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Integrity

Often cited as the key competence for ethics, integrity is rarely defined or understood. This means that we face specific ethical problems with only generic appreciation of the skills, imagination or character required to address them.

One of the trickiest challenges attending business ethics renewal is that of language. Words that convey moral purpose or values are heavy with associations. They are used frequently without recognizing that they can mean very different things to different people. As important as it is to identify particular values and ethics for an organization, it is equally important to define the terms so as to ensure clarity and relevance to the individual or teams responsible for living them in practice. Proof for this point is “integrity.” While managers, regulators and consumers all agree that integrity is the critical variable for restoring the trust of public and private sector institutions, there is wide variance or considerable obscurity in understanding its meaning. If we cannot be specific, then we cannot hope to operationalize or measure it.

What is Integrity?

  • Integrity is the outcome of ethical excellence. Involving both character and expertise on the part of a person or organization, it represents the moral qualities that inspire appreciation and build trust with recipients or stakeholders. This means that the test and worth of integrity is in the action or transaction of relationship. It also means that the definition of integrity is always shared, based on principles and values of those in the relationship, and measured jointly in the back-and-forth reality of exchange.
  • Integrity is at once practical and aspirational. It represents a striving for purpose with an attention to detail for implementation. Like any other excellence, integrity must be earned rather than claimed, a demonstrated and proven capacity for performance that fulfills a functional need while also demonstrating a commitment to an important principle.
  • Although there are many variables and expectations encoded in the ideal of integrity, the defining criteria is trust. As individuals, employees or citizens we bestow confidence on systems, services, individuals or organizations when we experience integrity in action, and we withdraw trust and resort to suspicion when integrity is abused or suspect. Trust is the outcome of integrity: the higher the proofs and experience of integrity, the greater the trust created and reinforced in the interaction.
  • For many reasons – some global and structural, others relating to crisis or scandal – the public trust has been eroded. When confidence is frayed or lost, the costs to integrity are not simply the perceptual ones of reputation but also those of resistance, confusion, antagonism and the withdrawal of commitment.
  • The most straightforward deflator of integrity is scandal, however these aberrations are usually symptoms rather than causes for the larger erosion in trust. What compromises integrity over the long-term is “disintegration” – the splintering of practice from principle; the breakdown of the whole into silos; the delivery of service that is piecemeal; or the experience that is conditional, inconsistent or unpredictable.

Integrity Implications:

  • As the basis for trust, integrity is not so much a program or objective as an ethos that permeates all programs and processes, informing business decisions, inspiring innovations, and grounding operational culture.
  • While a priority in this time of growing suspicion must be to attend to the shortfalls in integrity that breed complacency or scandal, it is a diminishment of potential to only focus on prevention. Integrity is valuable for advancing the public trust as well as protecting it, for improving the functional quality of products and services and the relational quality of the experience for employees and clients.
  • A responsibility of leadership, organizational integrity hinges on the personal commitment, expertise and practical implementation from all staff. While it is important for the terms of integrity to reflect the overarching organizational vision, it is also critical that the definition, understanding and measurement of integrity involve the people who will be accountable for it.
  • If “disintegration” depletes integrity, then its renewal and regeneration also requires “integration.” On one level this means the unifying consistency between principle and practice – between what is promised and what is delivered; between word and action. On another level this also means consistency across the organization, with a shared commitment to the functional excellence as well as values and ethics that with coherence inspire trust.

 



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