When’s the last time this happened to you (or you did it to someone else)? Recently, an individual I was meeting for lunch to review some video footage they were editing for me (due that day) emailed that morning to cancel. They didn’t really give a reason (referring to the infamous- and nebulous- conflict that arose), but told me they would call me later to reschedule. I am not writing this blog entry to whine; after all, each of us has had this happen, and we have had to do it ourselves. But the two of us are at the very start of a business relationship, and it got me to thinking about the messages I could took away (is my time less valuable than theirs, do they have their “stuff” together…I hope nothing bad happened to them!), and about integrity in general.

While there are multiple aspects to this topic, in its simplest form integrity springs from the root of the word: integrate. Integrity, from this perspective, refers to one’s thoughts and actions being whole and complete. Michael Jensen’s organization, the Social Science Research Network, spent years researching integrity and its impact on performance; he describes this wholeness as follows: “An individual is whole and complete when their word is whole and complete, and their word is whole and complete when they honor their word. We can honor our word in one of two ways: first, by keeping our word, and on time as promised; or second, as soon as we know that we won’t keep our word, we inform all parties involved and clean up any mess that we caused. When we do this, we are honoring our word despite having not kept it, and we have maintained our integrity.”

It is important to make every effort to keep our word, but it is also critical to think about how to maintain integrity when we cannot. I’ll give you a personal example from my early days as a sales rep for a major health insurance carrier: I was scheduled two weeks in advance to give a finalist presentation to one of my brokers and her client company about our HMO plan. The sale represented a large portion of my pipeline, and was important for our office’s results. The broker called two days before the presentation to cancel; I was hurt and disappointed…and afraid to tell my sales manager that this opportunity was dead! However, she also volunteered to call my sales manager directly to explain why, and to share how the hard work we put into the sales effort made a strong impression on her and her team. In fact, this work resulted in the chance to work on another of her clients that was twice their size, and we won their business in the next quarter. This broker broke her word on the first opportunity, but she honored her word by directly addressing the fallout it created for me…and in so doing, she furthered our relationship. This story corroborates what Jensen’s team found in their research: namely, that we can actually increase trust more quickly if after failing to keep our word we then honor it, because it is so surprising to people when we do so.

Jensen goes on to point out that integrity is such a critical aspect of being effective and productive because it is at the heart of “workability”. When we do not honor our word, the workability and viability of what we are building with someone is undermined. When we begin co-creating with others to help them accomplish their goals and solve their issues, we create energy that generates opportunity and excitement. If we do not maintain our integrity through honoring our word, the opportunity begins to collapse, which negatively impacts performance…both immediately AND in the future. Conversely, by honoring our word, the opportunity expands and so does performance; Jensen’s team found the increased production to be 300%…and that is with NO additional inputs or resources required!

As Jensen notes, if we are involved with any venture of any importance, we are going to face situations that will make it extremely difficult to keep our word. But, by living up to the concept of honoring our word, we can maintain our integrity and build more trust. Easier said than done…but non-negotiable when building drop-dead relationships!