I recently met a pensioner struggling to make ends meet.  He was an honourable man. He was good, as good as they get anyway.  He engaged in conversation with me about spiritual matters and how he strives to be a good person.  He told me how often he goes to a meditation retreat and how hard it is for him to cope in a world where most people are not as spiritual as he is.

Then he spent hours telling me how corrupt most people are. How out of integrity they live, not caring about anyone other than themselves. I could sympathise with this as I  know how hard it can be to live in integrity in a world designed to reward people who do not.  Sometimes, it seems like the people who are most corrupt and cruel get the most rewards.

Honesty is key

After more discussion, he casually mentioned how he charges people for fumigating their homes, but he only uses water.  I immediately questioned his honesty.  He got angry and walked away.  When we got together again, I brought up the conversation and offered to help him advertise his services on the condition that he doesn’t lie about it.  He gratefully embraced the opportunity and immediately compiled the information I needed.  A few hours later, I designed the ad and showed him how to use it. It was as if he breathed a breath of fresh air after feeling suffocated for so long.

This interaction reminded me of the importance of integrity and how handling mistakes tell so much about someone. It’s not your age or your title or the amount of money in your bank account, or your religion that indicates the level of integrity you live with.  It’s how you handle mistakes and what you do after you’ve made a mistake that suggests the pureness of your soul and the level of integrity you live with.

Mistakes

If you’re human and breathing, you’ve undoubtedly made some mistakes.  We all make mistakes. That’s what makes us human.  Some mistakes are worse than others, yet it’s not the size of the error that matters, but what we do afterwards. How we handle mistakes says a lot about you.  Making a mistake is an excellent tool to evaluate your level of integrity, integrity being how aligned you are in what you say, what you think and what you do.

Without integrity, there can be no trust. Without trust, you have no foundation to build a strong organisation.  One of the essential characteristics of leadership is living in integrity.

Four signs someone isn’t living in integrity

A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.  – Albert Einstein

To evaluate the level of integrity of those you interact with or within yourself, become aware of the behaviour directly following a mistake. Here are the four things people do when they aren’t living in integrity.

1. You blame someone or something else

When something goes wrong, the easiest thing to do is to search for a reason why it happened that you had no control over. “It was that person who made me angry”.  “I wouldn’t have done or said it if he didn’t provoke me”. “It’s easy for you to say”.  “You had a good childhood; I didn’t have it so easy”.  “I didn’t have all the resources you had”.

When you blame anything or anyone else for your poor behaviour, you’re not living in integrity.  It might be true that the other person was wrong, but only you are responsible for your reactions.  No one can make you angry.  All the other person is doing is triggering a dormant emotion within you. It is up to you how you choose to express that emotion.  No one is to blame.

2. You pretend it didn’t happen

Another favourite is invalidating what happened.  Not bringing it up again and pretending it never happened. Having an argument where bad things were said and then just never speaking about it again. Appeasing someone with a gift to try to calm things down or otherwise trying to smooth things over. Or worse, you say that it didn’t happen or that the other person must have misunderstood or imagined it.

3. You justify why you did it

Not validating when something wrong happened is the worst thing you can do to anyone by far.  Explaining why something was said or what happened helps heal the divide caused by the mistake. Yet a because can be as harmful as justifying why the wrong is right.  There is a difference between explaining that you behaved in a certain way or said something because a trauma in your childhood caused you to behave that way and using it as an excuse to continue the dysfunctional behaviour.

4. You avoid it or turn your back on it

Different from pretending it didn’t happen is excluding the person or event totally from your life.  An unwillingness to confront the uncomfortable truth is an indication that you are not living in integrity. When someone wants to talk about what happened, and you don’t, you are not living in integrity.  When you don’t respond to a person you feel has made a mistake, you turn your back on them, and that’s not living in integrity.

4 Signs someone is living in integrity

On the other side of the scale are the four behaviours demonstrated by people who live in integrity.

1. They acknowledge their mistake

You don’t have to say I’m sorry to recognise an error.  Actions speak louder than words. Changed behaviours are more truthful than an empty apology to keep the peace but with no real meaning behind it.  Someone who is living in integrity doesn’t go around saying I’m sorry the whole time.  They do, however, always acknowledge when they did something wrong or hurtful.  It might sound like “you were right”.  Alternatively, it might recognise the other person did something that contributed to the poor behaviour.

The man I described at the start of the article never apologised to me or me to him. Yet his willingness to give me the information I needed to help me advertise his services and his gratitude afterwards clearly demonstrated that he acknowledged the mistake.

2. They apologise

Apologizing is, however, still the most powerful tool to restore harmony if done wholeheartedly.   By apologising, you validate the other person, take responsibility for your reaction, and offer reconciliation to regain balance.

It’s hard to forgive someone without an apology, even though it is possible.  Saying I am sorry with genuine remorse is a magic ingredient that dissolves disharmony instantly.  I find it impossible not to forgive someone whenever they offer a heartfelt apology.

3. They take responsibility for their role in the mistake

All mistakes result from two people misunderstanding the other’s intentions or underlying dynamics, causing them to behave that way.  It is easy to see how the other person was wrong; it is far harder to look inside and uncover how you were also at fault. It takes courage to admit your part in a misunderstanding.  When you are willing to do introspection and take responsibility for the amount you misbehaved, you live in integrity.

In my interaction with the man I talked about earlier, I realised I was judgemental.  He was dishonest, and I am glad that I expressed this, but it is judgemental of me to say it is wrong to use water and not poison.  After careful introspection, I realised I am against using poison and killing insects as much as against being dishonest.  This made it easy for me to accept his behaviour and move onto solution mode.  The judgment removed, I considered how I could help him make more money, which was at the root of why he wasn’t using the right chemicals.

4. They don’t expect anything in return

People living in integrity don’t apologise or undertake good deeds to look good.  They do it because it’s the right thing to do.  You know you are living in integrity when you serve another without expecting anything in return.

When I helped the pensioner, I didn’t get money or be seen as good.  I did it because it felt right.  It felt good for me to be able to help someone.  It felt good to use my skill doing something that I love doing for a worthwhile purpose.  Finally, it felt good to do something about the problem rather than talk or think about it.

Conclusion

Living in integrity is a necessary condition for creating an environment built on trust.  Evaluating the level of integrity within a person can be challenging.  Look for how they deal with mistakes or uncomfortable situations to determine whether they live in integrity.

“What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?” – John Green

With 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.