I recently got to speak to a group of Human Resources students at Portland State University, and I went in to talk to them about integrity.
My intention was to share with them how powerful integrity can be in our careers, and how it not only sets us apart from others, but it keeps us healthy and full.
One definition of integrity is “the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished,” meaning that when we’re living in alignment with our values, we’re complete.
The truth is, there are a lot of working people who have lost integrity. They’ve been shaped and rewarded over time to cut corners. They choose to hide their mistakes, or blame them on others. They’re so afraid of not fitting in that they never challenge the status quo.
A funny thing can happen when we’re part of an organization led by people without integrity: we become like them.
We excuse behavior that we’d never excuse in our personal lives. We look away from problems that we don’t want to deal with. We stay silent even when the question that needs to be asked is burning inside of us.
We justify all this because, “that’s business.” Or “that’s just what happens at work.” We compartmentalize it even though the fact is that living out of alignment with our values erodes us over time.
Let’s pretend that each of us is a stone, and every time we choose not to say how we really feel, act in a way that we don’t admire, or go along with something we know is wrong, a drop of water hits us in the same spot.
After years and years of this, our surface erodes. We have an indent. Or a hole forms and the air can flow through us.
This doesn’t mean that we’re bad or that there’s anything to be ashamed of – as social creatures looking for connection, it’s natural for us to seek the path that most helps us fit in.
But we’re fooling ourselves if we think that we can live without integrity at work and stay whole.
What happens at work definitely doesn’t stay at work.
You carry it in your body, even if you feel like you can mentally or emotionally shut off. Those drips of water still hit your rocky surface, and while you can withstand changing for a while, eventually the water will win (it always does).
Fortunately, everything can change. You can regenerate. You can decide to notice the things at work that aren’t in alignment with your values or who you want to be in the world.
You can notice how it feels to carry out policies that diminish people.
You can notice how it feels to enforce rules that you know are stupid.
You can notice how it feels to chase money that will go to pay for your company’s destruction of the planet.
You always have a choice, and if you can get a little quiet and reflective, your insides will tell you when something is out of integrity for you.
You’ll feel it. It might show up as stress, discomfort, a flushed feeling, fatigue, or back pain. Getting dripped on all day is uncomfortable, but luckily, it’s not inevitable.
The question is always, “Who do I want to be?”
If you want to be yourself, which I know is someone with a lot of integrity who deeply cares for others, then you have to be aware of what’s eroding you.
Then, you have to decide whether or not you want to be someone who is eroded over time.
This conundrum is less about your work environment and more about your personal choice to live in alignment with your values.
Every work environment, no matter how “evolved” will create opportunities for erosion – pressures or actions that don’t line up with us. Some work environments are much more corrosive, however, and if you’re doing work all day every day that you know is hurting yourself, others, or the earth, I’d encourage you to revamp your resume and get out of there as fast as you can.
For most of us, however, this is a matter of simply choosing to speak up, to offer a new way of doing things, and to be an example of integrated living.
The next time you’re given a choice between doing what feels true to you and keeping up with “business as usual,” choose you.
What happens at work can either erode you over time, or it can nurture and expand you, but it will always stay with you either way.