The world of business ethics often seems so dominated by legalities, protocols, and rules that we forget what business ethics is all about: ensuring that people make honest choices at work. It’s about individuals like you who rely on your conscience and character to make honest choices on the job. Granted, training is certainly a part of supporting and equipping you for work, but the fact remains that a company can’t train its way to ethical utopia. It has to have people who have a moral compass and an intrinsic, inner sense of right and wrong.
The word “intrinsic” implies something that is a part of one’s core nature, as opposed to “extrinsic” which is something imposed by outside forces. To help you understand this, think about the very first, knee-jerk reaction that you have when you make a stupid mistake or are caught doing something wrong? A momentary urge to weasel out of the situation may be a natural human response, but anything more is not a good sign. If there is not an immediate, urgency to tell the truth, then your honesty is not as intrinsic, or deeply rooted, as it should be.
An intrinsically honest person is someone who does not have to weigh his or her ethical options in order to know what is right. Before you consider this topic to be too far out of reach or too simplistic, take a few minutes to consider it carefully. You might say, “I think about right and wrong all the time, so that makes me intrinsically honest.” True, every human has an internal sense of morality at some level, but that is not quite “intrinsic honesty.”
Most likely you’ve heard the term, “Honesty is the best policy.” Now, consider how committed you truly are to that principle. At what cost are you committed to making honesty your best policy? Is it worth your losing your job? An intrinsically honest person is someone who is not afraid to stand-up and feel a little sacrifice and pain for his or her deeply held moral beliefs because he or she is motivated by principle. One chooses honesty even if it costs something. A crisis between principle and self-preservation is the true test of one’s honest nature. A person who is mostly concerned about self-preservation will do whatever it takes to save his skin even if it requires deception.
There are two types of “honest” people, those who are honest because they have to be (for fear of punishment or consequences) and those who just are. Intrinsic honesty is something that everyone can attain if there exists a willingness and desire to reach it. You shouldn’t have to live in ethical gray areas, looking over your shoulder to see who’s watching.
Whether you consider yourself to be intrinsically honest or not, the first step toward understanding is becoming self-aware. Be honest with yourself. Analyze your thoughts, feelings, and emotional reactions toward ethical dilemmas. Do you have a propensity to make excuses, blame others, or deny guilt? Do you ignore your conscience or create mental illusions to avoid reality? Then you need to align yourself with a personal moral code of ethics – preferably one that is written and follows traditional values. You can’t just say, “I’ll be good.” You have to wrap yourself around something like the Golden Rule, religious principles, traditional moral truth, ancient wisdom, philosophy, or something concrete that can’t be bent or reinterpreted when it’s convenient.
Finally, you need to start the hard work of reshaping your ethical life by developing good habits and attitudes that stick and become internalized. Good thoughts and honest intentions are only as good as your ability to put them to work.
For most people, this does not require a dramatic personality shift but a basic realignment of your principles, priorities and thought processes. Of course, being intrinsically honest doesn’t mean that you’re perfect. On the contrary, intrinsically honest people make mistakes too. Perfection is impossible, but being intrinsically honest is very doable.
The benefits of becoming intrinsically honest include an increase in your moral strength, security, and self-confidence. In business you have to think fast and make good judgments instinctively. Knee-jerk reactions can sometimes take you places where you don’t want to go. But for an intrinsically honest person, knee-jerk reactions may not be all that bad.