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5 Myths About Integrity—and 5 Reassuring Truths

You probably have more integrity than you think you have.

Key points

  • In a climate of increased cynicism and distrust according to recent polls, living with integrity can be a challenge.
  • Integrity is a commonly misunderstood and complex trait that research has struggled to define, understand, and operationalize.
  • Living with integrity and keeping our ethical standards helps us sleep better at night and reduces guilt and rumination.
  • We can live with integrity by scaling it down to small, modest wins on a daily basis.
Marcus Aurelius/Pexels
Source: Marcus Aurelius/Pexels

Americans are more cynical and distrustful than ever before, a 2022 Gallup poll shows. We believe that too many people lack integrity, particularly those in charge (politicians, leaders, CEOs) who don’t seem to have the backbone or the moral courage to do the right thing. A recent Global Business Ethics Survey reports a 20 percent increase since 2019 of employees saying they were “pressured to compromise their moral standards.”

“It’s no secret: We are facing an integrity deficit,” laments Brett Beasley at the Deloitte Center of Ethical Leadership. “As a result, levels of trust are at an all-time low, both for businesses and their leaders.”

In this cynical climate, we try to be like Teflon as we brace ourselves against those who lack integrity or even common decency. For example, the troublesome act of ghosting has become more common. People don’t keep their word, drop out of commitments, disappear, or just delete you. We are starving for honest, trustworthy people who live with integrity—the ones we can count on.

As much as we admire integrity, it’s a highly misunderstood character trait that we don’t think we possess enough of. Even research on integrity’s definition is complex and perplexing. There are at least eight different views of integrity in the domains of academic integrity, leadership integrity, research integrity, and behavioral integrity.

We might even feel intimidated from trying to live with integrity—too lofty, too virtuous, too perfect, unreachable. Most of us correctly assume it means to have moral character and to be accountable, honest, and trustworthy, but all that honor may be too hard to live up to. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes integrity as “adherence to a code of moral values; incorruptibility.” Integrity also means “soundness” and “completeness.”

But who is truly “incorruptible?” Or “complete?” Or who always follows the “code of moral values?” No wonder so many of us struggle to recognize our own integrity. Could we possibly create a better, more realistic, and actionable meaning for integrity—so we can actually live with integrity? (This HuffPost article, “The True Meaning of Integrity,” tackles this question.)

In our hectic daily lives, most of us are unable to consistently live up to our values and often find ourselves stuck in contradictions regarding integrity. In short, we likely have plenty of integrity in one role and not so much in another: For example, we might know of nice, decent colleagues at work, but they drive like jerks (I live in Boston—sometimes, being a “Masshole” on the road is a matter of survival). Or we adore our friends, but a couple of them can be rather rude to food servers. Or our sister is an angel with her grandkids, but, God forbid, she encounters a pushy person in line at Walmart. This discrepancy in our integrity between different roles can be guilt-producing and frustrating.

But most of us act with some integrity most of the time. Why? Because we feel better living with ourselves when we are decent with ourselves as well as others. Holding on to our integrity helps us keep our peace of mind.

Studies have shown that we truly do sleep better at night when we live up to our personal ethical standards. We feel a sense of relief after we’ve made it through an ordeal without completely losing our temper or self-control. We maintain a bare minimum of standards and lines that we never cross. We hold on to our core values, at least for our own good, most of the time. Most of us can’t live comfortably with ourselves when we’ve lost our integrity.

It’s time to take a fair, honest look at what integrity means in real life and bust a few myths that make integrity a virtue we can only preach about.

5 Myths and Realities About Integrity

To better understand integrity as it fits into the real world, here are five common myths about integrity to consider:

1. Myth: Integrity means that you keep your word, no matter what.

Reality: Integrity means that you try to keep your word, but if you cannot, you are honest about it. You take responsibility to notify the person with a fair and sincere explanation.

2. Myth: Integrity means that you keep all of your commitments.

Reality: Integrity means that if you cannot keep your commitment with others, you let them know as soon as possible and offer a sincere apology.

3. Myth: Integrity means always doing the right thing.

Reality: Integrity means having at least a basic standard of decency (a line that is not crossed) that you can consistently maintain. Your actions might not always be your best, but it is at least within your range of good, human decency.

4. Myth: Integrity means you are always openly honest and transparent with others.

Reality: Integrity means to be honest with yourself, first and foremost. You might not always be able to disclose to people all the details of your situation (such as when your safety, or protection, or their safety may be at stake). There is a fine line between being honest and “spilling all the beans,” or over-sharing with “too much information.” But offer a sincere (as possible) explanation that feels safe, fair, and kind.

5. Myth: Integrity means always being authentic and never “faking it to make it.”

Reality: We can certainly hold on to our integrity, even though we sometimes need to adapt our personality and behaviors around others. We might need to modulate our behaviors (our voice, our intensity, our body language) in some social situations for the benefit of others. Our integrity stays intact alongside our consideration, respect, and thoughtful acts.

We see integrity in action every day in ways we take for granted. Indeed, we can recognize the reliable, trustworthy people around us who we count on. Just consider how we depend on people with integrity who show up and do their hard jobs—nurses, bus drivers, janitors, teachers, grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, or the teen next door who takes care of her neighbor’s pets.

In your everyday life, I invite opportunities to see your own integrity in action. Here are some examples for you to recognize in yourself.

Recognize your integrity in action by filling in the blanks with your first thought or response:

1. You recently muddled through an awkward and confusing situation, but you still held on to your ____.

2. This week someone flaked on you, but you came up with a quick alternative because you are ____.

3. Let’s hear it for making sure the “show must go on” even when you had to ____.

4. Every day you wear the “big pants” (even if no one else does) because you’re ____.

5. You could have lost your temper in a tense moment with someone but kept true to your belief in ____.

All five of your answers indicate behaviors and reliable traits that reflect your own integrity. Understanding and appreciating the integrity of your character can help you move forward after someone has let you down or when you are disappointed in yourself. Integrity is your consolation prize when you survive challenging times.

“The good news is that integrity is not just for saints and moral heroes—it is within reach of all of us,” says Brett Beasley. He offers these actionable pointers:

  • Reformulate integrity as “a series of controllable opportunities of modest size.”
  • Build integrity by promising less and following through with more.
  • People of integrity know their limits and plan accordingly.
  • When you let someone down, make sure to be transparent about what went wrong.

In conclusion, I would like to offer two reassuring quotes about integrity:

“With integrity, you have nothing to fear, since you have nothing to hide.” — Zig Ziglar

“At the end of the day, people with integrity have one thing in common: they sleep well.” — Don Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post

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