What Constitutes Evidence of Integrity?

Balaji Krishnamurthy

Food for Thought is our way of sharing interesting concepts on corporate leadership and management with others who might find it useful. The thoughts offered are intended to be controversial and thought-provoking. They are intended to help our readers intentionally realize their potential, what we call Potentionality.

On a recent business trip, I was sitting at a bar and having dinner, as I often do. When the bartender asked if I wanted another drink, I told him that I was going to switch to a Diet Coke. When the bill came, I noticed he hadn’t charged me for my Diet Coke, so I mentioned it to him. “I don’t charge for soda when you switch from a drink,” he explained. “It’s good practice and keeps us all safe.” Then, as an afterthought, he added, “You are an honest man.”

I got to thinking if that is a testament to my honesty. After all, it was just a three-dollar soda and it was going to end up on my expense account anyways.

Some months ago, a friend of mine was fighting his rental car company on a $10,000 disputed invoice, the result of an accident during the rental. Many parties were involved, including the rental car company, his insurance company and his credit card company. In the end, he got multiple people to settle the issue and ended up with $10,000 too much. He was struggling to give back the extra money and didn’t know who he should return it to. Worried that giving back the $10,000 to one party would get him in trouble with the other parties, he spent just as much time laboring over how to give it back as he had spent fighting the invoice in the first place. Was my friend’s dilemma and behavior a greater testament to his honesty than my soda dilemma? After all, I was honest about a three-dollar charge. My friend deliberated over how to give back $10,000. He could have just kept it, but he didn’t.

In other words – is a situation where doing the right thing results in greater personal loss and hardship a stronger testament to one’s level of honesty?

To answer that, let’s imagine that these two stories involved the same person. Which of the two stories would you use to convince a potential employer of this person’s honesty? I presume the $10,000 story. Isn’t that story a stronger indication of their honesty?

Is this much ado about nothing? Why does this matter? Well, let’s look at the converse. If a smaller sacrifice is less evidence of honesty, shouldn’t cheating somebody out of a small amount be greater evidence of dishonesty?

In the two stories above, if each subject had intentionally withheld disclosure and had pocketed the money, which scenario would serve as stronger evidence of their dishonesty? The three-dollar scenario or the $10,000 scenario? Would we show contempt for the person who stooped so low to steal three dollars? Would we understand the temptation of $10,000 and show more leniency when we evaluate the other individual? Or, alternatively, would we dismiss the three-dollar situation as petty theft, but hold someone accountable if they were to steal $10,000?

To answer this, imagine once more that in the dishonest version of the above two stories the subject was the same person. Which of the two stories would you use to convey caution about this person to a third party? Probably the $10,000 version.

I posit that we consider honest or dishonest behavior over small and negligible consequences to be natural and petty behavior. However, we interpret behavior in the face of significant consequences as indicative of someone’s honesty. So, to really understand someone’s integrity, we must examine their behavior when much is at stake for them. When, by doing the right thing, they suffer a significant personal loss or hardship, you can conclude that they have a strong sense of integrity.

Is integrity the same as honesty?

We provide a Tool, the Three Bars of Integrity, of which the base level, or base bar, was honesty. We suggested that the middle bar was “to do as you say.” In other words, in addition to being honest, delivering on your commitments shows a higher level of integrity. Things like being on time for your meetings, completing work on the promised date and holding up your end of a bargain all show a level of integrity that goes beyond honesty. Again, are all commitments created equal? Is it not more impressive when you learn that the single parent jumped through a number of hoops to show up to that 8 am meeting, or that late-night report somebody completed before they left on their vacation? Again, the greater the sacrifice, the stronger the evidence.

Let’s apply this argument to the third bar of integrity – “say as you think.” This suggests that you should say what you think, recognizing that you say it in the right forum, compassionately and constructively. The true testament to this high bar is saying what you think when there is much to be lost on a personal level. For example, telling your boss that his or her idea has certain flaws. Or, telling the customer that your solution might not be the best for them.

I was inspired to write this article when dealing with a personal situation where the integrity of the people involved was at stake. It forced me to ask, what displays evidence of integrity? The answer: when you live up to the three bars of integrity – even in situations where you have a significant personal stake.

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