Integrity: one value that organizations shouldn't claim

Enron claimed it. Washington Mutual, known today for one of the largest bank failures in American history, also claimed it. And so do many other companies looking to champion their vision and values to employees, shareholders and prospective clients.

As writers and strategists know, not all words are equal. There’s a continuous effort to find new and better ways to articulate ideas. But all this work to differentiate can lead to the homogenization of uniqueness – or more plainly stated, when the efforts to be different result in greater similarity.

Enter integrity – a word that has been elevated to the highest moral ground above terms such as trustworthy, honesty and fairness. It has become a bellwether descriptor – stoking the insatiable desire to be atop the mountain, to exclaim superiority. When a bronze, silver or gold standard isn’t good enough, a platinum or titanium standard gets ushered in. It seems integrity represents the shiny new thing of values quite well.

But when an organization proclaims its integrity and “firm adherence to a code of moral or artistic values” (Merriam-Webster), it should acknowledge it's rolling the reputational dice, especially when adherence is the job of imperfect people. Leaders would be wise to recognize the obvious: mistakes will happen and poor judgment will occur. The more people an organization employs, the more that “firm adherence” becomes a fanciful vision instead of the one that was mapped out. A definitive stance of integrity also can put leadership in a difficult position when dark clouds appear.

This doesn’t mean the tenets of integrity should be overlooked or neglected. Rather, organizations would be better served by aspiring to be recognized as possessing integrity instead of touting it as a self-anointed badge of honor. It needs to be earned daily.

Integrity means something when it is bestowed upon individuals or organizations by others. Only then does it carry real weight as intended.

That’s the irony with integrity: those that truly have it are often the ones that are least likely to claim it.

And perhaps that’s the real takeaway – to place greater value on humility and selflessness more than the chest beating and fist pumping that we have been conditioned to perform.

Is your organization articulating a set of values that is aspirational? How is it helping the entire team uphold what it stands for with confidence rather than false hubris? Share your thoughts and subtleties with us as we strive to not only say the right things, but also follow through with consistent behaviors knowing that, occasionally, bad things happen to good organizations.