Flexible Integrity


It’s good to know that an internet search on the term flexible integrity doesn’t bring up much more than info on industrial hoses…yet, several clients have recently asked me if integrity is flexible, so I feel compelled to plug that thought before it grows.

In today’s industrial model, in which decisions are centered around systems and efficiency, people are perceived and treated as tools that service the system. For corporations that exist to maximize shareholder value or not-for-profits that serve social good, leaders tend to use layoffs, for instance, as a go-to strategy to cut costs as if people are expendable in the goal of trying to save the organization. The model doesn’t really need personal integrity because it sees people as cogs in a wheel that perform or don’t vs dynamic, creative beings who can transform situations in any moment. As a result, the model somehow demands that people become flexible with their integrity in order to meet the needs of the organization.

The Flexible Integrity Playbook

This is how flexible integrity can come to be:

Let’s say that you’re a leader of a corporation that believes in shareholder primacy (it’s a myth, but that’s a story for another blog). As a result of this belief, you feel compelled to do what’s needed to increase shareholder value. The easiest way to do this is to keep costs as low as possible and this usually includes headcount. If you can’t cut deep enough, don’t want to tamper with goodies used to motivate your executive team or don’t want to feel like a failure, you might feel no other option than to somehow, even ever-so-slightly alter crucial data that make things look one way when they’re another. You love your job and the perks it brings (namely, how they fill your internal needs) and you hesitate to bring bad news to shareholders and deal with the consequences of falling short of financial expectations. You then deceive yourself by modifying data or (directly or indirectly) instructing others to do so and/or “creatively” altering the financials, as did the heads of Enron, WorldCom and the like.

That’s flexible integrity: diluting your integrity to succeed within a specific context in which the fear of consequences outweighs the commitment to integrity. You may feel compelled to lie to save your job or the organization even while remaining honest to your family, making you “flexible” with your integrity. You might even perceive this as being loyal to shareholders, your position as an organizational leader or the company vision. You might think “If I don’t change the data, we’ll have to lay off thousands of people” or “I’ll lose my job and then what will happen to my family?” or “If I fail, what will that say about me?” and so, using such self-scare tactics, it’s easy to understand why you engage in flexible integrity in the first place.

The same fears might cross your mind if when you’re ready to push back to pressure from your boss and suggest creative ideas that are ethical, but might require more time. You might be faced with comments such as: “It’s only a minor modification, we won’t do it again” or Aren’t you a team player” or worse, “If you don’t do it, I’ll get someone else who will.” I dub these responses as industrial model queues that click people in line, just as “be good” might make a child immediately stop giggling in church.

A Slippery Balancing Act

It’s unlikely that anyone wakes up in the morning with the intent of undermining their integrity. It usually happens because of fears — of feeling powerless, surviving in today’s tough economy, being criticized, feeling weak, losing respect, connection, certainty. “If I don’t agree, my boss may no longer depend on me” or “If I don’t agree, maybe I’ll get fired, won’t be able to get another job, lose my home and end up homeless…” A myriad questions might run through your mind.

If you study people who have lied over long periods of time such as Bernie Madoff or Stephen Glass, you’ll learn that they felt like they had to lie (and continue to lie to cover past lies) in order to feel part of the crowd or gain respect or attention from their clients, bosses or colleagues. If you consider their behavior from the Acropolis, you’ll realize that they did it to feel worthy/valuable.

At the same time, there’s no use blaming anyone for flexible integrity as it’s never the person, it’s always the structure. If people were treated with respect and weren’t worried about getting the ax for bringing up problems or challenging the boss, would they ever lie? The structure of today’s global economy is to prove one’s worth with visible achievements. Financial success is the most obvious metric that leaders pursue to hold onto their jobs. It’s as if the model says: “become valuable by feeding the system that equates visible achievements as success (money, power, prestige) because you’re basically worthless without them.”

The Inflexible Integrity Playbook

If there’s one area in life to be inflexible in today’s transitioning political, economic and social dynamics, it’s with integrity. In fact, the more solid you stand with being honest to yourself and others, the more credible and influential you become. As the current systems collapse, external stability is unpredictable, so internal stability remains the only reliable power source. Inner power can be defined as the ability to trust and respect oneself enough to stick to one’s values regardless of the consequences. Being honest can easily get you fired in today’s organizational world, but it’s better to get fired than sell your integrity for purported organizational success. In the end, organizations whose leaders cook the books collapse, so it’s better to get out or transform the situation as soon as possible.

Standing your ground takes courage. The courage to risk your boss for your values. If you can’t find another job, create one as a consultant or entrepreneur. There’s plenty of work to go around and the world needs more people with integrity than it does workers who do things against their own principles.


[Image from Freepik]