Are you a person of integrity? Chances are you and everyone reading this article will answer in the affirmative.  This introduces a massive blind-spot we have in our lives and organizations: self-deception – as none of us can say we have full integrity.

So, first, how do we define integrity?

Webster’s New World Dictionary gives two definitions of “integrity”: the first is the quality or state of being complete or whole; the second is being of sound moral principle.

Most of us define it as the latter – that is, being of sound moral principle, viewing it as a virtue or character strength. For example, in a 2012 study of the Character Strength of Leaders by CCL, it was found that integrity was the most important contributor to top-level executive performance followed closely by bravery.

I would like to suggest Webster’s first definition is more useful when applying it to staff member’s performance within an organization because, while the latter definition – that is, moral principle, is a hazy term that is not always black and white; contrarily, the first, a state of being complete or whole, allows for specific identifiable features, which can be measured.

Let me further illustrate this using a bicycle wheel analogy. The wheel is whole and complete, however, if you remove spokes, damage the rim, or puncture the tyre, then it is not fully whole and complete. Integrity is diminished.

Therefore, for a person or organization to have integrity, our word must be whole and complete because everything in our lives is constructed in language.

Fernando Flores theorizes that organizations consist of networks of human transactions.  He describes how these ‘speech acts’, (requests, promises, offers, declarations, and commitments to action) serve as building blocks for activating commitments in organizations and form the foundation of improving performance.

However, one of the biggest barriers to maintaining integrity is self-deception says Prof. Michael C. Jensen (Harvard Business School) in his UBC Keynote. People are mostly unaware that they have not kept their word. In fact, we deceive ourselves. Chris Argyris concludes: “Put simply, people consistently act inconsistently; unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and theory-in-use, the way they think they are acting and the way they really act.”

The bottom line is when you don’t do what you say you will do, or when others have unclear expectations about what you will do, it will result in disappointment, lack of engagement and trust, and compromised integrity. This will have a negative effect on organizational performance.

Here are four things you can do to build personal and organizational integrity.

  1. Start by keeping your word to yourself
  2. Lead by example and keep your word to others
  3. When you are not able to keep your word (or keep it on time), let everyone know immediately and clean up the mess this causes
  4. Commit to building and maintaining integrity as a lived organizational value

Integrity is a ladder you keep on climbing.

Being a person of integrity by honoring your word is the mark of an extraordinary leader.