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Facing Up to the Integrity Imperative

Larry knew he wasn't in the right job. He never wanted to be a manager at the aerospace company he had worked at since college. Although he loved contributing to his company's success as a brilliant engineer, taking a leadership role held no appeal for him. When offered a job in management, however, he knew turning it down would disappoint his boss. And it might hurt him in the next annual review and cut into his long-term income.

Larry also thought his wife would be saddened if he allowed a higher-status position and a bigger paycheck pass him by. So he said yes.

Two months later Larry found himself dreading Monday mornings. He was sleeping a lot more and looking at his watch every 10 minutes on Friday afternoons. He lost interest in golfing with his engineer buddies on the weekend and didn't feel like doing much of anything any more except watching television. Instead of occupying himself with solving engineering problems, Larry worried about troubles at work that previously would never have entered his mind.

A year later at his annual review, Larry's boss asked him how he had liked his new role in management and the rewards that came from it. After a revealing silence, his intuitive boss asked, "Are you as happy as you were when you were down in the trenches being a star engineer?" Larry reluctantly admitted: "No, I'm not happy at all. I really miss the challenge."

Jumping Out of Bed

The solution was obvious. After working out the details, Larry resigned from the management team and resumed his previous duties almost as if nothing had happened. His vitality returned, and once again he jumped out of bed before the alarm went off. The following year, Larry and his associates made a key breakthrough that won the company a major government contract. The chief executive of the company rewarded Larry with a bonus that exceeded the loss in salary he had forfeited.

Reflecting on the experience some months later, Larry said to his boss, "When I took that job I lost something huge—part of myself."

To his surprise and delight, Larry found that although allowing integrity to guide his decisions can at times seem perilous, it also delivered rewards that can't be found otherwise.

Predicaments like Larry's can happen to any of us. I'm talking specifically about the internal conflict we all experience when confronted with a choice between doing what feels right or what's expedient. It can happen when we receive assignments that seem too far outside of our skill set or job description. Or when we're asked to look the other way when a corner gets cut. It can even come in the form of a gentle hint to tell a white lie or half-truth. "You know, to avoid rocking the boat," they advise.

Larry's was the sort of judgment that requires a personal "gut check." Undoubtedly it occurs in the workplaces of America a million times a day—it's just not on our radar until it blindsides us.

Sacrificing Honesty

Of course, the choice isn't always between absolute right and wrong. Often the litmus test can be much subtler, such as making the distinction between sticking to the golden rule or bending the rule. The net result is that many of us take the plunge and go along with the ruse or silently comply with what's expected.

And then, naturally, we try to forget all about it. We dismiss it as the price of "getting things done" and push it into a dark corner of our memory bank. But inevitably the subject lingers, demanding an answer. Within mere hours or days we begin to ask ourselves, "Did I abandon my moral compass in favor of expediency?"

Or the even more unsettling question: "Am I allowing my personal belief system to be co-opted by others? Am I staying true to who I really am?"

The truth is that virtually all of us sacrifice some measurable degree of who we are at heart and even our inborn honesty in the course of doing our jobs. Because it typically happens over a long period of time and in gradual stages. I call the process "integrity erosion."

"Not me," you say? Just ask yourself: How different are you today from the fresh-faced graduate and business rookie you were just out of the starting blocks? Are you still an idealistic young maverick, or have you changed into someone you may not have recognized in your youth?

Reasserting Integrity

As an adviser to executives in a variety of industries, I've seen the best and the worst of human nature as people go about pursuing their careers and climbing the corporate ladder. Naturally each of us responds differently to stress and the demands of being a fair and dependable boss, colleague, or employee. Yet without exception, the happiest and most well-adjusted (and often the most successful) people I've encountered are those whose behavior in the workplace reflects their personal values and passions.

Let me go out on a limb here and make a modest proposal. For the sake of our families, careers, economy, and the nation itself, we should place a high value on integrity—both in the workplace and in our personal lives. It might be as simple as just saying "no" to a decision that seems like the beginning of a slippery slope toward something a lot worse. Perhaps each of us should try to be the first in the room to speak up when truth is about to be sacrificed for expediency—or honesty for gain.

Great leaders and great companies share at least this one trait: They make the integrity imperative central to "how they get things done." There can be nothing halfway about an adherence to integrity. But once the right path is chosen, the rewards are incalculable.

Karen Duncum is the owner of Star Performance Consulting, a coaching and training firm based in Santa Barbara, Calif. She has served as a consultant to businesses of all sizes, from startups to Fortune 500 companies.

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