On several levels, it has become more than acceptable that people don’t do what they say: it has become – slowly and insidiously – the “norm”. This may mean breaking seemingly small promises, like “I’ll get back to you on this” or “I’ll be there by 10am” to seemingly big ones, like breach of contracts; seemingly, because there are no small things in this category.
Following norms is difficult; it is supposed to be. Norms help one become what one potentially is. They’re constrains used as leverage to lift one above the average. Let’s emphasize: the average does not equal normal! When one chooses to follow norms, he/she voluntarily gives up conveniences in order to grow. Conveniences equal inertia. Following up on such fundamental decisions separates people – vertically. This is quite obvious in certain domains, like military and academia in the traditional sense; even in sports (although here the norms are mostly quantitative).
Professionalism is, in a certain sense, also a norm – although quite an ill-defined one. In certain professions, like doctors, engineers and lawyers qualitative norms used to be well defined and, until recently, adhered to.
However, when it comes to the “business domain” in general, or the corporate domain in particular, there is a well observable decline: how employees – from warehouse workers to CEOs – interact with each other within a company or with the employees of other companies. It’s enough to scan the topics of the business press: bullying, manipulation, lack of trust, cheating, corruption, sexual harassment, back-stabbing, lack of privacy, subtle and gross abuse, rewarded psychopathic behavior, raging sociopaths, intolerance, unhealthy/forced/unnecessary competition, fear culture, and many more.
The topics are inexhaustible. Naturally, no top manager would ever declare that he/she tolerates such behavior or such realities. In fact, the picture they paint is beautiful: it’s about the very opposite of the reality they live in. Someone from a privileged position (not a manager) told us recently, that bullying among top managers has been unacceptable for decades already, consequently it simply doesn’t exist anymore, at least not Western Europe.
We speak as we think and our acts are a continuation of our words. Integrity means that we feel an obligation to maintain consistency between our thoughts, words and acts. Lack of consistency typically means lack of thinking, “moral flexibility”, forgetfulness, weakness or all of these. For integrity, there are no things too small, no positions too low, no social status too insignificant, no age too young or too old: a word given to whomever at all is an obligation towards ourselves. It is natural that we should consider carefully not only what we promise, but also what we say at all.
What to do about flakes is the same question as how to uphold (qualitative!) norms. First of all, we have to comply ourselves. Then we have to form alliances with others who follow these norms, thus creating communities, no matter how small they may be. Naturally, such communities are exclusive: people who can’t comply, for whatever reason, are excluded; not judged, but excluded. Of course, nobody’s perfect and thus nobody is in a position to judge anybody. On the other hand, exclusivity in this respect deserves our respect.
To form such communities or micro communities of people whose word has weight is indispensable for triggering positive change. In fact, before lawyers had become indispensable, empires were built on words given by men of integrity.