What is Integrity? Beyond “I’ll Know It When I See It”

20140821_143302By Linda Fisher Thornton

During the recent 2014 NeuroLeadership Summit, Jamil Zaki (an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford) talked about an interesting experiment the Stanford Neuroscience Lab did. The team took a large number of Fortune 100 statements of company values and generated a word cloud from them to see which word would appear most often. Which word was it? Integrity was the most frequently used word. This experiment reveals a general agreement that integrity is important, but what exactly does it mean? People may understand it in very different ways.

The word integrity evolved from the Latin adjective integer, meaning whole or complete.[3] In this context, integrity is the inner sense of “wholeness” deriving from qualities such as honesty and consistency of character. As such, one may judge that others “have integrity” to the extent that they act according to the values, beliefs and principles they claim to hold.

Wikipedia, Definition of Integrity

Following this definition, integrity is the alignment of our thoughts, actions and words with our personal values.  The tricky thing about integrity in organizations is that integrity is partly internal (what we think) and partly external (what we say and do).

When we demonstrate integrity, what we think, say and do are all aligned. But aligned with what?

I think that something that many organizations include in the concept of “integrity” is good moral character. People with good character would be morally aware and ethically competent. This leads me to ask some important questions:

Do your leaders know which values you want them to act on when they “Use the highest integrity in all that they do?”

Do they know what those values look like?

Do they know how to honor them while balancing the needs of multiple stakeholders?

Without clarity about the ethical values we should honor in our work, integrity is individually interpreted, based on the personal values of each leader. To help them lead ethically at a high level, though, we need to answer a deeper question  – “Which ethical values should we uphold in what we think, say and do?”

Are your leaders crystal clear about which ethical values are most important to your organization?

If your leaders are all perfectly clear about which high level ethical values to uphold and how to demonstrate them, you are probably incorporating complexity into your leadership development. You are also probably providing leaders with the level of detail about ethical values that they need to navigate through information overload, constant change and demands from multiple stakeholders. If not, you may be rolling the dice by taking an “I’ll know it when I see it” approach to ethics.

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For more, see 7 Lenses  and the related 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses
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  1. Scott, well said. The words we use to describe ethics mean so many things to different people. I am fascinated by trying to peel away the layers of those meanings, having studied Linguistics and Communications as an undergrad. Thanks for your words of support!


  2. Indeed. Trust, integrity, respect, and ethics are integrally linked. But why does it take Stanford research to validate what we already know? Perhaps one of the answers is that the foundational element of “integrity” (among others) confounds academe as readily as anyone else.

    Keep up the great work, Linda.


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