Integrity’s Not the Right Word

by | May 23, 2023 | blog | 0 comments

I recently came across a provocative LinkedIn post from an established author and thought leader in leadership development…

The post stated, “Do the right thing, even when no one is looking. It’s called integrity.

Oh no, no, no, no.

Although the respected LinkedIn contributor means well, “integrity” is not the right word to capture the essence of doing the right thing. Integrity, by definition, means adhering to moral and ethical principles. It suggests doing what is right, regardless of external influences or the absence of an audience. But here’s the rub. I believe that integrity is more personal than universal. It’s about doing what you personally believe is best even if others disagree.

This perspective is crucial because it reminds us that even the worst people are often acting within their own integrity. They may be operating based on their own set of beliefs and values, however misguided they may appear to us. Even politicians who support policies and actions that we find hateful, discriminatory, and life-damaging (who shall remain nameless here… don’t get me started) are likely operating from their own sense of what is right and necessary. While we may strongly disagree with their choices, we can’t fault them for a lack of integrity.

Instead of focusing on integrity as a measure of trustworthiness, we should consider the effectiveness of individuals and their actions. The key is to define what effectiveness means in each particular context. Words matter, and labeling someone as lacking integrity does not provide useful insights when evaluating their trustworthiness. Instead, we should concentrate on identifying specific behaviors, results, and metrics.

As people leaders, it’s essential to remember that most individuals are doing the best they can with the resources and knowledge they possess. Instead of passing judgment or, worse, incorporating subjective interpretations into performance evaluations, we should shift our focus to objective and measurable criteria. One effective approach is to use the well-known acronym S.M.A.R.T. when evaluating behaviors — specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. This allows us to assess actions based on clear expectations and measurable outcomes.

Using phrases like “not in integrity” can inadvertently perpetuate leadership elitism. We shouldn’t presume to tell others what their values should be. If we define values for our organization or team, it’s crucial to be exceptionally clear about the desired behaviors and measurable outcomes we expect. This clarity provides a solid foundation for evaluating performance and guiding individuals toward success.

While the concept of integrity certainly carries noble intentions, it is not always the most helpful word when assessing trustworthiness or evaluating individuals’ actions. Instead, let’s focus on effectiveness, using objective measures and clear expectations. By doing so, we can cultivate a more inclusive and supportive environment that acknowledges the diverse perspectives and beliefs of those around us.

Let’s get away from words like “integrity” which is just disguised “I know better than you; I’m superior” language and moral gymnastics that we ask others to emulate. Not helpful. Really, pretty lazy. Let’s challenge ourselves to get clear on what exactly we expect from others – and evaluate their actions based on clearly defined objective behaviors and outcomes.

About Danny

With over 20 years experience in training and leadership development  — and holding an MBA and an MA in Organizational Development — Danny Ceballos has worked with organizations across the country to strengthen their effectiveness in leading and managing others through supervision+motivation best practices and strategies.