You’ve probably heard the word “integrity” thrown around quite a bit. You’ll hear it used by everyone from teachers and employers to politicians and newscasters.
But despite the overuse of the word, integrity is important—really important. In fact, people who work hard to maintain genuine integrity are some of the most beloved people in the world.
But what is integrity? And why is it so dang important to so many people? In this article, I’ll answer those questions and show you some ways you can build up your own integrity.
What does integrity really mean?
Most text-book definitions of integrity boil down to this: To have integrity is to live life according to your morals and principals.
That’s part of what makes it hard to understand the true meaning of integrity—the concept is tied so directly to principles and morals, which are inherently nebulous (and intimidating) topics.
But to have integrity, you must have a clear sense of what you consider to be right and wrong, and your perspective of the main purpose of your life.
Before you panic, I am not telling you that you must develop a concrete belief about the meaning of life.
Instead, to have integrity, you must first define what principals and morals are most important to you, as an individual. You need to answer the question: What do I want to achieve with my life, and why?
These are big questions, and as you explore them, you will likely end up challenging some of the beliefs your parents or guardians raised you with, and even questioning some of your own behaviors.
But as you come to define a set of values, you can learn to start living your life by those morals. And if you can do that, well, that’s integrity!
Keep in mind, integrity is not something people are born with—as we grow into adults and figure out what we want to do with our lives, we naturally develop a more defined set of our own morals and beliefs.
Integrity isn’t a personality trait you develop and keep forever, either. Integrity is something you demonstrate in the moment, whenever you have to make an important decision or start something new.
What are the traits of people with integrity?
Though anyone can choose to show integrity in the moment, there’s something special about people who routinely demonstrate integrity in all parts of their life.
Here are some of the traits that are often associated with people who consistently act with integrity:
They are honest
It’s impossible to act with integrity if you aren’t an honest person. Honesty is a foundation of most people’s morals, while deceit and lying are pretty much universally understood to be negative, amoral traits.
Unfortunately, being honest is one of the most challenging parts of maintaining integrity. It often means you have to say difficult things to people, or even admit difficult things to yourself.
And that’s the thing about integrity—if it were easy to achieve, there’d be no point in writing this article! Being honest as often as possible can be challenging, but it’s vital if you want to have integrity.
They don’t make rash decisions
Practicing integrity means being thoughtful about the decisions you make. People who have integrity know the world isn’t black and white—they recognize that much of life involves difficult, morally ambiguous situations. Integrity requires us to slow down and think carefully about such situations, to see how they align with our core beliefs.
This doesn’t mean people who have integrity can’t act quickly or make fast decisions. Snap decisions are a part of life. But the more you practice thoughtful integrity in all parts of your life, the easier it will be to make fast decisions that align with your core beliefs.
They are reliable and trustworthy
A big part of having integrity means being consistent. Because there is a set of morals and standards guiding you, it becomes easier for those in your orbit to understand what motivates you and find patterns to your behavior.
It’s true that being spontaneous and unpredictable can be a desirable trait in some circumstances. (I talk about this idea in my article on how to be cool.) But even those moments of spontaneity can align with your overall set of beliefs.
They keep an open mind
The morals you develop in your 20s aren’t going to be fixed forever. As you have more experiences and meet other people, it’s natural that your set of morals and your understanding of the nuances between right and wrong will change.
Allowing your mind to expand through the interactions you have and the new information you learn is part of maintaining integrity. Otherwise, you can become a stick in the mud—unwilling to evolve, and losing your integrity as a result.
Why integrity is important at work
Why do people talk about integrity in the workplace so often? It’s because integrity—or lack thereof—has an enormous impact on the way any business is run and how happy employees are.
In particular, integrity comes into place with leadership in the workplace. Leaders who have integrity will gain the trust of their employees, manage the office with a steady vision, and are less likely to be hypocritical (because integrity is about practicing what you preach).
On the flip side, managers who lack integrity at work will quickly breed resentment amongst their staff, and they will face an uphill battle trying to get anyone to trust them and follow their lead.
Within the business world, integrity also comes into play with “big picture” stuff, like the missions and values of a company. You don’t have to look far for examples of businesses that have compromised their integrity and paid the price (quite literally).
What you can do to develop integrity
So now, the big question: How do you develop integrity at work and everywhere else in your life? It will take time and patience, but there are certain things you can do now to start making progress.
Define your morals and values (as they are right now)
We know integrity means living by a set of morals or values—but if you don’t know what your morals and values are, it’s going to be hard to make much progress!
So the first step to developing integrity is spending time thinking about and challenging your belief system. Lucky for you, this is something that happens naturally. You simply can’t live life on Earth without having to think about morals and choices.
But there are other ways to actively define your morals, so that you can start using them as a compass. You can start with some mindfulness and meditation practices, which will allow you to approach the concept of morality with a clear mind and heart.
You will also find that popular media—from Hamlet to Breaking Bad—is filled with ethical and moral dilemmas. When you come across one, take time to puzzle it out and ask yourself what you would do when faced with similar challenges and choices.
Find ways to emphasize those morals in day-to-day life
As you begin to have a more defined set of morals, the next step is to start aligning your everyday life to those morals. This is likely something you are already doing; we develop many of our standard beliefs in childhood, and will hold on to some of these forever. You’ve already made lots of decisions based on your morals so far in life.
But integrity is about more than doing what comes naturally to us. Because when it comes to the really tricky decisions, the ones that require a lot of integrity, it’s our natural tendency to shy away. But if you can find the courage to face those tough decisions head on, with consideration and empathy, then you’ll be well on your way to exuding integrity.
Do it for yourself (but listen to others)
One of the easiest traps to fall into when working on our own integrity can be summarized in one question: “What will other people think?”
When you’re considering morals and choices, you may find yourself worrying about what your friends and family might say about the decisions and choices you’ve made.
But other people cannot be the motivation for the decisions you make—that has to be down to your set of values. Otherwise, you are operating based on influence, not integrity.
On the flip side, it’s certainly a good idea to consider the thoughts and opinions of the people you trust. Practicing active listening is one of the best ways to learn from other people in your life and apply those lessons to your own set of morals. Just be sure that you are taking their opinions into consideration amongst your own thoughts and perspective—not replacing your own opinions with theirs.
Like many of the most important things in life, integrity isn’t always easy to come by. But as you navigate adulthood, it will become a more and more important skill to have. Actively working on your integrity now is an excellent way to get a head start.