The fundamentals of integrity

Written by Jason Morris on Tuesday August 28, 2018

Integrity is hard to pin down. We know that some people have it and some people don’t, but in terms of one’s character, true integrity, particularly in adults, is fixed.

That’s not to say that you can’t teach people to behave better – of course you can. Children do things wrong all the time but learn, through guidance from their parents, to change their behaviour accordingly, so they’re a great example of this in action. But true integrity is not just about behaviour, it’s a much more complex attribute, which is difficult to define in simple terms, but which I’m going to attempt to do anyway.

There are many varying definitions of integrity, ranging from ‘doing the right thing when no one is looking’ (C.S. Lewis) to ‘a willingness not to violate one’s identity’ (Erich Fromm).

But for me, integrity boils down to one thing: how you treat people.

There will be plenty of people who disagree with me on this, and that’s what makes this such a good subject to talk about.

I’ve worked in regulatory compliance for many years and have met a lot of people in that time. Hands down, the best practitioners I’ve come across are those with integrity. In my view, it’s not a skill or a competence that is consciously displayed. People don’t tend to broadcast the fact that they have integrity (in fact, if they do it’s likely to suggest the opposite), instead it’s more a quality that the individual doesn’t necessarily know is there, but which is still apparent to those around them.

In compliance, honesty and doing the right thing is a vital part of the role and could also be described as a subset of integrity. Most people are honest and try to do the right thing, but integrity as a whole is a way of life, and that’s why I believe that, fundamentally, it’s about how you treat other people, no matter who they are.

The importance of integrity in leaders

As a function, compliance operates across the entirety of a firm, and so those working in that field could find themselves in direct communication with people from all levels of the business. There are many examples of narcissistic people at the helm of financial services organisations, those that exude their power for personal gain and take sole credit for the way their business has performed.

Some may think narcissism and that ruthlessness to succeed are essential qualities for a business leader to possess. However, a leader with integrity will not be so self-absorbed. Instead, they will ensure their staff’s contribution to the business is recognised and credited accordingly, happy to share the plaudits with all staff no matter what their individual role.

Integrity displayed by leaders promotes trust amongst the workforce, which is the glue that holds a business together, and can be a big influencing factor for staff staying loyal to a company.  

Consider the following examples of behaviours where integrity is not displayed.

1) False promises to get someone to do something, e. g., to accept a job or a responsibility.

2) Plagiarism of someone else’s ideas and credit-taking for someone's work.

3) Lies of omission to withhold relevant information.

4) Spreading rumours to damage someone’s reputation.

5) Cheating to get a financial or positional advantage.

6) Misrepresenting own accomplishment to make oneself look better at expense of others.

7) Favouritism and nepotism.

8) Not appreciating loyalty, talent, honesty, hard-work of others.

9) Treating others as if they cannot be trusted – not believing them, micromanaging them, not trusting them to do their job.

10) Blaming others for own mistakes.

There are endless examples of these things happening all the time, not just in financial services but across many business sectors, and it damages businesses significantly. Some make the mistake of thinking money can fix these issues, but once the trust is broken, there is no way back. Counter-offers and promises do not work. Because loyal, hard-working people's loyalty cannot be bought with money.

Integrity is a subject with real depth, and I’ve only dipped my toe into it here. It would be great to hear your own views on integrity, what it means to you and how important it is in your role or your business.

For now though, I’ll leave you with a final quotation on integrity by M.H McKee – ‘Wisdom is knowing the right path to take – integrity is taking it.’

Learn more about ethics, accountability and integrity with the ICA International Diploma in Governance, Risk and Compliance. Now open for enrolment ►


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