The Law of Small Things: Creating a Habit of Integrity in a Culture of Mistrust

The Law of Small Things: Creating a Habit of Integrity in a Culture of Mistrust

by Stuart H. Brody
The Law of Small Things: Creating a Habit of Integrity in a Culture of Mistrust

The Law of Small Things: Creating a Habit of Integrity in a Culture of Mistrust

by Stuart H. Brody


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We are living in a time when dishonesty and duplicity are common in our public institutions, our workplaces, and even in our personal relationships. But by recognizing and resisting the small, seemingly inconsequential ways we make moral compromises in our own lives, we can repair the tear in our social and moral fabric.

The Law of Small Things begins with an IQ (Integrity Quotient) test designed to reveal the casual way we regard our promises and the misconceptions we have about acting truthfully. The book shows how most people believe that integrity is something we "just have" and that we just do, like a Nike commercial. It depicts these and other deceptions we deploy to appear to act with integrity without actually doing so.

The Law of Small Things also exposes how our culture encourages breaches of integrity through an array of "permitted promise-breaking," a language of clichés that equates self-interest with duty, and the "illusion of inconsequence" that excuses small breaches with the breezy confidence that we can fulfill integrity when it counts.

Brody challenges the prevailing notion that integrity is a possession you hold permanently. No one "has integrity" and no one is perfect in practicing it. What we have is the opportunity to uphold promises and fulfill duties in each situation that faces us, large and small. Integrity is a practice and a habit of keeping promises, the ones we make explicitly and the ones that are implied in all our relationships.

Ultimately, developing skill in the practice of integrity leads us to knowledge of who we are—not in the way the culture defines us, but in the way we truly know ourselves to be.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781523098132
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 01/15/2019
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Stuart Brody is the founder of IntegrityIntensive (, a consulting firm concentrating on decision-making, leadership training and the practice of integrity. His 35-year career as a lawyer took him before the Supreme Court and he has held numerous public offices and political leadership positiones. He is a Senior Scholar at the State University of New York's Institute for Ethics in Public Life. His speeches and workshops have brought his work to thousands of public officials across the country.

Read an Excerpt



They call it a "white lie" because we still feel pure after telling it.

For old times' sake, you've been meaning to get together with Jane, a friend from your previous job, who helped you through some tough spots. But every time Jane suggests a date, you say you're busy. You never tell her the real reason you're always so busy. You keep it kind of quiet. You've been working on a book, nourishing the hope that someday you can quit your job and write full-time.

A few days ago, Jane suggested lunch at one of the old hangouts, and you finally accepted. You felt you needed to do it this time. You're actually looking forward to it — sort of. Then, the day before your date, you get a call from a close friend who knows your passion for writing and has contacts in the publishing industry. She managed to get a meeting with a respected publisher, a lunch meeting, tomorrow!

You accept, but a sinking feeling sets in instantly. You've made two promises, and you can't fulfill both. You can't pass up this opportunity to meet an important publisher, but how are you going to tell Jane you're canceling on her? Your mind races through the catalog of possible excuses and lands on this: "Something's come up at work." After all, no one argues when it comes to work. Work comes first. Everyone understands that. Of course it doesn't feel quite right to lie, but it's only a white lie, right?

Before you call Jane with your white lie, let's look at the opportunity you have to drop a bad habit and create a good one: to substitute lying with truth-telling. This is a moment to reimagine integrity as a practice of keeping promises rather than avoiding embarrassment. You made a promise to Jane. She has a reasonable expectation that you will keep your promise. You now have a duty to fulfill her reasonable expectation.

Of course, there are exceptions that excuse a promise. First, emergencies can arise. Everyone understands that a car accident, a child's sudden illness, or a crisis at work are unforeseen events that excuse the fulfillment of a promise. Even if a friend is sitting impatiently at a restaurant tapping at her smartphone, irritated or worried, she will release you from your promise after learning the facts.

Also, new circumstances may arise that require you to break a promise even when the person to whom you made it is not as understanding. For instance, you may promise a friend to take him out for a drink after he helped paint your garage, but then you learn he's an alcoholic. You don't want to enable conduct that could be damaging to his health, so you break that promise.

But here you are breaking a promise not because of an emergency or to avoid harm but because you got a better offer and an exciting one at that, a lot more exciting than picking over old times with a former coworker. Let's face it: you're throwing Jane over for a better deal, and you're embarrassed to admit it. So, to avoid unpleasantness, you tell a white lie. "It's just a white lie," you tell yourself, but what you're telling yourself is an illusion: the illusion of inconsequence.

White lying is a perfect storm of illusion. We lie to get what we want, we tell ourselves it protects the feelings of the other person, and we remain certain of the integrity of our motives. They call this kind of lie "white" because we still feel pure after telling it. This illusion manages to pass under the radar screen of self-awareness, leaving intact our self-image as persons of integrity.

But here's the catch. In the moment you deploy the white lie, you've deepened the habit of deceiving others and used your moral resourcefulness to mislead them. This may strike you as a rigid and unrealistic way to deal with mundane situations, but consider what the choice really is: to treat your word as a soft expression of intention or as a sustained commitment to truthfulness.

The irony is that it would be so simple to tell the truth and ask Jane to release you from your promise. For instance:

Jane, about our date for lunch tomorrow — I realize it took a lot of time to set up, and I apologize for calling you this late. But something just came up: an opportunity to meet a publisher who may be interested in the book I've been working on for a long time. Would it be all right if we postpone our lunch? How about we get our calendars out right now and set another date?

If you don't want to tell Jane about your book, then you could just say that a professional opportunity came up. That is truthfully what happened. If you're unsure how the truth will sound when you say it, write it out first, then practice saying it out loud. I bet as you practice saying the truth to yourself, you'll get more confident speaking it to others.

Jane may not like being thrown over no matter what the reason, but practicing integrity is not just about the impact on Jane. It is about creating a habit of truth-telling and getting better at the practice of integrity. If meeting this publisher is so important that you want to withdraw a promise you made to Jane, then it's important enough to tell Jane the truth about it.

If you were to approach the situation in this way, it's almost unimaginable that Jane would withhold her consent. But let's say she did. Does the practice of integrity require you to go through with lunch? Well, actually, yes. It does. Jane's obstinacy may confound and enrage you, forcing you to reschedule your impromptu lunch with the publisher if you can. It's doubtful a friendship could survive such a spiteful act.

But the survival of a lingering friendship with a former colleague is not what we're examining here. We're aiming to create a habit of integrity. And that means following through on your promises unless you're released. Integrity is not just about fulfilling promises but about practicing the skill of asking to be released when you no longer wish to fulfill them.

Of course, after trying to prevail upon Jane but failing, you may reach the conclusion that you're not going to blow an important meeting just to honor the "hollow principle" of keeping a promise to a spiteful friend. If so, you may feel, rightly, that you tried everything to act with integrity; just don't try to convince yourself that you didn't break a promise, because you did, and that's a breach of integrity.

But here's the difference between what you did and what many others do. Rather than simply announcing you were pulling out, you let Jane know that your promise to her was important by asking to be released from it. You offered trust even if she rebuffed the gesture.

As for the hypothetical example of promising to take out a friend for a drink and later discovering he is an alcoholic, it is irrelevant whether he releases you. Avoiding harm to another human being is an implied promise that supersedes any explicit one. Whatever this friend might think of you for breaking your promise, as with Jane, you've created a habit of telling the truth, and you've confirmed their reasonable expectation that you would do so.

• The Law of Small Things •

When you make a promise that you later want to break, the practice of integrity requires that you ask to be released from it.



Which emails do you ignore?

In the scenario in chapter 1, counting promises was relatively easy because the promise to have lunch with Jane was explicit. The practice of seeking to be released was fairly straightforward. In this chapter and the remaining chapters in part 1, we will look at a much harder practice of integrity: discerning and fulfilling implied promises. Remember, implied promises create reasonable expectations just as explicit promises do, but because they are unstated, they are easy to miss and seem inconsequential to break. Let's look at a simple way to strengthen discernment of implied promises: how we deal with emails.

Most of us at some point fall behind on emails. I don't mean the storm of junk from purveyors whom we don't know but who managed to get our email address. Not that. I mean emails from people we know, and that we feel should be answered, but that we simply don't get around to. So we plow through our inbox, responding to the ones that seem most "important."

But how often do we stop and ask what makes an email important? I doubt many of us ask ourselves whether we have a duty to fulfill a reasonable expectation arising from a promise, explicit or implied. Chances are, what we might regard as important is responding to someone from whom we want a favor, to get someone off our back, or to avoid the embarrassment of not responding. To prove the point, stop reading right now and jot down the criteria you use for deciding whether to respond to an email.

Got it? Now, what happened when you did this little exercise? Do you actually have a rule you use? Or did you just come up with a rationale for what you have been doing automatically? Or perhaps you couldn't come up with anything.

When we do things automatically, without intention or awareness of purpose, we can wind up stressed because we don't really know why we're doing them. If we want to strengthen the habit of practicing integrity, the question here is: How can we take control of our emotions and our emails by counting promises? The answer? Literally count them.

Here's how to do it. With each email, ask whether you have made a promise that you must keep by responding to this sender. I don't just mean confirming a proposed time and date for a meeting, agreeing to pick up your spouse at a certain time, or approving an agreement previously reached. I mean keeping an implied promise — for example, when a friend emails that he's having trouble with a boss and you have an insight that can help, or when a former colleague says she's having trouble finding another job and you know someone who might help, or a friend asks for a recommendation on a place to stay in a city you frequent, or a neighbor sends a group email looking for help at the block party he's organizing. You get the idea.

Many of us instinctively resist implied promises and reflexively seek plausible ways of getting out of them. For many of us, the word expectation sounds like a trap. Haven't we been told to be wary of the expectations of others or warned against the tyranny of our own excessive expectations? Actually, the real trap is to see expectations as a trap. The way to avoid feeling trapped is to draw boundaries between reasonable expectations and unreasonable ones.

Boundaries are important to the practice of integrity because they make crystal clear what we are committing to. Whether we agree not to call a friend past their usual bedtime or exchange vows of sexual fidelity with a partner, we are setting explicit limitations on our actions that eliminate subsequent misunderstanding about expectations. Of course, it's impossible to predict all the contingencies of human interaction, so clashes of expectations are inevitable.

Still, the practice of integrity would be very difficult without an understanding of what constitutes the reasonable expectation of another person and what does not. If we fail to discern the reasonable expectations of others, our actions simply reflect what we feel like doing. Integrity rests on keeping promises, not discharging feelings, so distinguishing between reasonable and unreasonable expectations is critical.

Let's start with a very simple example. Let's say your father calls every day expecting you to listen for an hour while he saunters through a chronicle of his day. He talks at such length that the call becomes one-sided and aimless. He may sincerely feel that as his son or daughter, you have an implied promise to listen to his verbose daily accounts. But neither the sincerity of his expectation, nor the tumble of emotions you go through itching to get off the phone, makes that expectation reasonable. Even if your parents have been perfectly wonderful to you in every respect, made sacrifices for your well-being, and provided consistent support for your endeavors, their generosity does not transform a desire for your undiluted and perpetual attention into a reasonable expectation.

Now, you may choose to comply with your parent's unreasonable expectation out of compassion, love, or pity, and feel proud about doing a good thing, but that does not mean you "have integrity" for doing so. The fulfillment of an unreasonable expectation, no matter how widely regarded as commendable or how deeply regarded as noble, is not an act of integrity, because integrity does not require the fulfillment of unreasonable expectations.

I realize this may strike you as odd or perhaps nonsensical. After all, aren't we talking about virtuous actions here, and isn't virtue the same thing as integrity? In a word, no. Here's why. If we are to make any sense of the many expectations placed on us by others, it is crucial to make distinctions between actions that keep promises — that is, that meet the reasonable expectations of other persons — and the things (even noble things) we may choose to do as a matter of personal choice. To practice integrity, we need to keep this boundary clear in our minds.

Of course, there are many actions people take beyond anything reasonably expected of them that afford immense personal satisfaction, attract the admiration of others, and ennoble our society. The kindness of listening to a loquacious dad is extraordinary; so is valor on the battlefield ("courage over and beyond the call of duty"), and so is generosity in giving substantial amounts of money to charity.

But integrity does not require extraordinary acts, nor do extraordinary acts excuse other acts that breach integrity. Integrity requires us to keep promises, and all of them: the ones we undertake explicitly and the ones implied by the reasonable expectations of others. That is extraordinary enough. That alone is enough to transform our lives. It is a way to shift our view of ourselves in the world from beleaguered accomplice in countless cultural rituals, to fully engaged participant in the lives of others, contributing to their lives by fulfilling their reasonable expectations. In the next chapter, we will see how meeting reasonable expectations in routine acts can transform institutions.

So, returning to our simple example, the next time you feel overwhelmed by emails, just ask yourself, "Which of these emails am I reasonably expected to answer because of an explicit promise I made to the sender or a promise implied in my relationship with him or her?" I predict that counting these promises will yield meaning from an otherwise tiresome ritual.

• The Law of Small Things •

A reasonable expectation arises when we make an explicit promise or when one is implied by our conduct–and not merely because someone wants something from us.



Benign benevolence or freeloading on community trust?

In the preceding chapters, we saw how a reasonable expectation arises from a promise to another person, whether explicit, as in the case of the lunch date one promises to have with a friend, or implied, as in returning emails from friends seeking help that you are in a position to provide. In this chapter, we explore implied promises not to individuals but to institutions.

Let's say you have a close friend from high school, Bill, a partner in a prominent financial services company, who often comes to town and invites you to dinner when he does. Every time it comes time to pay, he grabs the check. You protest, but he says, "I'll just put it on the company expense account." He explains that the cost of dinner is a fraction of his travel "expenses" and that his company "couldn't care less" if he takes out a friend while in town on business, even if the dinner has absolutely nothing to do with business.

Is accepting Bill's payment for your dinner a breach of integrity? Let's say Bill's company were not involved and he simply offered to pay for your dinner, the way friends often do. Would there be any reasonable expectation that you either accept or decline his offer? In that case, he might want you to accept and feel insulted or puzzled if you didn't accept his generous gesture — but his offer to pay for dinner and your decision to decline would have nothing to do with keeping a promise. It would be a matter of personal choice between friends. The same is true if you were to offer to pay for his meal.


Excerpted from "The Law of Small Things"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Stuart H. Brody.
Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Aaron Woolf ix

Preface xiii

Your IQ (Integrity Quotient): A Quiz xv

Introduction 1

I A Short Story about a "Chicago Politician" 1

II Another Story about Politicians and about Us 3

III What Does It Mean to Practice Integrity? 6

IV The Pitfalls of Human Reasoning 7

V The Illusion of Moral Competence 9

VI Reimagining Integrity as a Habit of Discerning Promises 13

VII Practicing Integrity as a Habit of Keeping Promises 14

VIII Integrity: What's in It for Me? 18

IX The Practices of Transformation 20

X A New Definition of Integrity 21

XI A Reader's Guide to the Laws 22

Part 1 The Illusion Of Inconsequence In Everyday Life 24

1 An Inconsequential Untruth 27

They call it a "white lie" became we still feel pure after telling it

2 The Small Evasions of Everyday Life 32

Which emails do you ignore?

3 Free Dinner on a Friend's Expense Account 37

Benign benevolence or freeloading on community trust?

4 The Truth about Lying 41

When is an untruth a lie and when is it "just a story"?

5 To Thine Own Self Be True 45

Who made "thine own self" the center of the moral universe?

6 Freedom Is No Bargain 50

Buying fancy apparel at cut-rate prices on big-city street corners

7 Just Do the Right Thing 53

But what if there are two "right things"?

8 Hogging a Table at Starbucks 57

The duty of civility in public places

9 Retaliation and the Practice of Integrity 60

When the bastard never gets back to you

Part 2 Self-Interest And The Vail Of Convenience 66

10 The Trip of a Lifetime 69

Achieving a cherished ambition or saving a life?

11 The Crippling Use of Handicap Permits 74

Is it your place to confront permit cheats?

12 A Contest of Wills 79

"I know what Dad said, but if it's not in the will …"

13 Your Cousin's Keeper 83

When a family member deceives the public

14 Taking Stock of Your Portfolio 87

"I just do whatever my broker says."

15 Into Thin Air 91

The ethics of listening to public radio without contributing

16 Your Obstinate Car Mechanic 95

"This is an emergency. How dare he make me wait?"

17 Coping with Copyright Laws and Other Pesky Implied Promises 98

"No harm, no foul."

Part 3 Survival And Collusion In The Workplace 104

18 Your Coworker's Impending Layoff 107

Do you warn him or obey the boss and keep quiet?

19 Purveying Falsehood for a Living 112

"What the client says goes, right?"

20 Pressure to Make Quota 117

"I either make it or it breaks me."

21 Combating Sexual Harassment in the Workplace 126

"Of course we're against it, but he's just too powerful."

22 Your Company's New Mission Statement 131

Coping with hypocrisy, duplicity, and sheer nonsense in the workplace

23 Bribing Foreign Officials 135

"But that's the way they do business here."

24 How Do You Know When You Don't Know That You Don't Know? 139

"I'd rather pretend I knew."

25 "I Meant to Put in a Good Word for You; I Really Did." 143

"I've blown my integrity. Now what do I do?"

Part 4 Self-Interest And Loyalty Versus Truth In American Politics 148

26 The Lying Truth about Negative Campaign Advertisements 151

"But it's the only way to win."

27 Break Your Promise and Run for a Third Term 154

"If they don't like it, they can vote for the other guy."

28 The Dysfunction of Partisanship 158

"It's just politics."

29 Paying Special Attention to a Campaign Contributor 162

To serve truthfulness in politics, is there any room for loyalty?

30 Failing to Prepare for a Vote or a Meeting 167

"Family comes first."

31 "I've Just Had It with This Guy." 170

Holding back when you have every "right" to strike back

Afterword 177

Notes 179

Glossary of Terms Used in the Practice of Integrity 193

Acknowledgments 197

Index 201

About the Author 211

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