Escaping the Prison of Integrity

We like people who have integrity.

We like them because we can trust and depend on them. We feel safe around them and we can achieve things with them.

We like to feel safe and achieve things, and so we like people with integrity.

Integrity makes you likable.

For a person who ‘needs to be liked’, however, integrity can cut in two ways.

Integrity can be empowering when it lifts you into congruent and productive ways of being. It can be a strong foundation for healthy relationships.

At the same time, integrity can also be a disempowering concept to be wedded to, depending on how you define and relate to it.

In some popular leadership and personal development definitions, I would say integrity is a prison.

Have you ever met someone who did a workshop on integrity and came out of it functioning more effectively in their life, but at the same time, their way of being also felt rigid, robotic, and non-human?

I have. Many times. And it always weirds me out.

In their theory on integrity, Werner Earhart and Michael Jensen define integrity as ‘honoring one’s word’. I love the simplicity of how they expand on this by explaining that someone can honor their word in two different ways; either by keeping their word or by communicating when they know they won’t be able to keep their word.

Deeply embodying this concept alone, leads to a much more human experience of integrity, since most of the roboticness around integrity is an obsessiveness with doing what one said they would do, despite the dynamic nature of circumstances upon which actions depend. The guy having a picnic alone in the rain because he ‘gave his word’ is a good example of how an integrity robot operates.

This misunderstanding of honoring one’s word as strictly ‘doing what you said you would do’, is the most obvious way in which integrity becomes a prison.

However, there is a deeper, more subtle, and more ubiquitous way that integrity becomes a prison.

In their popular essay Integrity: Without It Nothing Works, the authors give six definitions of ‘One’s Word’, four of which I agree with, and two of which I do not.

I agree with these definitions of ‘One’s Word’:

  1. What you said
  2. What you know
  3. What you say is so
  4. What you say you stand for

I do NOT agree with these definitions of ‘One’s Word’:

  1. What is expected
  2. Social moral standards and the governmental legal standards

The reason I disagree with these definitions is that they are imposed from without.

I will give examples of each.

Recently, there was some drama at our son’s school. Following a conversation with one family, I shared what they said to me with a mutual friend. As a result, the family was very upset with me, citing a breach of confidentiality. I had been speaking openly with everyone, but they had expected me to keep our conversation confidential, without telling me so.

In the above definition of ‘one’s word’, I would have not kept my word because I would have acted outside of their expectations.

My word, however, does not extend to the expectations of others.

I got clear on – and free from – this about ten years ago when I created two email folders. One was labeled ‘Expected’ and the other was labeled ‘Agreed’. As emails came into my inbox, I sorted them into one of these two folders based on whether the person sending ‘expected’ a reply from me or whether we had an explicit agreement that I would reply. This practice brought to my awareness how often I treated both types of emails equally and how I was living under the duress of integrity defined as the fulfillment of the expectations of others.

Today, my freedom stands on my word being independent of the expectations of others.

Paradoxically, in the space of this freedom, I find a pervasive and persistent care and concern for the expectations of others. It guides my attention and action to create the same outcome that defining my word by other’s expectations might, but with a much lighter and more human touch.

For example, in hearing that the family was upset with me, my immediate experience was to feel very sorry for them and very sorry that we had had a misunderstanding. I had no weight of guilt compelling me to clean up for concern of a lapse in my integrity, and I was thus free to empathize with their experience considering the expectations they had. I was overcome with a great sense of compassion for them and a desire to help them return to a place of safety and trust in relating to me.

As for the second definition of ‘One’s Word’ that I disagree with, I say that just because I was born in a place that has standards or just because standards are imposed by authorities, does not mean that my word is comprised of these standards.

For example, if a governmental body decides that I need to wear a mask any time I leave my house, my word is not suddenly and immediately dependent on mask-wearing. In the above-mentioned article, my honoring of my word in this case would only be possible if I were to either wear a mask or communicate the fact that I am not going to wear a mask. Even if there were some person or body that I could communicate this to that would then make me whole and complete, I would be essentially chasing integrity by trying to say the right thing to the right person any time an authoritative body changed the rules.

There is a difference between ‘buying into’ rules and ‘being sold into’ them. The first is a cooperative act that honors one’s autonomy. The latter is akin to slavery.

My freedom stands on my word being independent of standards and rules set by others.

Again, in the wake of liberation from social and moral standards, I paradoxically find myself in a place of care and concern for such standards and for those living within them. From the depth of my freedom, I find myself acting cooperatively and productively. I find myself expressing lovingly and attending to the same outcomes that a tighter gripped version of integrity might be aimed at.

Case in point, during the pandemic, I found myself not always, but often wearing a mask with a smile printed on it. This mask made everyone smile, and unbeknownst to them, it was thin enough to breathe and even drink through. In the space of freedom of my word not being a function of authority, I was able to think creatively and act joyfully.

Again, I assert it is distinct to act not as an upholding of one’s word as defined or expected by others, but as an expression of their free capacity to love through contribution and cooperation. This difference is qualitative, real, and substantial in the way of being it produces and the world it creates.

This is a transcendent and more nuanced take on integrity that allows one to access all the value of being whole and complete with themselves, to be productive and to create fulfilling relationships, while at the same time not being limited in their freedom of creativity and self-expression by the same concept.

When one is willing to boil off a dependency on standards and expectations and distill integrity to a more potent concept that lives within the domain of their agency, they are liberated and empowered in two distinct ways.

First, as shared following each of the above examples, one finds themselves both able and desirous to attend to the expectations and standards outside them and to do so with an attitude of abundance and possibility.

Second, as yet mentioned, one finds oneself able to see the great swath of expectations and standards they had been unwittingly living under the duress of.

In the same way that I found over 90% of my emails to filter into the ‘Expected’ folder, you will find that most of the things you think, say, and do in your life are so that you live safely within the bounds of standards and expectations you didn’t even know were there.

One of the most surreptitious ways we maintain our likability is to live within the standards of society and expectations of others.

Liberating your ‘word’ from the domain of these two concepts is a giant leap in freedom.

There is a freedom greater than the oppressive world of popular productivity advice will grant you. And funny enough, when you’re free from this, your productivity will soar to even greater heights.

Loving us all, JPM