Creating a Culture of Integrity for Work and Money

If all the expensive fallout from corporate, political or other shenanigans could be traced to a few greedy rotten apples, then it should be easy for all us good, non-greedy apples to toss out the rest.

But greed is just one variety of fraud, waste and abuse that have long been rampant in our world. All are supported by a culture that makes it equally hard to confront wrong-doing or to envision a culture based on honesty, sustainability, and compassion.

A participant in a seminar I taught several years ago on “Bottom Line: Integrity” said that if he never wasted any organizational resources such as time or supplies, he might stand out like a sore thumb. Another remembered the pain of being branded a “curve buster” or “teacher’s pet” when she had based her actions not on peer norms but on her deeper values. A third affirmed that by acting on our values, we could be role models.

It’s not easy to confront another’s wrongdoing, and it’s not easy to listen when someone dares say there’s something off with one of our actions or pet projects. But without honest feedback, organizations become like dysfunctional families who are run by those with the least capacity for or commitment to wise leadership.

Needed: Road Markers to Keep Our Work and Business in Integrity

My dad, the late William McHenry, said we are all called to guide each other out of dangerous ethical fogs by being like white lines on curvy mountain roads that can keep us from crashing into each other, provided we slow down enough to see those lines and are humble enough to heed them.

The problem, says whistleblower expert Don Soeken is that, though we are taught to tell the truth and act ethically, we rarely are taught how. Instead we are warned not to be “tattlers” or “snitches” and we’re overwhelmed with stories about how integrity is a poor career move.

Hard as it is to confront wrongdoing in self and others, it’s often harder to meet our own magnificent capacity for goodness and creativity. With each new hope comes the possibility of hurt should the hope not turn into reality. With each new creative possibility comes the danger that we will be less satisfied with the status quo or more threatening to those who are committed to a particular way of seeing things.

How can we build a culture based in integrity?

While I can’t pretend to have all the answers (except when I’m grandiose, which is way out of integrity), I do offer these practical starting points that hopefully will become common habits:

1. We could tell the truth more. Whether we need to blow a whistle against fraud, waste and abuse at work or whether we need to take on the even scarier work of reminding each other how magnificent we can be, we could dare speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Even when the truth is, “I’m scared” or “I haven’t the foggiest idea how to do what needs to be done.”

2.  We could dare to dream wishfully about what a culture of integrity would look like and how it would act, even though we know right now neither the final content of the dream or how it might possibility be realized. All great movements, like the civil rights movement, started with wishful thinking. Strategy came later, and the dream kept evolving, which called forth more creative strategy.

3. We could take each  integrity challenge as an opportunity to grow, to learn and to serve better ourselves and others. One gift of the current economic mess is a growing dialogue on the nature of integrity and how much it matters to us. If that dialogue is supported, it can come up with far better answers than any expert or politician could.

4. We could go dare to be mentally and emotionally empty more. As the Buddhist teacher Suzuki reminds us, our beginner’s mind can always see new aspects to old challenges. The Christian teacher St. John of the Cross reminds us that sometimes the faint light of a new vision can only be seen when we step away from the light of the status quo.

5. We could go through a ritual of honesty and transformation together. A great model is the Jewish New Year and succeeding the holidays that follow it. First, we eat apples and sweet honey and recall the blessings of what has passed and what is now. Next, we empty our mental and emotional pockets of all the beliefs and thoughts that keep us fully present to ourselves and others. We do our best to heal relationships and make clean those aspects of our lives that are off base.

The Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, is a time of prayerful fasting, of laying open one’s soul before the Creator. It is followed soon after by the harvest festival of Sukkot, which honors the playful and creative child and by Simchat Torah, which celebrates the holy law as the framework for community. In some synagogues, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is danced throughout the community.

As a non-Jew, I’m awed by these ceremonies and what they represent. What kind of a culture could we build together if we honored what is already good and if we also dared be open to seeing our worst faults? What kind of culture could we have if we celebrated and valued those laws and mores that support a culture of integrity?

An affirmative prayer to consider: I choose to see clearly what is on or off integrity in my own life and work. I gratefully accept inspiration from any source in order to clarify my sight and to give me new perspectives. I welcome clarity that will help me discern when and how I am called to act with integrity, and when I am called to wait for further guidance.

As always, many blessings to you,

Pat McHenry Sullivan