Do you know the line you won’t cross? - Michelle Gibbings

We all have values that underpin how we think and what we will and won’t do. These values can often be challenged in the workplace.

A number of years ago I was working with a client who faced constant pressure at work. The leadership team they were a part of had a toxic culture, and it was commonplace for people to be publicly humiliated and yelled at in meetings by the CEO.

This person’s behaviour and style was at the opposite end of the spectrum. They struggled to fit in, and yet as the role was a promotion they wanted to do well and to succeed.

The challenge was not only how to survive the environment, but how they could maintain their authentic self and integrity.

This can be hard because behaviour is contagious. When you spend too long in a negative and nasty environment you may well find that the behaviour of others starts to rub off on you.

Research by the University of Manchester’s Business School looked at the impact on employees when they work with a boss who shows psychopathic or narcissistic traits. They found that employees generally felt more depressed and experienced less job satisfaction, and they were also more likely to engage in undesirable behaviours at work.

Hold the line
It’s important to know what you stand for and therefore to know the line you won’t cross. Once you’ve crossed that line it is harder to turn back, because your integrity is already eroding.

A person with integrity lives their life according to moral and ethical principles. At a practical level, your integrity is about what you say and do every day, the decisions you make and how you treat people.

People bristle when they hear their integrity has been called into question. For most people, their integrity is valued, and not something they would want to lose.

However, your integrity can become tarnished and eroded slowly, over time, if you’re not careful.

An organisational culture that tolerates or encourages behaviour that is bordering on dodgy to downright unethical can see people behave in ways that is out of character. Behaviour that they wouldn’t consider appropriate or ethical is adopted as they become ‘culturalised’ to the accepted way of behaving in that environment.

Face the challenge
Maintaining integrity encompasses two core attributes – having courage, and being conscious of the work environment and its impact on you.

Both attributes have a range. For courage, you can think about it in terms of ‘absent’ at one end and ‘present’ at the other end. Whilst your consciousness is either ‘active’ or ‘passive’. How each attribute is activated will have consequences (either positive or negative) for your integrity.

History is littered with examples of people who were blind to the environment they worked in and the dangers it posed and didn’t have the courage to protect their integrity. In the end, they become captured by the situation and their integrity was sold. The prime example was Enron. Thousands of words have been written about the culture at Enron and the consequent impact it had on the behaviour of a number of people who worked there, and their pursuit of profit at all costs mentality.

At the other end of the spectrum there are people who are conscious of their environment, and have the courage to remain centred and true to their principles. I’ve worked with leaders like this, who operate with integrity and good intent. This creates space and support for the team to be the best they can be.

Of course, life is sometimes not so clear cut and there are always shades of grey, creating confusion and sometimes conflicted thoughts as to the best approach to take.

When that happens ask yourself the question that Benjamin Franklin asked himself everyday: “What good shall I do today?” and his evening question – “What good have I done today?”.

What would your answer be?

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®.

Michelle Gibbings is a change leadership and career expert and founder of Change Meridian.  Michelle works with global leaders and teams to help them get fit for the future of work. She is the Author of ‘Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work’ and ‘Career Leap: How to Reinvent and Liberate Your Career’. For more information: or contact

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