Integrity – What it is and What it isn’t

This article was not my original piece for this first month entry – thus the delay in publication.  I changed my mind midstream; as this article was spawned from several recent experiences of  what I will term ‘shady integrity.’  This blog is written with a lot of heart and soul.

Much has been written about integrity. In fact, in the hundreds of team meetings and board retreats I have facilitated, integrity is, seldom, NOT a team value! However, I intend not to focus on what we perceive integrity to be; yet, what integrity is not.

Let’s start with a common definition: Webster defines integrity as a firm adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

I want to share with you a few examples, from real life, which I believe question a level of this integrity, of moral character, honesty, and shine a bright light on what integrity is not.

Does this sound familiar?

  • A person hears a fabulous key note or presentation; and they believe it  to be so fabulous, they take portions of it – change a few words – ‘just to be honest’ – and begin to tout this as their own brilliant idea.
  • A person asks someone for a treasured family recipe. They don’t really want to give it; yet rather than to say no, they give it to that person – less an ingredient. (Yes, that has happened to me, and yes, it does happen….often in the South)
  • A person/s are exposed to an idea, a word, a term or philosophy which rings true to them, on which someone else has built their methodology and often their company. They think that term is so unique and powerful; they take that term, a few key phrases, and build their approach around that same approach.
  • A person has the opportunity to speak the whole truth about an issue – personally, socially or professionally – and they opt to tell the truth. However, they don’t tell ‘everything.’ They just tell portions of the story – they omit key points; most often swaying the point, certainly to their favor. (You know the drill….think about a sales person’s sales participation and their quest for sales credit/quota commission, think about sales/consulting methodology aspects – the consulting world is full of intellectual property wars – even social and political issues…..just turn on the TV or log onto YouTube.)
  • A person says one thing to you, another version of what they have said to you to someone else, and yet, another version to another person of the same story.  I wish I had a nickel for every time that has happened to me in my life!
  • A person is newly hired onto a team from outside the company and that person begins a quick study on how to usurp the person that hired them in a quest for fame, fortune, and power. Discrediting, sabotaging, back-stabbing, hording of ideas….the list is long.

I have had every single one of these happen to me in my career … some in the past few months.

Many in big business will say: this is why we have trademarks, copyrights, and intellectual property infringement law; and this is learning to ‘play the game;’ survival of the fittest. If someone doesn’t ‘have it’ – then they are ‘fair game’. Sure, I ‘get it’ – remember, I lived in that world for over 20 years.  It goes without saying that we must protect ourselves, our company, and our work product.  However, the issue I want to offer this week is much more systemic in our culture. For I am quite certain there are many in business today who don’t share everything with their internal counterparts for fear of being ‘poached’ of the good ideas. I am also quite certain there are those in business who perhaps don’t lie by commission; yet lie by omission – just not sharing everything, just sharing ‘enough.’

Where do we think this behavior is taking us? To a constant shade of grey? To a moral stance that is our interpretation instead of one that is based on honesty and integrity?

I am amazed at how easily people and companies take full advantage of hard working, smart, entrepreneurial spirited people who are trying to contribute in their unique ways – and how others literally poach on those brilliant, risk-taking folks’ ideas and creativity.

So what, you may say? “That is life.”

Well, I firmly believe that is Wrong.

We have an obligation to own up to our responsibilities – and that means stopping this insanity of stealing and poaching and, not respecting one another as creators, individuals, contributors, and  builders of our companies, our communities, our nation, and our world.

Two things to consider:

First: Be Impeccable with your Word. A fabulous book: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, A Toltec Wisdom Book became a ‘book of the month’ for many of my teams over my career. If you not have read it yet (I referenced it another blog) – read it. One of the agreements is to “be impeccable with your word.”  This basically means telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Often in today’s world, the operative word is ‘whole.’ Many just simply omit key facts or nuances. This is an interesting observation – just listen to national news, politicians, Fortune executives, Oprah, even personal acquaintances. It is amazing to watch the ‘spin factor’ and the power of just ‘omitting a few key facts.’  What is the whole truth?!

I will offer one personal test case of integrating this philosophy into life. With one of our most successful teams in a publicly traded software company, we used this book as a gauge for how we could grow and learn together as a team; and this book and particularly this agreement of ‘being impeccable with our word’ became our mantra. We were in the fast paced world of dot com frenzy, software sales and mergers, and the greed was rampant. This agreement saved our team and company in more ways than we will ever probably realize. We were not always the most popular at the time; yet I know from the CEO through the ranks, we were the most respected and valued at the end of the day.

Second: Stop stealing. A person’s original ideas will always be more authentic, rich, and potent than anything they ‘borrow’ or steal. Period. A person can rationalize due to complacency, laziness, or their perceived belief that they can ‘take this idea and really make it come to life’ (yes, I have heard that one of late, as well).

What I would suggest is simply this: If a person loves the idea, thinks it had merit, power, brilliance, cache, etc., then simply get permission, give credit or notice to that company, and source the source.  It is truly that simple.

Again, this conjures up ‘legal jargon’ and it certainly gives many an attorney a steady annuity stream; and yes, there will always be a need for the law. Yet, it does not have to be that complicated. Just give notice to those that deserve it!  Also, folks, please realize that YOUR ideas will be so much more powerful if they are truly YOURS. That is the beauty of pure authenticity and the power of telling your story… not plagiarizing someone else’s.

This philosophy and principle of integrity starts with each one of us. One person at a time. A germ of an idea at a time. It does not have to be on a soap box, on the national stage, or even in a national court of law. It is in the small acts, small companies, and small businesses which have often set the stage for many of our greatest achievements.

  • We are responsible for protecting it.
  • We foster all ideas – ours and others.
  • We  blow on all the embers of ideas of our fellow workers, our colleagues, our friends, our clients, our coaches, our partners….we don’t steal them.
  • We give credit. We give public and private recognition.
  • We make referrals expecting nothing in return.
  • We are frightfully honest – in all arenas.
  • We ask the questions of which we are afraid of the answers.
  • We own the answers.

We are impeccable with our word – written, spoken, acted – regardless of the consequences. That is what integrity looks like.

15 responses to “Integrity – What it is and What it isn’t

  1. Kristin –

    Fantastic post! Having worked in a large business for the majority of my career, I, too, witnessed each and every one of your examples play out. Interesting thing is, I don’t think any of the individuals that acted without integrity had much respect and certainly weren’t looked upon as leaders. That being said, I’m also having a hard time thinking of a “leader” I know that exhibits integrity in their presence. It seems that those willing to “sell out” are often the ones that continue to ascend up the ranks. I agree with Grant when he says this is the kind of behavior that motivated him to abandon the world of big business. Unfortunately, there seems to be the same kind of behavior across the political landscape as well.

    Thanks for bringing this to light – well done!


  2. Kristin, Totally agree. Truth and honestly will set you free. While not always the most popular sometimes, staying true to your own business integrity will make you the ultimate winner. Has always been my practice in both business and personal situations – only way to progress in life. Thanks for bringing perspective forward. Michael

  3. Hi Kristin
    Thank you for this post – when you & I worked together you were always a living example of integrity. 

    However, in a few paragraphs you managed to capture precisely what motivated me to abandon the world of big business to focus my efforts on helping to incubate start-ups & early stage companies where the virtue still seems to be able to maintain a relatively healthy existence.

    Many of the companies I work with seem to embrace, & even overtly discuss, the importance of integrity because it is so critical to their survival.
    Ironically, small companies seem to find that they have to exhibit integrity in order to trade with large businesses – but sadly the sentiment is rarely reciprocated.
    Thank you for a timely reminder of what it takes to ‘walk the talk’ - both in our personal & professional lives.

    Kind regards, Grant

  4. Well said Kristen. Honesty, integrity, moral ethics applied in all aspects of our lives is critical. I have now been in NY for almost 4 years and I find the greed and dishonesty (or maybe just leaving out key facts like you describe) are much more “overt” than I have ever seen before. Maybe that is why Wall Street caused so many problems recently. This topic could be taken to so many levels, including our federal, state and local “leaders” many of whom seem to be great examples of the negative side of this subject.

    But it has to start within each and every one of us as individuals.

    Thank you for the reminder!


  5. Kristin, Jeff and I were talking about this just yesterday. I told him
    something I learned many years ago: you don’t really know anyone until you
    have worked with him/her. You may not even know your spouse unless you have
    worked with him/her. Integrity is the line in the sand for me. Thanks so
    much for the column.

  6. Kristin,

    Again, your insight and ability to articulate an issue is so thought provoking. Integrity issues abound even more today given the fear people have about job security. Many will do anything to keep their position, when in reality, integrity has a higher chance of securing job security than the alternative. Thanks for the tip on the book, The Four Agreements.

  7. The need for integrity will be a life-long pursuit, a part of every relationship we have now or will ever have. In the world of work we always be challenged. There will always be someone or some incident or some opportunity that tempts us to play in the gray spaces. Thanks for reminding us there are lines we should not step over.

  8. Kristin,
    I think your piece was well written and very on target, especially today with all that is happening in the government and big corporations. To be honest, this is one of the reasons I left corporate America 13 years ago and started my own consulting business. As a consultant I share many ideas with my customers and teach many skills I have learned over the years. However I give credit to whoever taught me, said the quote or created the idea. I recommend books and courses to help my clients with their businesses and try to give them the best information possible.
    I try to take everyone on their word and have often been very surprised when I find that someone has lied to me. Raising two daughters is a true case study in “doing the right thing.” Our integrity is challenged every day and we have to decide which path to take. I often wonder how those who have fooled me go to sleep at night.

  9. THANKS!!! for the GREAT article, again and again…funny thing is that just last night my 5 year old grandson, Jack, who just started kindergarten was in the car telling me about a boy in his class who cheats at Candy Land…Jack was stunned and appalled at the fact that someone would cheat on a game “and spoil it for the rest of us” he hadn’t seen us since he started school and this was all he could talk about…how very sad for the 5 year old cheater…this will stay with him through all of his schooling and probably life itself…But, I am so grateful to know that my Jack has the integrity that he has..Just sad that he has to use it so young!

  10. Wow Kristin! Beautifully written and sooooo on target. Short cuts and cut corners can sometimes seem to be everywhere. Then we encounter authenticity and integrity and we realize how important it is in the maintaining of our human community.

  11. Kristin,

    Loved this. Some of us have had very bad experiences with others stealing our ideas. I submitted an article for publication and was told they were not interested in the subject at that time.. About three months later, there was an article on the topic, using some of the same quotes, by a bigger name in the field! Hum…

    My daughter learned this lesson early when she dreamed up a Jello recipe she thought was special. She sent it to them and was told they didn’t accept recipes from anyone. Six months later, there it was in an ad!

    While you may be recognized for sticking to the truth, it sure does feel good.

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