Integrity is a messy issue to address in organizational life. Yet integrity may be the single most important issue to address, today, as we experience unprecedented change with greater disruption and complexity. These times demand the stability and consistency of systems and people with integrity. And yet, the way we view integrity, makes it complicated to address.

This two-part blog revisits integrity. In this blog, we explore it as a function of our word; our next blog examines some of the blind spots of integrity. Together, these blogs present a framework with practices to strengthen our integrity.

Different Paradigms for Integrity

Think about it, when questioning integrity, we usually take it as an assault on our moral or ethical character, rather than an indication of something that’s missing.

For instance, we often question integrity through one of these paradigms:

Morality: I engaged in an activity that lacks integrity, so I am not virtuous and lack character.

Ethical: My lack of integrity indicates bad or wrong behavior.

Normative: My lack of integrity means I am not perfect. I am deeply flawed, and worse than others.

Legal: I break laws, and lack integrity. I am a criminal.

Choose your poison – bad, wrong, criminal, flawed, lacking character – all seem shameful.

These normative or prescriptive views of integrity keep us trapped in ideals that prevent us from having the most important conversation today in organizations: How do we hold ourselves, or hold others, accountable for broken agreements?

(NOTE: These paradigms were distinguished via research by Erhard, Jensen, and Zaffron and sources shared at the end of this blog. Other items in this blog note research from this page with a number).

New Paradigm: Integrity as Whole and Complete

We can resolve this if we shift our view of Integrity from prescriptive to descriptive as its origins suggest: as the state of being whole and complete (see 1, 2, 3, 4).

If we explore integrity from this descriptive view, we can see that items function optimally, when they function as designed or as they were meant to be.

For instance, what is essential for a four-legged stool to function well? At its essence, a four-legged stool requires four legs. If a leg is missing, it is out of integrity. It cannot function as it was designed.

Would you sit on that stool? It might hold you up for a bit, but it would not function as designed, and soon you would come crashing down. For anything to be whole and complete is to simultaneously accept that 1) it must have all of its parts, together, as designed, or 2) it lacks the integrity or coherence to be or function as it claims.

The consequence: It is not sustainable. Sit on the stool at your peril.

This seems easy to observe with objects like stools or even data systems. Would you enter a piece of corrupted data into a data system? Why not? That corrupted piece would render the system broken, incoherent and incomplete.

Integrity as your Word

Now, add in the human equation.

What is it we assess or measure when we speak of integrity? For humans, this is as simple and as messy as our word, nothing more and nothing less. Simple, because we all have access to our word; messy, because of the unlimited possibilities and interpretations of our word. To confer our word as co-creating our world is to view our role in reality very differently.

So, then, what is our word worth to us? What is it for our word to be whole and complete? What will it make possible in our agreements, our communications, and our ability to plan, predict, and collaborate?

Being a person of integrity could simply mean being a person of your word:

Proposition-1: That I will do what I say I will do, as I said I would do it – nothing more and nothing less.

Proposition-2: If I cannot do what I said as stated, then I will immediately communicate everything I must to all relevant parties to lessen the impact and to restore my word.

Supposition: Following propositions 1 and 2, I can restore my word to a clean baseline, allowing me to create new agreements, make new promises, and restore trust.

All we can ever be is who we say we are. Who we say we are is then measured by the wholeness and completeness of our deeds, based on how we keep or honor our word.

Integrity in this way is an essential component in building trust by becoming trustworthy (see 5c). We include this as the first pillar of trust as developed in a previous blog.

Living our Word

What if this could be that simple? If we simply could set aside any notions of virtue, goodness, or imperfections.

What if we could have conversations about integrity with office workers? What if this led naturally to greater accountability?

What if these conversations could create a system where every conversation actually strengthens our ability to live our word as whole and complete?

This may seem Pollyanna but it’s not. These are, after all, just a matter of conversations. Once we accept this view of integrity, we can invite others to hold us accountable. And, we can engage in clear and clean conversation to hold others accountable, identify broken agreements, and strengthen our word.

Still, to be clear, this is work. It requires a framework with some practice for living our word as whole and complete. I offer a framework to begin this practice of reconstituting our word from a 1) Background, 2) Context and 3) Structure, as follows.

1. Background: Our Word Matters

We begin by acknowledging that our word is at stake and that a weak word impedes our ability to make promises, create agreements, engage commitments, and develop trust. That is, we are constrained in the ways we coordinate action and collaborate with others.

Most people are unaware of how their word creates their world. How casual promises made without any intention for delivery will impact results. Or whether we understand what’s required to coordinate action to execute on promises. Our eBook on Generative Language and Speech-Acts details much of this dynamic (see 2abc, 5c).

What’s my word worth? This is a great question as we view integrity from the background that our word matters, in the context of workability, and structured as whole and complete.

We may be oblivious to the conditions and details required to create clear agreements, or we agree to items without clear lines of accountability. Then, when we fail to deliver, shrug off tasks, or neglect to hold others accountable.

For leaders, especially, a weak word is like a virus. It infects others who then learn from our actions not to rely on us. Rather than trusting us at our word, people wait for hard evidence, or for others to act — to verify if we really mean what we say.

Waiting becomes a self-­fulfilling prophecy, giving permission for others to wait. Inaction takes a heavy toll on organizations. Missed opportunities squander time and financial resources. Expectations of inaction lower morale, discouraging initiative; and the consequence of inaction fosters resignation, encouraging cynicism.

Our word is always in the background as we engage others. When we issue promises, form agreements, initiate commitments, coordinate action, or collaborate, people continually assess, can I believe this person?

That’s why our word matters.

Keeping v Honoring Our Word.

To strengthen our word requires first that we accept our humanity: we will break our word.

To complicate this, most confuse keeping our word with honoring our word (see 1).

In times of disruptive change and increased complexity, we navigate the uncertainty and ambiguity of life.

Given the state of uncertainty and our own human nature, we can expect that leaders with greater responsibility for creating unpredictable futures will break their word (will not be able to keep it) because they must operate in the unknown.

Indeed, here’s the paradox – leaders that never break their word are playing a small, comfortable game, advancing a very predictable mission that requires little risk, predictable change, and ultimately, no possibility.

While it’s unavoidable that we will break our word, we can ALWAYS honor our word.

How does this work?

When we break our word, we can always do so with integrity, and honor our word.

To honor our word is to honor ourselves as co-creators.

First, we communicate with all parties before or after it happens.

Second, we accept any consequences of breaking our word.

Third, we clean up any mess or upset we created to restore our word with ALL parties.

So breaking our word does not impede honoring our word.

Said another way, we can engage in a cost-benefit analysis on keeping our word (whether we should make a promise or agreement). We cannot engage in a cost-benefit analysis on honoring our word (whether we own our promise). To do so would lead to deception, breaches of trust, and feelings of betrayal. We would be deemed untrustworthy.

In sum, our word matters, and honoring our word enables us to co-create workability in our lives.

2. Context: Workability

The context for integrity is workability (see 1). Viewing our word through the lens of “whole and complete,” we create workability as we interact with ourselves and others.

We can assess the strength of our word by the level of workability in our lives. If workability suffers, we must look inward at the strength of our promises, agreements, and commitments. Do we communicate expectations, identify details, and establish conditions of satisfaction? And do these match what we’ve told others?

Do we communicate with everyone needed? Do people know what to expect from us and do we honor or clarify those expectations?

Most of us are unaware of workability as a context. If we reflect on our efforts and check in with others, we can see where we are placing more effort to keep things together. Like a wheel out of alignment that requires more effort to keep it on the road, this reveals lacking workability.

Like our four-legged stool with a leg missing, lacking workability is not wrong nor bad; it’s simply missing something fundamental for its optimal functioning as designed, or intended.

By examining our word as the system it is, we can assess how it creates workability through these indicators of how we:

  • deliver on promises and make requests,
  • create agreements and generate commitments,
  • hold ourselves and others accountable,
  • meet deadlines, scope projects, predict tasks and delivery, and
  • organize information to coordinate action.

Workability is inescapable. If people are letting you know about lacking workability take it as an opportunity to strengthen your word. A weak word or lacking workability will show up as how others experience you: in missed deadlines, unreturned calls, unprepared meetings, nonresponsive emails, or growing unfulfilled promises.

Recognizing a weak word can offer opportunities to shift your perceptions about what you know, where you may require support, or what’s possible to increase workability.

In sum, we can explore our level of workability by the quality of our promises, requests, offers, and agreements, and by how we restore our word to a state of whole and complete.

3. Structure: Whole and Complete

Remember, the underlining structure of integrity is that your word is organized to operate in a state of wholeness and completeness (see 3). The pertinent item here includes this notion of organizing one’s word for being whole and complete.

Being Whole for our word requires that we own and include all the dimensions of our word: Our intention, speaking, meaning (interpretations), and necessary information such as deadlines, which align our words and deeds to fulfill on our promises, agreements, and commitments.

We will notice what is or isn’t whole when things become unworkable or in some ways, “broken.” To assess this requires a keen sense of workability in your life (stated above, in #2 “Workability”).

Being Complete is more complex, and includes more than being finished with something (see 3a). Being complete is a state of mind. We can be complete all along the way in our life to:

  • Take inventory of incomplete items in your life you’ve put off. Begin with a list of mundane tasks such as repotting plants, tuning your car, filing taxes, balancing accounts, or visiting the dentist. We will examine this “incomplete dynamic” in our next blog. The practice of completing items, and no longer tolerating them as incomplete, begins to build muscle for the following items.
  • Follow through on items as you said you would when you said you would. Communicate the status of any changes in projects to all relevant parties. Following through involves meaning yes when you say yes, saying no when you mean no, and seeing things through to completion.
  • Do what I can do now and then schedule everything else to be handled at a time when I can complete it. Even though I’m not finished, I am complete with it as a concern that weighs on my mind.

This is what we mean by complete: either I’ve completed an item fully or if I’ve completed it provisionally, scheduling any remaining items for completion. Scheduling the item removes it as a concern on my mind, which then allows me to be here, freely, and available for what’s next.

Final Word …

Consider this question: What’s my word worth? This is a great question to live with as we view integrity from a different paradigm: from the background that our word matters, in the context of workability, and structured as whole and complete.

Continued practice with your word will find yourself unrecognizable as you choose and act differently.

In the next blog, I will examine some of the blind spots of integrity that enable incomplete items in our lives.

Reading Time: 10 min. Digest Time: 13.5 min.

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Resources and Research

Bhavana Learning Group is committed to extending research on the concept of “Integrity.” We support coaches, teachers, and educators with new conversations for workability, accountability, and transparency in education and organizational life. The work presented in these blogs applies knowledge, experience, and wisdom based on research from these sources noted here.

  • Special recognition for ground-breaking research that viewed “different paradigms for integrity,” developing concepts such as “workability,” and our “word as a whole and complete” as researched in the Fair Use document Integrity: A Positive Model that Incorporates the Normative Phenomena of Morality, Ethics, and Legality by Erhard, Werner, Jensen, Michael C., and Zaffron, Steve. The Abridged version (English Language Version, July 4, 2017) originally published on 18 Feb 2010 and revised on 22 Apr 2022 is also published through Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 10-061, Barbados Group Working Paper No. 10-01, Simon School Working Paper No. 10-07, Available at SSRN here and here.

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.