Integrity in Organisations

We often talk about — or hear about — companies and leaders and integrity.  Integrity is frequently defined as “acting in accord with high moral values” or the like.  I prefer a completely different definition which often has the same effect.  I prefer to speak of integrity as wholeness.

In this article, I will focus on wholeness of communities — particularly work communities, particularly businesses.  I have written elsewhere on the DecisionLab blog about personal integrity, and can also recommend the work of my mentors Drs. Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks ( on the subject.

Organisational integrity is, as I said, all about wholeness.  We can borrow a definition from physics — the definition of coherence — to define wholeness in a living system: Wholeness is the property of non-destructive interference between elements of the system and between the system and its environment.

Let’s unpack those words with examples.  Interference, in a business context, is simply interaction — talking, trading, directing.  The popular and business media are full of examples of destructive interference — from oil spills to failed mergers to management-labour disputes.  Non-destructive interference means collaboration, where teams, businesses, communities and ecosystems produce more value for each than they would be able to produce on their own.  Integrity does not come from “leaving well enough alone”; you must connect in order to be whole.

Cybernetics looks at the relations between parts of a system as feedback loops — flows of information, also known as influence, from one part of the system to another. The wholeness of a system, the non-destructive interference between all its parts and its environment, can be seen as a web of feedback loops that ensure information (value, influence) from any part of the system can easily and quickly reach any other part of the system.

In practice, these feedback loops are often blocked, distorted, incomplete.  One part of the organisation fails to talk to another.  Instructions are incomplete; feedback is ignored.  Changes in the environment (customers, regulators, suppliers, ecology) aren’t acknowledged in the Boardroom or the shop floor.  Promises made in one place aren’t kept in another.  Parts of the system are disconnected.  Or destructive interference emerges, drama escalates, and political factions go to war with one another.

To maintain the smooth flow of information, creativity and power throughout the organisation, we need to develop four key ways of organising our selves.  These skills are the core skills of personal and organisational learning, and correspond to the four segments of the learning cycle:

Stage 1: Discover / Observe
We must learn to give appreciative awareness to changing and challenging circumstances, in order to stay in touch with what is new.

Stage 2: Dream / Orient
We must learn to speak honestly and listen for others’ truth, to resonate with our environment, integrate our perspectives, and connect with what the system wants next.

Stage 3: Design / Decide
We must learn to invent new ways of creating what we want (rather than blaming ourselves or our environment for what hasn’t worked, and escalating the drama).

Stage 4: Do / Act
We must learn to complete what we promise, either by getting it done efficiently or by changing our agreements so they match what we want and what works.

These skills are essential, and they enable the core processes of organisational integrity — organisatonal learning.  Every kind of living system relies on three kinds of wholeness, however: structural, relational, and processual.  These correspond to the definition of a living system that Fritjof Capra offered in his book The Web of Life (which I paraphrase here): a living system is a dissipative structure, organised in an autopoietic network, engaged in an ongoing process of learning.  To ensure the wholeness of our living community, we must also look at structure and relationships as well as process.

Three organising principles suffice to ensure structural integrity of the organisation:
1) the organisation is made up of “circles”, teams which each organise themselves to accomplish a shared aim of delivering value to their environment in exchange for what they need;
2) each circle makes the rules (“policy”) by which it will operate through “sociocratic consent”, a particular participatory decision-making method, and then follows those rules (whatever they may be) to accomplish their work.  [All high-performing teams decide together through some consensus process what they will work on and how; the sociocratic consent process is just one proven way to accomplish this consistently]. Each policy is a scientific experiment, with a particular theory about the expected successful outcome, and a time at which to review results and make another experiment (with new policy) as appropriate;
3) each circle is linked to the other circles of the organisation via a double-link, one a manager delegated down from above and the other a representative elected up from below; the representative is always elected by consent during a circle meeting.

The participation of both up- and down-links in the consent-based circle meetings ensures that the entire organisation is woven together in a web of feedback loops, and that people cannot ignore the influence carried by these loops.  Links to the environment are integrated in the system both through measuring connections to the environment through things like sales, and by bringing some representatives of the organisation’s environment onto the Board (the top circle).

Lastly, the pattern of relationships in an organisation is key to the maintenance of wholeness.  Living systems are “autopoietic networks”, which means that each part of the network makes another part, and thus they form (and reproduce) themselves.  Human communities throughout history have raised, trained, and initiated their members.  This process breaks down when members are not supported by their colleagues to develop in skill and wisdom, when there aren’t “mentoring tracks”, when the organisation cannot launch entrepreneurial ventures internally and instead can only buy them in.  Each circle must be able to support the development of its members, and the organisation as a whole must be able to easily launch circles with entrepreneurial aims, and support them to mature engagement with the enterprise as a whole.

When organisations have integrity, the people in them prosper, and the organisations themselves become rich in well-being, rich in material wealth, physically secure, agile in responding to opportunities and resilient in the face of harm.  Every code of morals describes what person or an organisation with integrity does in certain circumstances.  Morals are a visible product of integrity, not its source.  When we are smoothly integrated with one another and with our environment, creatively and dynamically engaged, what Buddhists call “right action” emerges without struggle as the most expedient path to our goal.

Posted: June 3rd, 2011 | Author: nate | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off

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