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Can You Trust the Statistics on Trust?

The ZDNet headline is striking: “Americans trust Amazon and Google more than Oprah (and Trump).”

Wow! Ring the alarm bells, right?

The article goes on to cite the underlying study, from Morning Consult, called Most Trusted Brands 2020. Those brands range from the US Post Office to Hershey and Cheerios, from “religious leaders” and labels on food packaging to Oprah and Warren Buffett, from extreme weather warnings to Tom Hanks.

Both make a big deal about the validity of the study, averaging 16,700 interviews covering 2,000 brands. With such an impressive load of statistics, who could doubt the findings?

Me, for one. And so should you, after a minute’s reflection.

In fact, these ‘findings’ are about as meaningful as the results of a poll asking, “Which is nicer: a rhinoceros or a tricycle?”

Blurred Lines

The problem doesn’t lie in the statistics – it lies in the question being asked.

In this particular survey, the single question asked was, “How much do you trust each brand to do what is right?” The answer range was a lot, some, not much, not at all, or don’t know.

Whenever you encounter a study that offers to compare trust, you should ask yourself – trust to do what? The more specific the answer to that question, the more informative it is. The vaguer the answer, the less meaningful it is.

For example, “I trust Cheerios to avoid food contamination” would be fairly informative. You could compare the Cheerios score to Wheaties’ score. But you couldn’t compare it to Oprah or the Post Office, simply because neither has much to do with food contamination.

In this case, the question is “to do what is right.” But what does that even mean? Is there any “right thing” that covers both Warren Buffett and a weather forecast?

Comparing “the right thing” for religious leaders with “the right thing” for food packaging labels is not just apples and oranges: it’s apples and Sherman tanks. Any definitional overlap is at such a high level of abstraction as to render it nearly meaningless.

Proper Stats

Statistics like these do have two uses.

First, they are great clickbait. But, that’s the problem.

More seriously, they actually are good for tracking comparisons over time. If there is a decline from 2018 to 2020 in people’s ratings of how likely Tom Hanks is to “do the right thing,” that reflects a real shift in people’s perceptions of “America’s dad.” But comparing Hanks to Hershey? That’s just silly.

The ways people actually use words is an anthropological fact, one we can’t change. But that’s no reason responsible researchers shouldn’t use words with care. And this is not a thoughtful or careful use of the word ’trust.’

In this case, they’d be far better off talking about ‘brand image,’ or ‘reputation,’ or simply ‘positive feelings.’

For example, the ZDNet article says, “There was but one [brand] that was trusted ahead of Amazon and Google: the United States Postal Service.”

But – to do what?

If the answer is “to deliver packages” – a pretty core mission of the Postal Service – sorry, I give the nod to Amazon. Yet the article chooses to focus instead on Amazon’s connections to home surveillance and connection to police forces, suggesting that the Post Office is more ethical than Google.

If you can’t be precise in defining “trust to do what,” then it’s like any weak syllogism: from a false premise, any conclusion follows.

Sorry, this is just sloppy thinking. It’s akin to bar arguments about the greatest rock ’n roll band, or the all-time NBA dream team. Actually, it’s worse: it’s like arguing whether Tiger Woods or Serena Williams is the greater athlete.

Again, it all depends on answering “trust to do what?” The more vague the answer, the less useful the statistic – no matter how many decimal points you can point to in the data.

 

 

Trust Matters, The Podcast: Managing Missed Client Deadlines (Episode 11)

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Trust Matters, The Podcast: The Cult of Closing (Episode 10)

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To Live Outside the Law You Must be Honest

Bob Dylan long ago surpassed his namesake Dylan Thomas in fame. His lyrics grace the lists of most popular lyrics of all time; my favorite is “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face…” from Visions of Johanna.

Some lines are more than just poetically evocative – they also hint at serious truths. One such line is this: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” The lyric is from Absolutely Sweet Marie, from (IMHO) his greatest album, Blonde on Blonde, recorded in New York and Nashville in 1966. As with all Dylan songs, who knows what the artist meant – he’s not talking – but here’s my take.

It’s easy to color within the lines. It’s easy to paint by numbers, fill in the check boxes, meet the specs and follow the regulations. In short, to follow the law. But when it comes to issues like trust and ethics, balancing social responsibility and profits, navigating between government demands and consumer demands – it’s not enough.

It’s tempting, taunting, tantalizing, to look to the law (or corporate guidelines, or regulations) for guidance when faced with a difficult issue in client relationships, customer satisfaction, taking responsibility, or ethical issues. It’s also a copout.

Such issues demand a higher order of resolution. When faced with a client demanding to know the truth about some matter, how much truth do you share? The ‘law’ will clearly tell you what truths not to tell; and if you want to argue from omission, what truths are therefore not restrained. But your client – or your constituencies, or your legacy – isn’t going to be satisfied, in part because all you’re doing is citing ‘the law;’ you’re not taking any responsibility.

Being Honest, Being Principled

In this situation, I’m equating “be honest” with “be principled.” Principles apply to more than just honesty, but honesty will do fine as a stand-in for other principles. The point is – you’d better have something more than chapter and verse at hand to satisfy a demand for trust or fairness, whether from clients, employees or society at large. The statement “but it was legal” doesn’t cut any mustard in the higher courts of human interaction.

If you’re looking to be trusted, compliance is de minimis; by itself,  even inflammatory. “Sorry, that’s the law” is only slightly more satisfying than “Sorry, that’s our policy,” or, “Sorry, that’s not how we do things around here.”

Instead, you need principles – rooted in human nature and human relationships. Principles like service to others, or collaboration, or transparency, or don’t treat others as means to your ends. It’s principles like these that provide better guidance to tough decisions. (It’s also principles, that in the long run, must undergird the law itself for the law to be seen as legitimate.)

Living Outside the Law

To “live outside the law” doesn’t mean you’re a criminal – but in Dylan’s meaning, it does mean you’re an outlaw. You operate in part outside the narrow proscriptions of the law; you find affirmation by others of your actions by grounding them in broader principles.

That’s ultimately what makes others trust you. We live our daily lives by universal principles that others recognize as legitimate as well. We don’t trust people whose ‘ethics’ amount to rote checkbox compliance. We trust those who come from someplace deep, a place where connection to others and relationships with them are bedrock. People who feel their principles and are confident enough in them to re-compute them in every situation, as if for the first time.

If you’re going to live outside the law – and you should – you’d best be honest.

Is Selling Too Hard? Maybe You’re Doing It Wrong

The Financial Trust PuzzleMost salespeople love athletic metaphors. For example, consider these well-known maxims:

  • No pain, no gain
  • The harder you try to hit the ball, the worse you do.

Note – these two platitudes express precisely opposing points of view. So – which is the right answer? Is it effort – or form? Is it grit – or ease?

Many sales pundits will tell you that an essential ingredient in selling—perhaps the essential ingredient—is effort. Gumption, grit, hustle, sweat—whatever the word, the image it conveys is that success in selling is tough. No pain, no gain.

This view posits selling as being like football: the team that exerts the most effort is the team that wins.

And there is a lot of truth in that viewpoint.

But consider another truth. Think about hitting a golf ball. As anyone who’s tried can attest, the quality of your golf shot is in inverse proportion to your effort. That pleasing “thwock” of a well-struck iron almost never comes from trying hard.

Instead, the “trick” in golf is not how hard you swing—it’s how smooth, relaxed, and “at ease” your swing is. If you’re swinging too hard, you’re almost certainly doing it wrong.

And there’s a lot of truth in that viewpoint as well.

But here’s the thing – most dichotomies like this are false. Selling isn’t only like football, or like golf. It’s both – in different ways. But that’s a different article. This article is about just one side—the golf side, if you will, where if you’re working too hard at selling – you’re doing it wrong.

Adam Smith, Competition, and Selling

Blame it on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, if you will. The Scottish moral philosopher and economist famously claimed that by the self-oriented struggling of the butcher and the baker, the “invisible hand” of the market makes itself known by balancing out all for the greater good. Out of individual selfishness grows the maximum collective good.

While Smith has been unfairly characterized as arguing against regulation and in favor of unfettered free markets, there’s no question that his powerful formulation rhymes with competition—individuals seeking their own betterment. Perhaps ever since, business has been full of metaphors from war and sports. And nowhere are those metaphors more prevalent than in sales.

Take just one sport alone: pitch, curve ball, hitting cleanup, bottom of the ninth, pinch hit, get our signals lined up, strike out, bases loaded, don’t swing at the first pitch, home field advantage, double play, we’re on the scoreboard, leaving men on base, pop-up, foul ball, home run hitter, shut-out, and so on.

Here’s the thing about sports metaphors: they’re all about competition. Real Madrid vs. Barca. Yankees vs. Red Sox. All Blacks vs. Wallabies. Seller vs. competitor.

And—most of all—seller vs. buyer.

Selling without Competition

It’s hard for most people to even conceive of selling without that competitive aspect between buyer and seller. Isn’t the point to get the sale? Isn’t closing the end of the sales process? If a competitor got the job, wouldn’t that be a loss? And why would you spend time on a “prospect” if the odds looked too low for a sale?

When we think this way, we spend an awful lot of energy. It’s hard work—particularly because much of it is spent trying to persuade customers to do what we (sellers) want them to do. And getting other people to do what we want them to do is never easy (if you have a teenager and/or a spouse, you know this well).

There is another way. It consists in simply and basically changing the entire approach to selling.

The first approach is the traditional, competitive, zero-sum-thinking, buyer vs. seller—the age-old dance that to this day gives selling a faint (or not-so-faint) bad name. It is one-sided, seller-driven, and greedy.

Social media haven’t made this approach to selling go away—they have empowered it. Just look at your inbox, spam filters, LinkedIn requests, Instagram feeds, Twitter hustles, and pop-up ads on the Internet.

And boy do you have to work hard to sell that way.

The second approach is different. The fundamental distinction is that you’re working with the buyer, not against the buyer. Your interests are 100% aligned, not 63%. If you do business by relentlessly helping your customers do what’s right for them, selling gets remarkably easier.

You don’t have to think about what to share and what not to. You don’t have to control others. You don’t have to white-knuckle meetings and phone calls because there are no bad outcomes.

Selling this way works very well for one fundamental reason: all people (including buyers) want to deal with sellers they can trust—sellers who are honest, forthright, long-term driven, and customer-focused. All people (including buyers) prefer not to deal with sellers who are in it for themselves, and constantly in denial about it.

This is the golf part of selling: the part where if you lighten up, relax the muscles, let it flow, you end up with superior results. And there’s a whole lot of truth to that view. If you’re working too hard, you’re not doing it right.

Integrity: What’s Up With That?

Like trust, integrity is something we all talk about, meaning many different things, but always assuming that everyone else means just what we do.  That leads to some vagueness and confusion. But a careful examination of how we use the words in common language is useful.

Integrity and the Dictionary

Merriam Webster says it’s “the quality of being honest and fair,” and/or “the state of being complete or whole.”

If you’re into derivations of words (as I am), then it’s the second of these definitions that rings true. The root of “integrity” is Latin, integer.  That suggests the heart of the matter (integral), and an entirety. “Integer” also has the sense of a non-fractional number, i.e. whole, not fragmented, complete.

In manufacturing, we have the idea of “surface integrity,” the effect that a machined surface has on the performance of the product in question: integrity here means keeping a package of specified performance levels intact. Similarly, a high-integrity steel beam is one that will not break or otherwise become compromised within certain parameters of stress.

Related also to this theme of wholeness is the idea of transparency, of things being whole, complete, not hidden – in this sense, we have high integrity to the extent we appear the same way to all people. Think of the phrase “two-faced” as an example of someone without integrity. (For a somewhat different and nuanced take on this issue in cyberspace, see @danahboyd on Mark Zuckerberg and multiple online identities).

Sometimes when we say someone has integrity, we mean they act consistently, in accord with principles. We say someone has high integrity when they stick to their guns, even in the face of resistance or difficulty.

Which raises an interesting question: where’s the line between integrity and obstinacy? For that matter, can a politician who believes passionately in the art of compromise ever be considered to have high integrity?

Then there’s that other common use of integrity that has a moral overtone – honorable, honest, upright, virtuous, and decent. Some of it has to do with truth-telling; but some of it has to do with pursuing a moral code.

Yet that raises another interesting question: can a gang member or a mafioso be considered to have integrity? Can an Occupy person ever consider a Wall Streeter to have integrity? Or vice versa? There may be honor among thieves, but can there be integrity?

Integrity – Your Choice?

So which is it?  Does integrity mean you tell the truth? Does it mean you operate from values? Does it mean you always keep your word? Does it mean you live a moral life? Does it mean your life is an open book?

Let’s be clear: there is no “right” answer. Words like “integrity” mean whatever we choose to make them mean; there is no objective “meaning” that exists in a way that can be arbitrated.

But that makes it even more important that we be clear about what we do mean. It just helps in communication.

For my part, I’m going to use “integrity” mainly to mean whole, complete, transparent, evident-to-all, untainted, what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

For other common meanings of “integrity,” I’m going to stick with synonyms like credible or honest; or moral and upright; or consistent.

What do you mean when you think of integrity?

This post first appeared on TrustMatters.

Integrity: What’s Up With That?

 

Integrity, like trust, is something we all talk about, meaning many different things – but always assuming that everyone else means precisely the same that we do.  That leads to vagueness and confusion at best – and angered accusations at worst. Particularly in this time of elections, a careful examination of how we use the words in common language is useful.

Integrity and the Dictionary

Merriam Webster says it’s “the quality of being honest and fair,” and/or “the state of being complete or whole.”

If you’re into derivations of words (as I am), then it’s the second of these definitions that rings true. The root of “integrity” is Latin, integer.  That suggests the heart of the matter (integral), and an entirety. “Integer” also has the sense of a non-fractional number, i.e. whole, not fragmented, complete.

In manufacturing, we have the idea of “surface integrity,” the effect that a machined surface has on the performance of the product in question: integrity here means keeping a package of specified performance levels intact. Similarly, a high-integrity steel beam is one that will not break or otherwise become compromised within certain parameters of stress.

Related also to this theme of wholeness is the idea of transparency, of things being whole, complete, not hidden – in this sense, we have high integrity to the extent we appear the same way to all people. Think of the phrase “two-faced” as an example of someone without integrity. (For a somewhat different and nuanced take on this issue in cyberspace, see @danahboyd on Mark Zuckerberg and multiple online identities).

Sometimes when we say someone has integrity, we mean they act consistently, in accord with principles. We say someone has high integrity when they stick to their guns, even in the face of resistance or difficulty.

Which raises an interesting question: where’s the line between integrity and obstinacy? For that matter, can a politician who believes passionately in the art of compromise ever be considered to have high integrity?

Then there’s that other common use of integrity that has a moral overtone – honorable, honest, upright, virtuous, and decent. Some of it has to do with truth-telling; but some of it has to do with pursuing a moral code.

Yet that raises another interesting question: can a gang member or a mafioso be considered to have integrity? Can an Occupy person ever consider a Wall Streeter to have integrity? Or vice versa? There may be honor among thieves, but can there be integrity?

Integrity – Your Choice?

So which is it?  Does integrity mean you tell the truth? Does it mean you operate from values? Does it mean you always keep your word? Does it mean you live a moral life? Does it mean your life is an open book?

Let’s be clear: there is no “right” answer. Words like “integrity” mean whatever we choose to make them mean; there is no objective “meaning” that exists in a way that can be arbitrated.

But that makes it even more important that we be clear about what we do mean. It just helps in communication.

For my part, I’m going to use “integrity” mainly to mean whole, complete, transparent, evident-to-all, untainted, what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

For other common meanings of “integrity,” I’m going to stick with synonyms like credible or honest; or moral and upright; or consistent.

What do you mean when you think of integrity?

The VW Trust Sinkhole: It’s Worse Than You Think

copyright Nate Osborne 2013A. The Volkswagen Emissions Scandal.

Q. What do you get when you assign German engineering the task of developing a high-performance trust-and-ethics violation?

If you don’t know the basics of the VW emissions scandal, read up on it here. The basics: on the diesel engine models it sent to the EPA for US emissions testing, VW installed software to automatically  reduce emissions, then move back to high performance and high emissions after it was done being tested.

There are lots of issues this scandal raises; for example, the depressing fact that the majority of letters-to-the-editor in the Wall Street Journal regarding the its (excellent) coverage are complaints about the ineptitude of the EPA, rather than the venality of VW.

There are certainly interesting issues about the relative harm caused by this scandal vs. others.  Will more creatures be harmed by 40x stated emissions from 11 million cars than were harmed by the BP spill in the Gulf? Will VW’s 35% hit in the stock market be more expensive than damages caused by the systematic rigging of LIBOR rates? Will the hit to German engineering and branding exceed that to the oil industry of the Exxon Valdez?

Yeah yeah, maybe. But what I want to focus on is the scope and nature of the trust violation that Volkswagen engineered here – and to argue that it’s much worse most other violations, including the LIBOR scandal. Its only close competitor in venality is Enron.

The Scale of the Violation

In in industry that has a history of thumbing its nose at regulation and buying off (aka lobbying) regulatory efforts, this stands out. Software has long been available to tweak performance; but to have a company that aspired to being number one in the world to make it automated enough to install across millions of vehicles, designed specifically to intuit a regulatory testing environment, requires a level of coordination and group effort that goes way beyond an individual.

This was not a case of individual malfeasance with a few willing bad actors, like LIBOR or Bernie Madoff. This was not a case of a series of close calls that went wrong, a la BP or Barings. This, like Enron, was a coordinated case of several people in roles of leadership who clearly knew they were doing something illegal, and were doing it on a large scale.

Winterkorn himself can’t plead technical ignorance, a la Carly Fiorina; unlike her, he was not a marketing guy. In fact, before becoming CEO in 2007, he was the top executive in charge of “technical development,” encompassing engineering and innovation. Clean diesel was a strategic imperative, and something he knew a lot about. Ignorance won’t be easy for him to claim.

The Depth of the Venality

VW management had been denying there was a problem for going on three years. In 2014, VW insisted the disparities were due to technical issues, and renewed the claims as recently as early last month (August).

And that’s not all. Even after coming clean, VW pleaded with regulators to get its 2016 models certified, “claiming it had swelling inventories that it needed to get to showrooms.” Way to show contrition.

That’s not all either. Now-former-CEO Winterkorn finally did the right thing today, September 23, by resigning; why he did not do so immediately on September 18, can only be explained by a view that this scandal is only a PR problem, to be ‘managed’ like any other business issue. Way to show a commitment to ethical behavior.

And that’s not all. VW’s cheating directly contradicted its stated advertising, that “those old diesel realities [stinky, smoky, sluggish] no longer apply.” Way to shoot your strategic message in the foot.

In short: this involved a lot of people, doing a lot of complicated malfeasance, over an extended period of time, denying flatly what were doing, claiming that they were in favor of what they were actually harming, and demonstrating a callous disregard for national governments, their legal regulators, and their used-to-be-brand-loyal customers.

It’s like their famous ad of a few years ago, The Force: except how we find out that we were the kid, and VW management was controlling the engine all along.

 

This seems to me the leading candidate for Worst Trust Fiasco of the Century (so far). Any other nominations?

Lost Wallets, Trust, and Honesty

I lost my wallet.

Somewhere between a golf driving range and a supermarket, in a 30-minute period, it went missing. I turned things upside down, retraced my paths, left notes with wanting-to-be-helpful staff.

I monitored accounts for three days; no bank charges, no credit card hits, so I held off canceling the cards, calling the DMV etc. I shudder at the thought of replacing it all.

At dinner on day three, the sheriff’s department calls; I meet the officer at a gas station. All the cards are there, as well as the original $140 in cash intact. He says, “Good thing you left your number at the driving range, that made it easy to confirm it was you.”

I say, “I know you can’t take a reward, but how about the guy who turned it in?” The cop says, “That’s between you and him; here’s his name and phone number.”

I meet the good samaritan the next day – let’s call him Ishmael. Why did Ishmael do it? He gave the Kantian reason; “If it was me, I’d hope someone would turn it in.” I offer him $100 reward; he demurs; I insist; he graciously accepts.

But my big question: why did he wait three days? Had it laid unfound for so long? Was it a struggle with his own conscience?  Enquiring minds wanted to know.

His answer: “I didn’t feel right turning it in to the proprietor at the driving range; I guess I just didn’t know if I could trust him. I meant to call the police, but I worked late the next day, and wasn’t sure who to call at the police. But my girlfriend, she cleans houses; one of her clients is a cop. She asked him who to contact, and he said, ‘call this number.’ So she gave it to me, and I called, and now you have your wallet. I’m glad.”

Whom Can You Trust?

Clearly, Ishmael turned out to be highly trustworthy. But let’s note a few other trust decisions along the way.

Ishmael trusted a cop – note he didn’t trust ’the cops,’ but he did trust one cop. He trusted his girlfriend’s due diligence to find out which one. I wonder how Ishmael would answer an Edelman Trust Barometer survey asking if he trusted the police?

Ishmael didn’t trust the driving range proprietor. I initially didn’t either, though I met a second driving range employee on day two whom I trusted more.

The police didn’t have to trust anyone in this case. Their role was limited to being trustworthy – or not. In this case, they were. One cop gave a correct phone number; the other responded. He checked out the information, made the phone calls, and most obviously the wallet didn’t ‘disappear’ while in his custody. I would add he was pleasant, and also expressed the Kantian view when I apologized for keeping him waiting a bit – “Hey, no worries, I know how worried I’d be if it was my wallet.”

What about the bank? I trusted the bank’s systems in two ways. First, I trusted that any use of my debit or credit cards or withdrawal from my checking account would show up quickly, and I’d find out about it online.

But second, I ‘trusted’ that the bank wouldn’t trust me very far – at the first hint of a suspicious charge, or at my first suggestion of it, I knew the bank would drop the iron curtain on all my accounts. (US laws limit the liability of individuals in such cases, so banks will pull the trigger quickly on a false positive). So, I could afford to wait a bit.

And, I had some sort of trust in Ishmael – without even knowing who he was, or even that he existed. The clue was the lack of activity in my accounts. I figured either the wallet was still in my possession, or it had been stripped of cash by an addict and dumped (or, by a Kantian addict who had then put the cashless wallet in the mail – hey it used to happen that way in the 70s with cabdriver theft in NY).

Or, there was some Ishmael out there. But what was he waiting for? I confess I didn’t have an answer to that.

Past Lost Wallets

There is a pattern here.  Actually, two patterns. One is that clearly I have an issue with losing things. I’ve lost my wallet once before, in Copenhagen.  I’ve also managed to leave my MacBook Air computer on the plane – not just once, but twice.  The first was at O’Hare; the second, in Charlotte.

So yes, clearly I’ve got an issue with carelessness. But there are other things to note here as well, even though this is all anecdotal.

In the first wallet case, it was returned within the hour by a taxi driver. This was calmly and confidently predicted, both by my client and by the hotel; it’s the norm in Denmark, not even worth commenting on, they said. But you know, I’ve heard many stories about the same even in New York.

And in the airline cases, it all came down to individuals, taking personal responsibility far outside the system.

How Can We Trust Institutions?

The quick answer is, institutional trust is by its nature shallow. I can trust Chase bank’s systems (or not), but if I need something truly out of the ordinary, I’d better find a real person. Trust of the type that returns wallets is an individual thing – or, as the case of Denmark points out, a cultural thing.

It is a kind of misnomer to use the word ‘trust’ in the sense of ‘I trust an institution.’ But that doesn’t mean institutions have no role in trust. They have a huge role. The role is to establish an environment within which people can behave in trusting and trustworthy manners.

That is non-trivial. In fact, it’s vital. An organization that fosters bureaucracy, suspicion, and conformity is not going to attract, and certainly not sustain, trust-operating people.  By contrast, an organization that celebrates trusting and being trusted among its people will greatly influence the amount of trust that is created.

And our job, as we go about our daily lives, is to be open about when other people might surprise us – and, hopefully, to do the Kantian thing ourselves when the opportunity presents.

 

Integrity: What’s Up With That?

Can You Roll The Dice On IntegrityLike trust, integrity is something we all talk about, meaning many different things, but always assuming that everyone else means just what we do.  That leads to some vagueness and confusion. But a careful examination of how we use the words in common language is useful.

Integrity and the Dictionary

Merriam Webster says it’s “the quality of being honest and fair,” and/or “the state of being complete or whole.”

If you’re into derivations of words (as I am), then it’s the second of these definitions that rings true. The root of “integrity” is Latin, integer.  That suggests the heart of the matter (integral), and an entirety. “Integer” also has the sense of a non-fractional number, i.e. whole, not fragmented, complete.

In manufacturing, we have the idea of “surface integrity,” the effect that a machined surface has on the performance of the product in question: integrity here means keeping a package of specified performance levels intact. Similarly, a high-integrity steel beam is one that will not break or otherwise become compromised within certain parameters of stress.

Related also to this theme of wholeness is the idea of transparency, of things being whole, complete, not hidden – in this sense, we have high integrity to the extent we appear the same way to all people. Think of the phrase “two-faced” as an example of someone without integrity. (For a somewhat different and nuanced take on this issue in cyberspace, see @danahboyd on Mark Zuckerberg and multiple online identities).

Sometimes when we say someone has integrity, we mean they act consistently, in accord with principles. We say someone has high integrity when they stick to their guns, even in the face of resistance or difficulty.

Which raises an interesting question: where’s the line between integrity and obstinacy? For that matter, can a politician who believes passionately in the art of compromise ever be considered to have high integrity?

Then there’s that other common use of integrity that has a moral overtone – honorable, honest, upright, virtuous, and decent. Some of it has to do with truth-telling; but some of it has to do with pursuing a moral code.

Yet that raises another interesting question: can a gang member or a mafioso be considered to have integrity? Can an Occupy person ever consider a Wall Streeter to have integrity? Or vice versa? There may be honor among thieves, but can there be integrity?

Integrity – Your Choice?

So which is it?  Does integrity mean you tell the truth? Does it mean you operate from values? Does it mean you always keep your word? Does it mean you live a moral life? Does it mean your life is an open book?

Let’s be clear: there is no “right” answer. Words like “integrity” mean whatever we choose to make them mean; there is no objective “meaning” that exists in a way that can be arbitrated.

But that makes it even more important that we be clear about what we do mean. It just helps in communication.

For my part, I’m going to use “integrity” mainly to mean whole, complete, transparent, evident-to-all, untainted, what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

For other common meanings of “integrity,” I’m going to stick with synonyms like credible or honest; or moral and upright; or consistent.

What do you mean when you think of integrity?