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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?

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?

How the Mortgage Crisis Made Us Immoral

If you own a house and I’m your neighbor, I’ll respect your property rights. It’s just the right thing to do. (Though if there’s a fire at my place, I might break in to borrow your fire extinguisher).

If you live in a nice neighborhood, you have little to fear from the more modest parts of town. (Though if your neighborhood doubles its average income, and the modest part of town doubles its unemployment rate, and you start putting gates around your community—well, you might be a little more fearful).

Which leads us to this US headline from Fannie Mae’s Quarter 1 National Housing Survey:

“Nearly twice as many Underwater Borrowers (27%) think it is okay to walk away from a mortgage if they face financial distress than in January 2010.”

Is this a moral issue? What does it mean that the frequency of the opinion has changed? That it has doubled in a year?

Economics and Morality

Most people still think it’s immoral to walk away from a debt. But those who think otherwise—that defaulting on a payment to a nameless morass of long-since-tranched, securitized asset-owners is as amoral as it gets—have grown by 100% in just over a year.

That’s pretty high growth for the amoral team.

It’s one thing to say that morality should have nothing to do with economics. And indeed, the sense of honor and justice and trust that underpins most moral behavior is socially useful. If we all acted solely in our immediate self-interest in every situation, the world would be a greedy, dangerous, Hobbesian mess.

At the same time, economic disparity writ large spells social unrest. In Greece, they riot in the streets. In Rio de Janeiro, they have a street crime problem.

In the US, we are witnessing a small version of things. People who used to feel a moral obligation to repay a debt are saying to themselves, “Heck, the big guys and companies do this all the time—if things aren’t working out, they just default, take the insurance payment, write it off, whatever. There’s nothing moral or immoral about it—it’s just dumb to do otherwise.”

Economics Can Wear Down Morality

You may think that honoring your debt is a moral issue. You may think it’s not. What’s clear, though, is that the ratio of those two views is being driven by economic changes.

The credit ratings services will take note of this, calling it a likely increase in the default rate, and a cause for downgrading securities.

But the people on the street—in both the nice and the modest neighborhoods—will experience it as a moral casualty of the economy.

It’s just one more area of human relations that will no longer be governed by the rules of “rightness,” but rather by the least common denominator, Darwinian terms of the marketplace.

And that’s not a change to be happy about.

David Gebler on Ethics in Business (Trust Quotes #10)

David Gebler is a thought leader, speaker and seminar leader on the subject of ethics in business. Trained as a lawyer, David is a Senior Lecturer at Suffolk University where he teaches Business Ethics and sits on the International Advisory Board of the Graduate Program in Ethics and Public Policy; he is also a principal at Skout Group, a firm focused on culture change.

With globally significant public and private sector clients on his resume, David brings a broad perspective to questions of ethics in organizations.

CHG: David, thanks for joining us here. Tell me, why is it so hard for companies to get their heads around thinking about ethics?

DG: While ethics issues are of critical importance to organizations today, “ethics” as a business function is perceived as quite amorphous and hard to define. In many organizations ethics is synonymous with “compliance,” narrowing the focus to ensuring adherence to stated standards of conduct. In other organizations “ethics” is treated as a vague platitude without clarity as to how it drives behavior.

CHG: You told me once there were three approaches to business ethics: behavioral, philosophical, and legal. Can you briefly explain what those categories mean?

DG: Philosophical business ethics focuses heavily on the intention of one’s actions. Aristotle wrestles with character and virtue, while Kant is unequivocal in the need to always do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. A theoretical look at intent is often irrelevant to business which is more focused on employees’ actual behavior.

American businesses often look at ethics through the lens of compliance. “Doing the right thing” only means observing the law and the company’s code of conduct. However, there may be conflicting “right things” about which employees need guidance.

Behavioral ethics draws from social psychology and looks at what motivates behavior and what an organization can do to remove roadblocks to employees being honest.

CHG: You have come to view ethics in business as largely a function of corporate culture; you looked at the top 20% and the bottom 20% of companies in an ethical cultural study—what did you find?

DG: Most employees have a good sense of their moral values and actively seek to live those values at work. Ethics risk emerges most often when employees face pressures and external influences that drive them to do things they regret.

If an organization surveys employees only to find out if they know what they should do (i.e. the top 20% knows there is a code of conduct and a helpline), they may be missing key data on whether employees would even raise an issue if it arose.

I worked with a large global company that asked me to conduct focus groups with divisions in the top 20% and bottom 20% based on results of an ethics survey. In meeting with employees at one of the top 20% divisions, it was true that when I asked if they would report misconduct everyone said yes (i.e. top 20%).

However, my very next question was “If you found out early in the quarter that you were not going to meet your plan, would you report that to your boss?” And no one said yes. Doing such a thing would be a “CLM” (Career Limiting Move). Open communications and a willingness to raise difficult issues are more critical ethics determinants than knowing whether there is a helpline.

CHG: What kinds of culture, then, are associated with high ethical behaviors? And what can a serious manager do about it?

DG: There are several common traits of ethical cultures:

1) Open communication and respect – employees at all levels feel that they are spoken to truthfully and are respected as people.

2) Personal responsibility and a sense of control – employees are held accountable for their actions and their commitments to others and are engaged in tasks that matter.

CHG: I was surprised to hear you cite the Federal Sentencing Guidelines as a key source for investigating ethics in business. Can you say more?

DG: While business ethics and ethical companies have been around for many, many years, the focus in the US began in earnest in the 1990’s. As a result of the defense industry scandals in the 1980’s, the US Sentencing Commission developed guidelines for corporations to avoid criminal liability if they put into place an effective compliance program. These guidelines have become best practices for US companies. In 2004, as a result of the Enron legacy of scandals, the Guidelines were revised to add language focusing on ethics and organizational culture.

CHG: You mentioned that you were struck by the lack of remorse in post-financial melt down financial industry executives. Say more?

DG: The bottom line is that today’s financial market is only a numbers game. Concepts such as the fiduciary responsibility of one party to another have been lost. While leaders talk about the need for trust to grease the wheels of capitalism, there is very little of it in the system today.

CHG: What’s the difference between ethics and morals?

DG:  Social psychologists have long told us that behavior is a function of the person and their environment. Morals address one’s character, the person. Ethics addresses the ethos, the environment in which we make decisions.

CHG: I was shocked when you first told me, “In my 15 years of work, only one client once asked, "How do we define the right thing?"  So business ethics is largely about how do you get people to concur with what the agreed upon guidelines are.”

DG:  Many companies use the “newspaper test” as a decision-making model. How would you feel if your actions were reported on the home page of cnn.com? While we have a societal set of standards, there are often tough issues that pit right vs. right. Superficial guidelines of being honest may not be enough. For example, every company takes certain risks, even with quality and safety. What guidance do leaders have to know what is “reasonably” safe enough to go to market with a product?

CHG: What’s the difference between ethics and compliance? And does anyone care about the former?

DG: Compliance is the adherence to prescribed standards of behavior. Compliance training educates people on what behavior is expected of them.

Ethics is the determination of whether people will engage in the desired behavior and what should be done to encourage people to do things they know they should do, but often don’t.

CHG: Here’s a biggie for mid-level people in a number of my clients; what should an individual mid-level manager do in the face of what they perceive as “tough” behavior by their superiors, i.e. the “career-limiting move” of speaking out about things?

DG: When faced with a tough situation, managers often look at the issue as being black or white: “Do I do what’s expected of me or do I do what’s right?” Effective use of ethics would be to see whether the issue can be reframed so that it’s not so drastic a choice. Managers in tough spots need not be heroes, but they do need to be savvy:

  • Who else can I bring into this situation to guide me?
  • Who else in the organization would support me in doing the right thing?
  • How can I have a conversation with the person who is forcing me into this situation? Perhaps there is a “third-way” I haven’t thought of.

CHG: What seems to be the American take on ethics in business?

DG:  Americans are unique. We combine a rules-based culture (ever seen the NFL Rule Book?) with a cowboy heritage of heroes and independence. Americans are very results-oriented and in general, are less focused on how we got the results than are other more social cultures.

Therefore, I find that American business leaders are more interested in ethics when they can see that being ethical helps the bottom line: less time and money spent on investigations and fines, and more time spent by engaged employees doing productive work.

CHG: Doesn’t that create a tension—justification of ethics by subordinating it to the bottom line? Or are you saying it’s not so much about particular actions as it is about a culture—creating an ethical environment, which in turn tends to be more profitable?

DG: Let me give you an example from today’s headlines. Toyota shouldn’t be forced to make a trade off between safety and profit. Both are necessary because each one supports the other. Toyota’s brand is based on safety. It won’t sustain its profitability if its products aren’t safe. Similarly, safety has to be addressed in the context of products consumers can afford. We are willing to accept some degree of risk.

Ethics comes in to guide how Toyota balances these two objectives. In leading up to the recent scandal key questions must be answered: Who had information but didn’t report it up to senior leadership? Why not? Which stakeholders, internal and external, were not included in the decision-making process?

This is number 10 in the Trust Quotes series.

The entire series can be found at: http://trustedadvisor.com/trustmatters.trustQuotes

Recent posts in this series include:
Trust Quotes #9: Chris Brogan
Trust Quotes #8: LJ Rittenhouse
Trust Quotes #7: David Maister

The Difference Between Wrong and Illegal

Do you know the difference between a wrong action and an illegal action? If you don’t, you are not alone. But neither are you to be trusted. 

The Valukas Report

The Valukas Report was commissioned by a US court to determine the causes of Lehman’s bankruptcy. Made public last week, it has caused a bit of stir in certain quarters—including Wall Street, lawyers and accountants.

In a nutshell, the report accuses Lehman of using an accounting technique (called Repo 105) to temporarily move assets off its balance sheet just before quarter’s end, in order to show lower leverage ratios, then moving the assets back on-balance-sheet shortly after the end of the quarter. See details here.

The auditors of Lehman Brothers were Ernst & Young. Lehman’s source of legal advice for the Repo 105 tactic was the venerable British law firm Linklaters. Both are critized in the Valukas report.

The Financial Times headlined the story thusly: "Damning Insight into Corporate Culture Sheds Light on Fall of a Wall Street Giant." The story quotes one ‘senior Wall Street executive’ as saying, "I almost threw up when I read the report; it makes me sick of this industry."

Let’s stipulate that this is the language of “wrong,” at least for Valukas, the Financial Times, and one Wall Street executive. What should be the response of the various parties?

Responses to Charges of Wrong Doing

Let’s start with Dick Fuld, Lehman’s former CEO. His lawyer is quoted as saying

Mr Fuld did not know what those transactions were – he didn’t structure or negotiate them, nor was he aware of their accounting treatment. Furthermore, the evidence available to the Examiner shows that the Repo 105 transactions were done in accordance with an internal accounting policy, supported by legal opinions and approved by Ernst & Young, Lehman’s independent outside auditor.

And what does auditor Ernst & Young have to say

Last week, the group defended its signing-off of Lehman’s 2007 accounts and maintained the books were "fairly presented in accordance with [US] generally accepted accounting principles."

The Valukas report also criticized Linklaters, saying that “Lehman’s … turned to Linklaters for a legal opinion blessing the use of so-called "Repo 105" transactions when it could not obtain a suitable opinion from US lawyers.”

Here’s what Linklaters has to say

"The examiner’s report into the failure of Lehman Brothers includes references to English law opinions which Linklaters gave in relation to a number of Lehman transactions. The examiner . . . does not criticise those opinions or say or suggest that they were wrong or improper. We have reviewed the opinions and are not aware of any facts or circumstances which would justify any criticism."

Wrong is from Mars, Illegal is from Venus

Pick your own planetary metaphor: the point is that “wrong” is a moral concept, “illegal” is a legal concept–and key players in our global economy have come to brazenly deny the distinction.

The Valukas report resonates as a moral indictment. But the responses are from Planet Law.

When the charge of “wrong” is routinely answered by “it’s not illegal”—and we accept it–it means something is seriously wrong with our moral culture.   

The Financial Times blames the “US box-ticking culture.” 

It is far easier for an accountancy firm to retain a lucrative relationship with its clients if it does not sit in judgment on their activities, but simply adheres to a set of blind rules. Auditors can more easily defend lawsuits when things do go wrong if a rule book can be appealed to. But this is precisely why the whole system is so frustrating from the investors’ perspective. The more rule-driven auditors are, the less valuable their work is as due diligence.

Jim Peterson, a noted accounting commentator, talks about the failure of the massive Sarbanes/Oxley legislation to prevent just this moral meltdown:

A program of airport security will lack credibility, if so broadly applied as to deprive ordinary citizens of their ability to carry a bottle of wine or a tube of toothpaste, but that fails to identify terrorists whose deadly threat is limited only by their inept inability to detonate their shoes or their underwear.

Sarbanes/Oxley suffers the same defect: if it could not detect and deter an “outlier” on the scale of Lehman, then what beneficial effect can its proponents claim it has accomplished, by imposing an intrusive system of box-ticking on the vast bulk of corporate registrants?

Some recommend changing regulations.  Others suggest structural changes.  Still others recommend more enforcement.  But all these solutions have limitations; in particular, they are trying to solve a moral problem with more laws.  But this only exacerbates the issue.

You can’t solve a moral dilemma with more laws. There will always be a Dick Fuld, or a Lehman, willing to push beyond moral boundaries using absence-of-illegal as a sleight of hand.  It’s up to us to call them on it.

NYTimes columnist, David Brooks, is right in saying, “The only way to restore trust is from the local community on up.”  It starts with people explaining to politicians, lawyers, newspaper editors and managers that just because it isn’t illegal, doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong.

Get mad: but get morally, not legally, mad. 

 
 

 

The Lady or the… A Values Quiz

This is a values quiz.

It’s based on a story.

Here is the story as it was told to me:

A Lady and a Man, very much in love, were separated by a river deep and wide. They longed to be together, but didn’t have a way to get across.

One day a Boatman came by and offered to take the Lady across the river. He could see how much she wanted to go, however, and named a very high price, more than his usual rate. Alas, she didn’t have enough to pay the Boatman, and still couldn’t see a way to get to the Man she loved.

About the same time, a Stranger walked by. He saw the beautiful Lady and offered her a large sum of money in exchange for sex with him. She agreed, and got the money to pay the Boatman and join her lover across the river.

The Man was overjoyed to see his darling, until a Friend told him what she had done to get the money for the Boatman. Then his joy turned to outrage, and he told the Lady he never wanted to see her again. What’s the moral of this story?

It depends on your values.

STOP READING HERE.

You can make a case that every character in the story behaved more or less badly. In what order would you put these people, from best behavior (or least bad) to worst behavior?

Really. Take out a pencil and rank them.

Done ranking?

OK, THEN, NOW READ ON.

I mentioned this is a values quiz. These are the values assigned to each of our characters:

Lady = LOVE

Man = MORALITY

Boatman = BUSINESS

Stranger = SEX

Friend = FRIENDSHIP

Next to your written rank order, write in the value assigned to each character.

What was the order in which you ranked these values?

My Ranking

At the high end, I said Stranger, then Boatman. After all, they were just getting what they wanted in pretty straightforward transactions.

Next rung down I put the Lady – a bit of a dope, but she was also going after what she wanted.

Lower down I put the Friend – what business was it of hers to tell the Man about the Lady’s infidelity?

And on the very, very bottom rung, I put the Man. He did nothing to change their plight, and when the Lady took action, all he could do was act priggish in response.

Your Ranking

I feel pretty passionate about my array, and my reasons for putting each character where I did. My ranking seems very right– to me. But you probably feel as strongly for your array and your own reasons.

Try this with a few friends or colleagues. You may be surprised at the way different people think.

What’s It Mean?

We’ve already seen the primary meaning—we are all indignantly and equally sure of the rightness of our own perspectives. Therefore, either most of us are wrong–or there is no unanimity of moral views in the world.

There is another, more speculative meaning: that our rankings roughly correspond to our value systems. And there’s no right or wrong to that.

For my part, yes it does mean I value sex and business over love and morality, especially conventional morality. I know what that means to me. I don’t know what it means to you–nor do you know what it means to me.

Discovering what each means to the other is very much about learning to trust.