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Feature Story

Bill, a vice president with a large association, faces a dilemma. His boss, Elizabeth, who can be both charismatic and autocratic, has just asked him to work over a weekend - for the third time this month.

He is concerned that what at first seemed like an unusual request is now becoming a habit. If he refuses to work the extra hours, Bill is afraid he'll upset his boss, and he is easily intimidated by people like Elizabeth.

On the other hand, Bill has worked his way up, coordinating logistics for the association's large conference to get where he is now, and he would like to be further promoted. Being a team player by working overtime could help his career.

But Bill's daughter is having trouble at school. As a single father, Bill feels he should be available for his daughter as much as possible. He's already feeling guilty about working such intense hours. Whatever he decides to do will have consequences at work as well as at home.

This is just one example of an everyday situation that requires a decision in the face of conflicting values and principles. Integrity is about acting consistently - with core values and principles. Real life rarely presents completely straightforward choices for acting with integrity. As with Bill, sometimes one's most deeply held and cherished beliefs compete, confuse, and confound us.

These types of situations and choices represent "The Integrity Moment"- decision points in everyone's life when who you are, what is important to you, and how you want to be in the world are at stake. The manner in which specific integrity moments are resolved, in turn, helps establish, refine, and reinforce self-image.

Everyone resolves integrity moments in their own way. For example, how would you advise Bill? Decisions in these and similar situations depend upon individual values, interpretation, and evaluation of the consequences. As you can imagine, your choices may differ from those of your colleagues, your mother, and your neighbors.

The integrity moment may be resolved myriad ways, including ways that leave the individual with a sense of having integrity or a sense of lacking it. Making a decision with integrity is about acting with intention and choice. Decisions made with integrity are consistent with what is important and deeply satisfying to the individual. Consequences of choices are instructive as an individual moves forward through life and encounters similar situations.

Choosing To Be Big With Our Decisions
When integrity moments are resolved with decisions that support and enhance integrity, even when made in the face of painful consequences, they boost our sense of self-worth and self-esteem. In other words, they result in feeling big about ourselves and our decisions. Conversely, when integrity moments are resolved in a way that is inconsistent with our core values and principles, we often are left feeling small.

Alice, in Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, has much to teach us about size control. Remember how Alice finds herself curiously too big to go through a door and then alarmingly too small to reach the all-important key to unlock it? Miraculously, a potion with a labeled invitation to "drink me" and a delicious piece of cake change her circumstances.

Yet being big or small for Alice does not follow a consistent pattern. The drink does not always make her small, nor does the cake consistently increase her size. Peculiarly, even a fan could be responsible for her rapid shrinking.

Eventually, Alice finds a way to control her size and make it just right for the situation she faces. A caterpillar advises her about eating from the right or left side of a particularly round mushroom to regulate her height. And clever Alice discovers which side is which. From that point on in her adventures, Alice can be whatever size makes sense in the moment.

What does Alice's story have to do with integrity moments? Quite wonderfully, a lot.

Each of us is full of two very different kinds of stories from our lives: moments when we are big - by acting consistently with our basic values and principles - and those when we are small - by acting inconsistently with our basic values and principles. In a Wonderland way, what separates the two experiences is your sense of how big or small you feel in the moment. Happily, Alice helps to teach us that with some effort we can learn to manage our size.

Although you may not always recognize this quality in the moment, being big or being small is really a choice you make. Your decisions provide a key difference between resolving integrity moments into consistent experiences versus resolving them as inconsistent experiences.

Perhaps these choices seem straightforward or simple. After all, who would not choose to have only consistent experiences? The fact is, real-life situations are very complex, often involving competing values and principles. We all have both consistent and inconsistent experiences almost every day. Like Alice, you and I have moments of both being big and moments of being small.

Bill, the association executive, often feels big at work. His repeated successes through the years have earned him good promotions and raises. When it comes to his relationship with his boss, Elizabeth, he has a tendency to back down or not share his ideas.

She says she's open to input, but given how furiously busy she is and with her attention on the board and external relations, Elizabeth often dictates decisions. As much as he wants to be big, Bill feels small in this relationship and is embarrassed by his reaction to her.

Qualities of Good Decision Making
Having integrity in our day-to-day decisions is affected by at least two major factors: authenticity and ethics. Decisions involving integrity invite a negotiation of these two factors.

Authenticity is what makes you uniquely you and me uniquely me - each of us different. It is the sum total of life experiences, the meaning we make of those experiences, values and principles, attitudes and beliefs, the roles we play at work and beyond, and our identity.

For Bill, being authentic means balancing work and family success. Much of the tension of Bill's daily decisions centers on how to be available for his daughter, keeping a cordial relationship with his ex-wife, trying to build his own personal life following the divorce, and developing into an executive. The pressures he faces are compounded given the ethics of his work environment.

Ethics, in the most simple sense, are the rules for belonging. Just as each of us has a drive to be ourselves - to be authentic - so, too, do we yearn to be included. Consequently, our behavior is tempered by what is acceptable for belonging to the relevant group - whether that's your team at work, your neighborhood, your family unit, culture, and so forth.

Bill's association prides itself on product delivery that far exceeds members' expectations. Those who do well there don't watch the clock and are often known for being driven as well as for excellence. Bill, too, has worked very hard to distinguish himself and now leads a department. His staff looks to him to model leadership. His decisions are noted by many outside his department as well.

Now that his daughter is a teenager, has started to challenge house rules, and is talking back, Bill recognizes the limitations of his commitment to work. Just yesterday, the school counselor caught him unaware of his daughter's repeated absences from school.

Bill has a decision to make about working this weekend. To do so, he is considering both his authenticity and the ethics involved in making a decision based on a negotiated resolution of both.

Decisions Made with Integrity
Everyone can have integrity. It is not the privileged domain of a few. Nor is integrity a fixed commodity that once achieved is always present. We often find ourselves acting with integrity in one moment, but struggling for it in the next.

Both big and small decisions involving integrity occur everyday. Like Bill, we are negotiating choices and anticipating the outcome of choosing one option. Making good decisions helps us resolve integrity moments with a sense of being big.

We all also have moments when we make decisions that are inconsistent with what's most important to us, leaving us small. Each moment presents its own particular challenges and opportunities. Just because we may lack integrity in one moment, does not mean we cannot regain it in the next. In this way, big and small experiences intermingle, and resolving integrity moments acknowledges and demonstrates our deepest humanity.

Bill has a tough decision to make. He has decided that to be big, he will not work this weekend. He will spend time with his daughter and hopefully be able to talk about the difficulties she may be having. His next step is to talk with Elizabeth.

How did Bill get to this point? First he slowed down enough to recognize that he is facing an integrity moment. His decision here is essential for how he views himself and what's important to him.

Taking the time out to reflect is not easy. Bill is inundated with e-mails, voice mails, staff requests, deadlines on projects, and all the complexities of his personal life. But Bill recognizes that reacting quickly might not achieve the best outcome.

He lays out his options and considers the consequences of each choice. He could say "yes" to Elizabeth, work over the weekend, and postpone any discussion with his daughter. He could say "no" to Elizabeth in an e-mail, explaining the circumstances. He likes this option because he doesn't want to have to address her personally.

But Bill decides to talk with Elizabeth in person. With a dry mouth and clenched stomach, he reserves time on Elizabeth's calendar for later in the day. In the intervening hours, Bill reflects on how Elizabeth's style makes him nervous. He also recognizes how much her energy and drive have boosted the association's effectiveness and reputation in the field. For Elizabeth, this job means everything.

Bill realizes that he is taking a tremendous risk in approaching Elizabeth, but decides he is ready to take a stand and set some limits on her expectations of him. He knows now that he is hardly powerless. He always has had the choice to make his priorities clear, both to himself and to others.

During their meeting, Bill tells Elizabeth how difficult this decision has been for him. He shares the dilemma and asks Elizabeth what they could do together to prevent the need to work so many weekends. He lets her know his concern about burnout, both for himself and for his staff. He also acknowledges the importance of the work they are doing together.

At first, Elizabeth seems startled when Bill says he won't be working over the weekend. After listening to his requests, she quickly rebounds with her own. She wants to have a phone conference with him on Saturday. Since Bill's daughter tends to sleep until the late morning, or even early afternoon, Bill agrees to have a phone conversation at 9:00 a.m.

Bill leaves Elizabeth's office with a tremendous sense of relief. She was smiling, and he feels big about his firmness and for communicating what was important to him. Best of all, he senses he has negotiated a win-win decision for them both.

Decisions Form a Personal Tradition of Integrity
As we learn and grow integrity moment by integrity moment, we start to accumulate our experiences into a personal tradition of integrity. Now that Bill has one big experience with Elizabeth, he has started to build a muscle of good decision making with her. The next time he faces a similar situation, making a decision with integrity will be easier and will come more naturally.

People learn from the consequences of decisions. Bill will learn what happens after this weekend. How well did the phone conference idea work? How is his relationship with his daughter progressing? Does he sense that being more available to her helps her deal with her own difficulties?


Linda Tobey, Ph.D., Life Coach and Trainer, may be reached at (202) 232-1824. E-mail: linda@life-foundations.com.






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