I would argue that, more than any other virtue, rock solid integrity is the one that makes the greatest difference in how much influence a person has and how much they are able to accomplish. For one thing, people are more likely to want to follow and support a leader whose actions are consistent with their words. More importantly, our own ability to count on ourselves to follow through with promises we’ve made—to ourselves and to others—has the profoundest effect on the size of the challenges we are willing to take on in life. Consequently, whether or not we know and relate to ourselves as persons of integrity determines whether or not our endeavors throughout life will end in success or failure. If you know that you are the kind of person who consistently meets the commitments they make, then you tend to play a bigger game in life and declare and pursue and achieve extraordinary things, and if you know that you aren’t that kind of person, you end up not making big promises and settling for an unexceptional life.
But how do you develop, preserve, or restore integrity? What if you are indeed playing a big game and you have a lot of irons in the fire and you occasionally slip and can’t meet your commitments? What do you do when—not if—you fall off the wagon? The answer comes down to one simple key: Communication!
Think about the people you know you can count on. The ones that you know will do what they promise and when they say something you can take it to the bank. Now think of a person who consistently fails to meet the commitments they made. You know that when they tell you they will do something, the only thing you can truly count on is them coming up with an excuse as to why they didn’t do it! Can you think of how you came to form that opinion of them? I’m guessing you had a “no-show” experience that shaped your initial perception, which was followed by more experiences that confirmed your suspicion that they really don’t care about following through on their commitments. I assure you that the person you know you can’t count on doesn’t intend to break their promises and flake on appointments, despite you knowing them to consistently do just that. And I also know that they could have easily avoided their unsavory reputation by simply being in communication!
Let’s face it. We all understand what it’s like to be busy. We know that things come up and sometimes require us to arrive late or cancel on prior commitments. We all know that we do this, and yet we all also want to project this air of impeccability, as if our own integrity is flawless while that of others is suspect at best. For some of us, this may be the result of genuine self-delusion in the vein of the fundamental attribution error, but probably for most of us, the pretense of impeccability makes us feel as if we aren’t even allowed to admit when we won’t be able to meet a commitment. In an environment like this, where everyone is expected to be perfect, people usually decide that it is better to “seek forgiveness” for breaking an engagement, rather than “ask permission” to alter the terms of the commitment.
If you think about it, this is all pretty silly. Most of us don’t mind it if someone calls or emails us to let us know they won’t be able to make it to the meeting on time, or that they won’t be able to deliver on a commitment on the day it was due, etc. In fact, most of us would absolutely love it if, instead of trying in vain to save face and resigning us to mounting frustration as missed deadlines pile up, people would notify us as soon as they realized they wouldn’t be able to meet a certain commitment and offer an alternative. There is no shame in doing so, and there is no blame in doing so. The simple act of communicating and requesting a new deadline and reaching a new agreement wipes the slate completely clean, because we recognize that even though the person couldn’t keep their original promise, they had enough integrity, respect for their own word, and respect for us, to communicate and make a new promise.
Unfortunately, what many unproductive and unfulfilling cultures are plagued with is the tacit agreement and understanding that they can’t count on each other to keep their word, as well as a concomitant motto of “I won’t call you out if you don’t call me out.” The norm is that, basically, “we are always going to be 5-10 minutes late for meetings, when we say ‘I’ll call you with an update on project X on Tuesday’ the call will likely come on Wednesday or Thursday, if at all.” We have grown so accustomed to people sandbagging and leaving wiggle room in their so-called commitments that we feel it is fine to do the same, and we end up in a catch-22, where no one has integrity because they know they can count on others not to have integrity as well. At this point, you have entered what is essentially the Twilight Zone of integrity, where the lack of integrity becomes an inverse form of integrity itself, because if there is one thing you can count on, it is that you can’t count on anything. Before you know it, you have a workplace culture of (completely reliable) mediocrity where people are either oblivious to the fact that there is anything wrong or they wish they could change things but have no idea where to.
If that is you in the latter situation, the starting point I’d like to suggest is your own integrity. I don’t mean your reputation in the eyes of others, but rather whatever you have to say and do so that you can begin to count on yourself. When you make a promise, either keep it and deliver on time, or communicate your inability or unwillingness to do so and make a new agreement. If you are going to be late, then go ahead and be late; just let somebody know as soon as you realize this is the case. If you are about to make a commitment that you know you will not be able to meet, do the negotiation up front rather than making outsized commitments and then backpedaling later. If there is a risk that you may not be able to deliver, don’t wait until you miss the deadline. Let the person know in advance what is going on so they can also think about contingency plans. None of these admissions and communications put you out of integrity, because your commitment to yourself and others is to keep your commitments or to communicate when you will not be able to do so. Once again, the key is this: Communicate, communicate, communicate!
Try this even if the norms in your workplace—or the unspoken agreement among your acquaintances—is that it is okay to say one thing and do another. It may feel strange or appear weird to others that you are calling to let them know you would be five minutes late to the meeting when no one is expected to be on time anyway, but what you’re doing is setting a new standard and role-modeling the behavior you would like to see in others. Soon, believe it or not, you will start to see others join in. Even if they don’t automatically do it, you will be in a much better position to give them a nudge because you are now practicing what you preach.
The greatest prize of all when it comes to restoring integrity is that you begin to relate to yourself again as a person who can be counted on to make and keep promises. You become more selective in commitments you make and find the courage to say no to things that are not a priority. The desire to preserve your personal integrity will strengthen your resolve to go the extra mile to make sure you do what you say you will do, and to do so with excellence. Ultimately, you will enlarge your vision and more freely make bold declarations, and eventually achieve extraordinary things.
Restoring integrity with yourself by restoring integrity with others is the only way you will ever achieve success in life, because you will prove to yourself that even if you run into some issues and need to adjust your plans, you will always be able to count on yourself to do whatever it takes to accomplish what you are really out to accomplish.