A Beginner’s Guide to Personal Integrity

A Beginner’s Guide to Personal Integrity


I am grateful to @ionel_condor for the suggestion which kicked off this post.

It may strike you as odd that some folks might need a Beginners’ Guide to Personal Integrity. Most of the folks I know have personal integrity coming out of their ears. But I do note its absence or lack, in some quarters.

I have until now put “integrity” down to a certain predisposition. Something someone either has, or does not have.

Maybe it’s not a predisposition though, nor an aspect of character. Maybe it’s just a lack of exposure, of role models, of education. God knows, we can hardly look to people in the public eye for role models these days. And I can distinctly remember no integrity classes at school.

Is Integrity teachable, anyway? I’m hardly qualified to judge. Aside: If anyone has a more informed opinion on this point, please do let me know.

But let’s assume for the moment that, through diligent application and study, one can improve one’s integrity, should one so choose. Why might folks chose to invest time and effort in integrity?

Before we look at that question, let’s attempt a definition:

What is Integrity?

Integrity is the characteristic of behaving and thinking congruently with one’s personal values and beliefs. Put another way, integrity is doing what you believe to be right, irrespective of the costs, downside, hardships involved.

“Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.”

~ Oprah Winfrey

Consider the story of the Scorpion and the Frog. Did the Scorpion have integrity? I believe so.

I think I like Robert Brault’s (reverse) definition best:

“Loss of integrity comes from those thousand tiny surrenders of self-respect to self-interest.”

~ Robert Brault

What it is Not

Some conflate integrity with virtue, honesty or “goodness” of some kind. I do not. I suggest even evil men can have integrity, should they but behave congruently with their beliefs. Here, “the Right Thing” is a personal relativism.

Nor do I choose to mix-up integrity with honesty, excepting honesty-with-oneself. Neither does e.g. cheating or sociopathy signify a lack of integrity, if we suppose that the cheater’s or sociopath’s thoughts and actions remain congruent with their personal values.

What are the Benefits of Integrity?

From an individual’s perspective, acting with integrity can confer a certain calm self-satisfaction. I attribute this to a reduction or elimination of cognitive dissonance. Note I say *acting” with integrity. Just “having” integrity to me seems to confer few if any benefits, save perhaps as a fillip to the ego.

“Integrity has no need of rules.”

~ Albert Camus

From a group perspective, integrity contributes to the ties of goodwill, trust and mutual concern which help bind a team, group or community closer together. Fellowship thrives on acts of integrity.

“There can be no friendship without confidence, and no confidence without integrity.”

~ Samuel Johnson

How to Build Your Integrity

  • First off, ask yourself whether integrity has any place in your life. It is, after all, not for everyone.
  • Assuming you want to build your personal integrity, how about reflecting from time to time on what you believe? Come to understand yourself and your world-view a little better, by degrees.
  • Every time life invites you to make a choice, consider the options, even (especially) the unpalatable ones, and ask yourself which options are most congruent with what you believe. After the event (the action), find time to reflect on your choice, with the glorious benefit of hindsight. Did the choice feel comfortable, or did it effect some unease, some kind of cognitive dissonance?
  • Associate with other folks of outstanding integrity. Their definitions of “right” and “wrong” may differ from yours, but the way they remain faithful to them might inspire you to do the same.
  • Discuss integrity with your loved ones, your peers, your associates. Explore the issues, the trade-offs, the costs and the rewards.
  • Find time to listen quietly to your inner voice – some call this “intuition”.

Final Words

Much recruitment effort is spent looking for new hires “with integrity”. I suspect few who seek this rarest of character attributes have a good operational definition. After all, “we all know integrity when we see it”, don’t we? Kahneman, for one, may differ.

Actually, I suspect that much lip-service is paid to the search for candidates with “integrity”, whilst quietly letting that requirement pass, because it’s “too difficult”.

And that’s hardly acting with integrity, is it?

– Bob

Further Reading

What is Integrity, Really? – About.com
Preserving Integrity – Article at MindTools.com
Thinking, Fast and Slow ~ Daniel Kahneman

  1. Hey Bob, what a great post! As you say, Integrity is so rarely really considered in any way, so it’s great that you are putting this concept out for discussion. I have a few questions / points though…

    1. I can’t (at the moment, unless you can clarify it) agree with your point regarding the Integrity of Sociopaths. A while ago I did some work for one in a Corp. He was a great guy (when he wasn’t being a psycho-asshole) and obviously had “Integrity” by your definition, but yet no-one trusted him, most people feared him and many people hated him. I just though he was an idiot (and yes, I mean that in a nasty way) and didn’t renew a contract because of him

    2. By you’re definition, was Hitler a man of Integrity? It would seem so…

    3. The root cause seems to be your Relativism in this context. I’m a great fan of “live and let live”, but what about the outliers? (above) Society needs to set boundaries by it’s nature and in my mind, integrity is one of them, although it seems to be in name only at the moment 😦

    4. The Chinese concept of “evil” is a lack of balance, so I’m wondering if there’s a way out of the relativistic conundrum via this if we add the concept of balance to integrity? Unfortunately that means that the psyco/socio-paths don’t get a look in, but I don’t see why they should – they need to be “enlightened” in some way. How to do this? They’re usually also narcissistic and would therefore need to take the first step of realising that there are other people and that they have emotions (which are generally an unknown for a sociopath)

    Looking forward to see how your post develops…

    • Richard, you seem to assume, very much like I do, that integrity is a positive trait. Positive like humility or kindness or humbleness. If I understand Bob well, he portrays integrity as being honest to ones believes whatever they may be. If one truly believes that the best way to improve society is to remove some individuals, then is killing them acting with integrity?

      And interesting for me is to explore whether you can really be ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ with integrity. Can you really construct an entirely congruent system of beliefs with no regard for other people?

      • Hi Marcin,

        Yes, in my view the concept of integrity has a neutral stance. We may not like the value system or belief system of some (pathological) individuals, but I’d still say they were at least capable of acting with integrity.

        My interest lies mainly with the utility of the idea – the interplay between integrity and e.g. teamwork, trust, fellowship (leadership, even, for those still flogging that particular horse), organisational culture / mindset, and thus ultimately, effectiveness.

        I’m also interested in the opportunities for building integrity within an organisation, and of the organisation itself, as a means to e.g. Rightshifting,

        – Bob

    • Hi Ric,

      Thanks for your comments.

      1. We may not like the belief systems of some folks, but that’s orthogonal to integrity, in my view.
      2. Not knowing Hitler’s belief system, I can’t say. But I’d admit of the possibility. I really must get round to reading Mein Kampf.
      3. I don’t know if society *needs* to set boundaries, but it does seem driven to do so. Can we invest agency in something as amorphous as “society”?
      4. I’m all for balance, I just don’t see it as part of the definition of “integrity”. Do I note in your response a hint of unilateralism / control / domination language? e.g. “…they need to be…”, “…[they] need to take the first step…”. I also feed sad to see a tad of judgmentalism: “They’re usually also narcissistic…” Your view?

      – Bob

      • Hey Bob,

        After a bit of reflection, I can see where you’re going with separating the concept from our beliefs or standards. As to my language probably guilty as charged as I’m still coming to terms with some rather nasty events over the past few years, having lived in a “Psycho St” (which we’ve recently moved away from).

        I’d stand by the statement that sociopaths (especially in a corporate context) are likely to be narcissistic though, admittedly based on my own experience, which certainly chimes with others. Millon showed of course, that there are many other non-narcisstic subtypes, so maybe your experience has been different.


  2. Hey Marcin – Yes, it’s a tricky debate that Bob has opened up and I’m glad he has. One correction: I never suggested removing individuals, but enlightening them. Not sure how you’d do this with the outliers though. I use this term in a statistical manner, as I think that you need to test boundary conditions not only in code, but with any suggested construct.

    Looking over the post again, I think a key statement is “integrity is doing what _you_ believe to be right”. This is what causes the problem with outliers as certain mental conditions really are biochemical imbalances which mean that things like killing (to use an extreme example) are viewed on the same par as taking out the rubbish! So, that person could reflect on their day with satisfaction and introspection: “Today, I took out the rubbish, did some shopping and killed someone – in all, a very productive day”. To me at least, this is a problem… 😉

    • Hi Peter,

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      Whose ethics? By which I mean, whose ethics would the ethically-challenged get to learn?

      And how does integrity intersect with ethics?

      – Bob

  3. rdn32 said:

    For me it hinges on what “congruence” means here.

    If it means that the totality of everything a person thinks and does is entirely logically consistent, then this might be something only a sociopath could achieve. From that sort of perspective, most other people might appear as feeble-minded hypocrites. Which is a bit harsh.

    On the other hand, it could mean something more like “coherence”. At different times and seasons, and in different circumstances, a person may act in different ways and think different things. But these are like the different shades of colour in a painting. If the whole has its own distinctive character, then the elements will make sense in terms of that; otherwise they’ll just be a bit of a jumble.

    I’m guessing that you’d say it’s a person’s “values and beliefs” that makes them what they are. If you’re familiar with the work of American philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, you may know that he has a very different account of this – based around what he calls “background practices”. However, if you’ve ever heard any of his podcasts, you’ll appreciate that this is quite difficult to explain – so I won’t try to do so here 😉

  4. Hi Bob, I am so grateful to you for sharing your thoughts about integrity because I have always been one of those who love to think different and kind of separate myself from the crowd. The reason for it rests on my personal experience in interacting with my so called “friends”, my school mates and even my loved ones who, I realized during my childhood, were mostly prepared to blend with the masses or crowds’ models of behaviour at the expense of losing what you’d probably call “integrity”.

    This kind of behaviour irritated me a lot because I was normally made fun of exactly by those so called “friends” every time I shared with them something that was an integral or congruent part of my own integrity. And, this is how I decided not to waste my time and nerves with such “fake” personalities and got to love nurturing thinking different and also thinking BIG based on both my kind of defiance towards that “fake” or non-integrity behaviour of the majority of people and my true desire to create my own dream life and lifestyle that’s well beyond what the crowds can even imagine.

    So, my thinking BIG vision was born when I started to crave for designing and fully enjoying my ever desired millionaire luxury playboy lifestyle supported by earning multiple streams of cash from an automated online business. And, this is how I unexpectely entered a very risky life barely surviving based on many years of my financial uncertainty and crisis while almost being ready to die for gaining my ever desired financial freedom through setting up and running a super profitable automated online business.

    So, after my 7 year long hurting and agonizing drama and very painful financial ups and downs full of tears and “cries for help” when I was staying as a foreigner, later, turned into an illegal immigrant in London, UK and trying to figure out how I can make tens of thousands of dollars a month online in between my very time consuming and commission-only odd direct sales and marketing jobs that were keeping my bank account’s balance just above that ever threatening and scary ZERO, I must tell you that your post has actually made me even stronger and more determined to stay motivated and focused on achieving all my online business development goals despite my previous “cancer suffering like” pains and disastrous struggles.

    Please visit my first ever personal blog that I’ve lately setup and leave your comments there.

    In advance many thanks.

    Bruno Babic

  5. John Luiz said:

    You asked if personal integrity was teachable. Yes, it.is. It was taught to me by my father in the same ways that I now use to teach my children. First and foremost is by example. You can’t teach integrity if you don’t have and live by and with integrity. Second is to show the benefits received because your a man of integrity. Example–> Someone out of the blue shows you a immense level of trust without hesitation or thought. Stop, and ask, What is it , that made you extend such a valuable and overt level of assistance and trust without conditions or collateral. The answer has always been the same. With you I don’t need conditions or anything because I know for a fact that everything will be honest and above board no matter what the outcome happens to be. Integrity is not congenital. It is a learned value. A very basic rule of behavior that if not followed will eventually lead to the decay of ones self respect and honor. Which then leads to the obvious disfunction and negative disarray of personal life and being.

  6. Veda rao said:

    Thank you for your post. My view may be rather simplistic, but I view integrity as the characteristic of living and behaving true to a compassionate belief system. While honesty, hard work and humility are aspects of a person with “integrity,” I strongly believe that compassion is also part and parcel of integrity. Like others note, Hitler may have been true to his beliefs but can hardly be considered as a man of integrity.

  7. Reblogged this on cielopop and commented:
    I found this while doing research on “INTEGRITY,” one of the Virtues espoused in my favorite metaphysical paradigm;

    The sequence goes like this:

    Virtue -> Attitude -> Responsibility -> Victory

    Integrity -> Gratitude (reversal: Hypocrisy) -> Self-Containment (reversal: Pretension) -> Humility

  8. Josephine dela Pena said:

    I just want to know what is the full name of Bob. I want to be able to cite this work…

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