Project Management Institute

Integrity is not an option



More than ever, the business world needs leaders who routinely practice integrity. By integrity, I mean knowing the difference between right and wrong and choosing the right action.

All of us, as leaders, must be role models for integrity. Most of us have a great internal mechanism that helps us immediately recognize the difference between right and wrong. A problem can occur, however, as we find ourselves looking for that competitive edge to help us, our products and our companies be as successful as possible. What may begin as a slight shaving of the edges of right and wrong can turn into a wholesale belief that integrity is for others to practice and no longer applies to this situation. Wrong! Integrity applies to all of us all of the time.

Collateral Damage

What should you do if you encounter illegal or unethical behavior? First of all, never support someone who engages in it. If you do, expect to go down as part of the collateral damage. If you think the person will protect you, think again. People who commit illegal or unethical activities are notorious for selling out those loyal to them.

You have several choices: do nothing, distance yourself from the behavior or be a whistle-blower.

If you choose to do nothing, the danger is that you seem to support and condone the behavior. This can set you up for being an accomplice. Moreover, you could end up constantly looking over your shoulder. Fear can eat at you day and night—not a good way to live a happy, quality life.

Choosing to leave the organization or company is, of course, not always easy. There may not be another job for you in another organization. You might have to relocate. A job search also can be a great hardship. While clearly an option, distancing yourself can be a mighty high price to pay.

To many people, being a whistle-blower could be considered the high road. You are exposing illegal or unethical behavior and working within the system to make it a better place for all to work. Unfortunately, not everyone holds whistle-blowers in such high esteem, particularly those who have condoned or supported the poor behavior—or have friends that are being exposed for it. This can be a lonely road, albeit one where your conscience is clear. Because illegal and unethical behavior can take a long time to uncover and reach closure, you may have to continue to work around the very people you have exposed—and some may never be punished.

You say you don't like your options? Nobody does. There is no simple answer. However, confiding in a trusted third party and talking through the options can help. Most of us likely will come across illegal or unethical behavior at some time in our careers. Again, whatever you do, do not become a part of it, or you will surely go down with it.

Speak Up For Yourself

What if your boss directs you to do something that's not illegal or unethical but with which you disagree? Should you do it anyway? Yes. You can read an organizational chart. But first discuss the issue with your boss to make your perspective clear. This is integrity, too—have the courage to speak up for your own strongly held opinions.


If you do what your boss says, but later other people of equal or higher authority tell you that they disagree with your actions, is it OK to say you were only following orders? In general, avoid being overtly transparent. You want to support your boss. However, in a case where your actions could harm your reputation or career, I would recommend not taking the blame for a decision that was thrust upon you—provided you had been clear in presenting your position. If you did not bother to offer a counter position, then you are just as much at fault as your boss.

Your integrity represents a window into your character. As a leader, you must use it to build your success and the success of those you lead. PM

Neal Whitten, PMP, president of The Neal Whitten Group, is a speaker, trainer, consultant, mentor and author. His latest book is Neal Whitten's No-Nonsense Advice for Successful Projects.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




Related Content

  • PM Network

    The Youthquake Arrives

    A new generation of project talent is rising around the world. With Gen Z entering the workforce in real numbers and more millennials taking on management roles, organizations are being dynamically…

  • Why Great Ideas Fail and How to Make Sure They Don't

    By Vargas, Ricardo Viana | Conforto, Edivandro Carlos | Oumarou, Tahirou Assane To reduce failure rates and successfully deliver strategies in 2020 and beyond, organizations must overcome disruptive forces and flip posing challenges to opportunities and advantages. It all…

  • Project Management Journal

    Senior Project Leadership Skills and Career Stallers member content locked

    By Floris, Maurizio | Wiblen, Sharna L. | Anichenko, Ekaterina We know little about which leadership skills matter most and according to whom in the career progression of project leaders. This research suggests that high- performing senior project leader talent…

  • PM Network

    Vital Signs

    Transforming horizon-focused strategic visions into here-and-now reality can't happen in a vacuum. Instead, project leaders must cultivate a deep understanding of the business, technological,…

  • PM Network

    Erasing Boundaries

    By Khelifi, Yasmina As more projects have a global scope and scale, it's increasingly common for project professionals to manage stakeholders around the world, juggling time zones, technologies, languages and other…