By Seth Meyers, Psy.D.
“Integrity” is a word you hear almost every day, but it’s not a word that people spend a lot of time thinking about. If you try to define it, what would you say? According to the dictionary, integrity is “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.” Put another way, the root of integrity is about doing the right thing even when it’s not acknowledged by others, or convenient for you. An individual with integrity is the antidote to self-interest. There are countless examples of integrity in everyday life—and yet we seldom see some of the examples highlighted below acted out in our daily lives:
1. Parents apologizing to their kids for over-punishing or yelling at them.
Like animals, small children make easy targets. They’re physically vulnerable by size and stature, and they’re emotionally vulnerable because they don’t yet have the cognitive capacity to understand the complexities of life. When parents feel overwhelmed, it often follows that they snap at their children or issue a too-harsh punishment. As a parent myself, I known how hard it can be, but at the same time, I also know that delivering an apology to your child when you’ve gone too far is something he or she deserves—and that it’s an absolute sign of integrity. Parents should set aside their pride and learn to apologize more frequently.
2. Bosses highlighting their staffs’ accomplishments and downplaying their own.
As a practicing psychologist, I hear some pretty extreme stories in my office. Based on these tales, the percentage of managers or bosses who are narcissistic, sadistic, or even sociopathic appears to be off the charts. Wherever you have power, you’ll find someone nearby who’s gunning for it. Yet the boss with integrity is a boss not because she or he wants to have power over others, but because of being a natural leader who is good at keeping things organized and who handles challenging situations with dexterity. Simply put, bosses with integrity have no need for power because they know they’re good at what they do, and they also have insight into the fact that they get better financial compensation than other workers. The good boss makes a constant effort to appreciate a staff’s contribution and to give them credit for a job well done. Sadly, you rarely see this kind of healthy, appropriate behavior in the workplace. We desperately need more integrity from bosses far and wide.
3. Romantic partners who boycott name-calling or other vicious behaviors.
Let’s admit it: There are infinite ways you can treat a romantic partner badly. Every day, in couples old and new, wealthy and poor, men and women get nasty with each other. At the most distorted end of the spectrum are the physical and sexual abusers; at the other end are the name-callers and angry, passive-aggressive types. (Infidelity is a complex issue appropriate for separate analysis.) No psychological study will ever reveal the percentage of relationships that include nasty, below-the-belt behavior. Yet there are couples out there who fight but not never unfairly, who argue but stop short of calling each other names. Those couples, which may have problems with each other but still manage to show a level of humanity and kindness, are composed of romantic partners who show integrity in everyday life. May we all watch and learn from them.
4. Drivers who (almost) never use the horn or drive aggressively.
We all have to share the roads, no matter how annoying that reality might be. How you drive says a lot about you—how you treat people you don’t know; how you handle anger; and the extent to which you suffer from entitlement. Perhaps you’d like to believe that someone who drives slowly or non-aggressively is simply less busy than you, but driving in a cooperative manner that is mindful of your fellow commuters is actually a sign of integrity. Let’s all try to practice it more when we’re behind the wheel.
5. People in positions of power apologizing for keeping their captive audience waiting.
When someone feels important because they have more power than the majority of people around them, they often take themselves pretty seriously—and don’t think about the feelings of others. I’m talking about company higher-ups who don’t make a conscious effort to apologize to job interviewees for long waits —either on the day of an interview, or during the long lapses between interviewing and hearing back about whether a candidate got the job. I could just as easily be referring to physicians who keep a waiting room full of people waiting well past their agreed-upon appointment times. Every day people in positions of power, savoring their power, don’t acknowledge how they infringe upon the time and demands of those who depend on them. When was the last time that a physician came into the examination room and acknowledged how long you’d been made to wait? I’ve never heard a doctor say, “I’m sorry for keeping you waiting,” or, “Thanks for waiting; I’m sure you’re probably busy.” In situations where there is a major power imbalance, make no mistake: The one with power who apologizes to the one with less power is showing bona fide integrity.
6. Anyone giving another person the benefit of the doubt when the circumstances are unclear.
Modern life is more taxing and fast-paced than ever, and we suffer from stress on an ongoing basis. When we’re stressed, we’re more likely to get defensive and blame others. But if each of us could learn to give people the benefit of the doubt across the board—whether it’s in an argument, about a job not completed, or in response to feedback that suggests that someone’s spoken badly about you—we would have less stress in our daily lives. One of the noblest behaviors you can engage in is to give someone the benefit of the doubt before rushing to judgment or negatively filling in the blanks yourself.
As a society, we don’t volunteer hardly enough. Yet a handful of men and women make volunteering a built-in part of their weekly life, whether at a church, food pantry, animal shelter, or other non-profit operation. It shows a certain level of integrity to volunteer for a one-day stint here or there, but the steadier integrity is shown by those who commit to ongoing volunteer positions that require a real sacrifice of time. Cheers to all the parents who coach their children’s sports teams, but even louder applause to those volunteers who provide a service to their larger community or to underprivileged strangers.
The good news about integrity is that we’re not born with it—or without it—which means that it’s a behavior-based virtue we can cultivate over time. We can set a goal to show more integrity in everyday life and we can reach that goal by practicing the behaviors above, as well as countless others which too often go unnoticed.
Integrity [Def. 2]. (n.d.). In Merriam Webster Online, Retrieved April 4, 2015, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/integrity.