Organizational integrity. The often missed part of the success equation.

“If you don’t want anyone to know, don’t do it.”
~ Chinese Proverb


For an organization to be sustainable and effective, it needs to possess more than a track record of growth in revenues, more than a brilliant marketing plan, or solid numbers; all of these are good, but alone, they cannot guarantee the organization’s longevity and sustainability. What an organization also needs for true success is integrity. Perceived by many as a synonym of honesty and morality, the meaning of the word integrity is quite often misunderstood.

To comprehend integrity, it may be necessary to review the meaning of the word integer, from which integrity is derived. If you deal with numbers or still remember your math classes, you may recall that an integer is a whole number, not a fraction. In other words, when something possesses integrity, it is whole, structurally sound, and functional, according to its design and original purpose.

While determining one’s purpose in life is a subject for a philosophical blog, determining the integrity of a business is relatively simple. What is the organization’s purpose? What are its stated mission and vision? Are strategies and policies, which are currently in place, in agreement with the mission and vision? Integrity ensures that there is no deviation from the set standards and original design. However, it does not determine the moral standards or the mission and vision; one’s values do. Ethics come into focus when an organization seeks to define itself and its continued value to the community; organizational integrity navigates the course that the organization follows. Thus, in theory, integrity has very little to do with morality, but much to do with authenticity.

Without integrity, things sooner or later fall apart. A computer chip with compromised integrity will not function as designed. A bicycle wheel with missing spokes is more susceptible to damage and, therefore, lacks integrity. A building with structural integrity issues, such as a crack in the foundation, is not safe. While many organizations claim to “pursue excellence and integrity,” integrity cannot be pursued. It is either present or absent. If it is not a hundred percent there, it is not there at all. The good news, however, is that integrity may be restored.

For organizations, this takes going back to the basics and evaluating whether its original foundational principles and vision have been intact. If a retail business states that they value their customers, while their customers are greeted with signs, such as “No pets allowed,” “All sales are final,” and “You break it, you buy it,” then there is a dissonance, possibly indicating the company’s loss of integrity. An organization that claims to support a community but does nothing for it, apart from selling to them, has lost its integrity. Every organizational decision should reinforce its mission and vision. Cognitive dissonance is perhaps the main instrument in assessing organizational integrity, but it may take someone from the outside to bring in the light, as the deviation from the originally set course usually occurs gradually, over time, and may therefore be difficult for the players in the field to perceive. If a company loses its integrity in certain area or areas, if not addressed by a swift course adjustment, sooner or later more areas may collapse under pressure, like in a bicycle wheel with missing spokes.

Several organizations would perhaps cross one’s mind; organizations that could be characterized as being quite prosperous, but without a shred of integrity. This inevitably comes to choices. Great reputation, free word-of-mouth advertisement, trust, doing something you love, mutually beneficial relationships, legacy, versus damage to others or the environment, high employee turnover, bad reputation, etc. However, it is here, inside the concept of integrity, that we would find the most incredible individuals, living their lives in amazing ways. It is here that we would find companies and organizations, known for their effectiveness, responsiveness to the needs, and vision.

It must be also mentioned about the integrity of individuals, comprising an organization. The principles, guiding an individual’s integrity, are similar to those for an organization. The meaning of integrity also comes into focus when you decide to welcome into the organization those individuals who possess this quality.

Because without integrity, it is impossible to be consistently effective, experienced leaders seek to correct the lack of integrity as soon as it becomes apparent. In some cases, things should be restored and fine-tuned to the original design. In other cases, the unrealistically formulated mission and vision need to be reevaluated. To restore and uphold integrity:

  1. Examine your founding principles, the mission and vision statements, and the operational policies and procedures. Do policies need to be adjusted or clarified? If some of the organization’s dealings, if leaked, would damage the organization’s reputation, then the organization is probably out of integrity. Consider involving an outside organizational development consulting company to clarify the mission and vision, to assist in redefining them in such ways as it would be practical in the changing environment, and to make adjustments to the policies and procedures as needed.
  2. Repair the foundation problems. First go to work on communicating the adjustments to the policies, procedures, or overall mission and vision to the internal stakeholders: partners and founders, boards and employees. During each stage of the process, expect periods, characterized by resistance to change, as the status quo may be disturbed as a result. Only then proceed to vendors and, finally, to customers.
  3. Be prepared that, if the organization has been out of integrity for a long time, reorganization may be required, and some players may attempt to hinder the process or to leave. Again, an organizational consultant may be very helpful in alerting to possible problem areas and charting the course.
  4. Remember that integrity and authenticity go hand-in-hand. To be a true, courageous leader, one may need admit one’s own failures.
  5. Common goals are inspiring. Seek new common goals and aim to inspire with your authenticity and vision.
  6. Strategically evaluate your organization’s integrity on a continued basis, navigating and correcting the course when needed.

What have been your experiences with integrity, others’ or your own?
How have you dealt with the issues of integrity in your professional and personal life?

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