. The penalties for violating a code of behavior can be extreme – think of the IRA and “kneecapping,” where informants would have their knee caps shot off. The prospect of a lifetime of disability and pain is a strong incentive not to talk to the authorities.
But what about those times when there are no (or minimal) penalties, or the risk of being caught is very low, or the rewards are inconsequential for following a particular item in a code of behavior? It’s what you do when nobody is looking that defines integrity, in my book, along with constantly seeking to align your daily behavior with your raison d’etre.
I find it interesting how many organizations and companies claim integrity as a core value without defining what it means. This casual attitude has led to an unfortunate diminishment of the power inherent in the word, which then becomes just another item on a list of values, with no particular weight given to it, or any real understanding of what it means. As someone who loves and revels in language, I find this deplorable and upsetting.
It’s comparable to the misuse of the word “unique,” which should be saved for those instances when the item under discussion truly is alone in the world – unique is not a synonym for “good.” Therefore, something cannot be “very unique,” since that something either is or isn’t the one and only. Einstein was a smart guy, and yes, he was unique. My brother is also pretty intelligent, but it makes no sense to call him “very Einstein.” It’s enough that he is a tenured professor at Penn State; we wouldn’t want him to get a swelled head.
Similarly, integrity is a powerful virtue. To say that a company has integrity is to bestow on that organization a reputational seal of approval that can only be won after long effort, and can easily be lost. For an organization to have integrity, each and every individual in the organization must at all times exhibit the kind of behavior that is beyond reproach, in matters big and small. Integrity is one of those virtues that require constant practice, and if you don’t get the little things right the big things are nearly impossible.
Of course, we are all human and we make mistakes. I have sometimes screwed up my expense claims to East Meets West, accidentally adding in dinners with friends as part of a reimbursement claim, or failing to notice mistakes made by the bookkeeper. I do my best to instantly correct these mistakes, although chances are (given how much I travel) nobody would ever notice and the dollar amounts are trivial.
But as we all know, this sort of behavior is a slippery slope and easily rationalized. Pretty soon, what used to be an accident becomes a behavior. So I try to practice overcompensation – if I make a mistake, I don’t just correct it, I go above and beyond. I might make a donation to EMW, for example, or treat the staff to after-work drinks, or deliberately forego filing legitimate expense claims. Over the years I’ve found this to be an effective way of keeping myself honest, one that acts as a powerful corrective to the repugnant attitude of “I work hard and always deliver, so the organizations owes me.”
When I hear people in our industry (international development) describe a given agency as “lacking integrity,” I always know what they are talking about. They are referring to groups that claim to be helping the poor, but mostly seem to be helping themselves – enjoying a life of luxury while offering lip service to helping the disadvantaged.
Personal and organizational integrity can be painful at times, and it always requires attention. If people make mistakes, they should correct them immediately and offer to make it right – and so should an organization. I remember once discovering that EMW had accidentally misled a donor. Due to an unfortunate breakdown in communications caused by staff changes, we completed a project and sent a final report to the donor showing that we had correctly expended the funds, but only half of what the donor gave us.
Although the donor had not noticed the discrepancy, I felt I had no choice but to call him and offer to refund the balance of his donation. He wasn’t all that happy, and may well have mistrusted my motivations. How many times have you heard of an organization returning donor funds if the project came in under budget? It was, however, the right thing to do.
In life, we may frequently be faced with the temptation to lie, cheat and embellish; the rewards are often enticing and the penalties a lot less painful than getting your knees blown off. Integrity is all about listening to that internal voice that reminds you that it’s wrong, and developing in yourself the persistent habit of never giving in to those sorts of temptations. In our overly abundant society, there are plenty of perfectly legitimate rewards you can give yourself instead.