Revisiting Integrity: Why Do All Human Systems Lack Integrity?

Setting the context for this conversation

In an earlier post, I wrote:

When you take a look at the system that generates outcomes you will find that all human systems lack integrity; at the level of the person, the family, the organisation, the community, the nation and even the world what there is is the lack of integrity.

James Lawther upon reading the post commented:

Sorry Maz, I don’t understand. Why do all human systems lack integrity?

In this post, I honour the promise I made: to think on the matter and share that which has showed up for me. Before we start I am compelled to warn you that this is a long conversation and you will only get value out of it if you really are interested in grappling with the question of integrity.  Let’s start.

First, let’s be clear on ‘integrity’

In order to speak about and grapple with the phenomena of integrity it is essential to be clear on what it is that I am pointing at when I speak ‘integrity’. When I speak ‘integrity’ I am not talking about ‘integrity as morality’: the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles/practices.  So what is this conversation about?

It is about integrity as the condition/state of being whole, complete, cohesive, unified’. Let’s be clear on this:

  • If I promise ‘To come over to your house and smash your car with sledgehammer” and I turn up at your house and do exactly that then  my actions are in a state of integrity with my words;
  • If you gathered together all the parts that constitute a car and throw them together without ensuring that they interconnect with one another and are in tune with one another then the car is not in a state of integrity – it may work yet it is highly unlikely that the car will generate high performance, it is highly likely that it will fail far short of the ‘ultimate driving machine’.

Second, let’s consider the phenomena

Now look into your lived experience devoid of theory-opinion-dogma and ask yourself if the individual human being shows up as being in a state of integrity?  What about the family – is there a state of integrity operative at the level of family?  The organisation – is there a state of integrity operative here? The community? The nation?

Is there a state of wholeness-completeness at the level of the individual human being? Sure? Ask yourself if the values you profess are the values that you embody-live?  What about the family, is there wholeness there?  Ask yourself how many families work well? In how many families is there respect, consideration, love and communication?  How many families are happy families?  At the organisational level ask yourself how well management and the workers work together?  How about the interplay between the front office and the back office?  What about the fit between the talk (espoused values) and that which is in play on a day to day basis (lived values)?

If after this you are still convinced that integrity (whole-complete-unified) is the default condition then take a look at the education system, the healthcare system, the financial system, the legal system, the political system.  How well are these working in your country?

Having so looked at the phenomena – ‘that which is as it is and is not’ – I am clear that the default condition of ALL human systems is a lack of integrity.  If you disagree then I ask you to consider

What is the explanation for the pervasive lack of integrity in human systems?

Let me say that I do not have the one answer to this question.  And that which I share here is simply my thinking on what may be the threads of an explanation.

1. Design of the human-being at the level of the system

It occurs to me that at the level of the design of the system that we call ‘human being’ there is a lack of integrity.  Rather than there being one unified self it appears that there are a multiplicity of competing selves.  Do you find yourself doubting my assertion?

Look at the phenomena. What do you see?  Do you see that there is a self that is keen to be slim. And there is the self that loves all the ‘wrong foods’ from a ‘being slim’ perspective.  What about the  self that wishes to be athletic and gets the value of exercising. And then there is the self that is addicted to being comfortable, sat on the sofa watching tv for hours.  Is there not a self that yearns to speak its truth. And then there is the self that ensures that only that which is politically acceptable is spoken…..

Yet this is not an excuse and not the whole picture. After all we are not designed to fly and yet do so safely, through the inventions and practices of aviation. So let’s continue the exploration and ask ourselves why it is that we have not put in place practices that call forth integrity.

2. Not being present to the importance of integrity and the impact of being out of integrity

“Our way of being and our actions are a correlate of the way in which the circumstances we are dealing with occur (show up) for us”.

– Werner Erhard

Do you/i/we truly get (at the experiential level not the cognitive level) the value of operating in a state of integrity and the impact of lapses in integrity?  It occurs to me that the answer for most of us – as expressed through our living – is that we are blind to the true impact of violations of integrity. This became clear to me on a driving awareness course.

All of us on this course were on the course because we had been caught breaking the speed limit.  Did any of us feel guilty?  No. Why? For my part, I found myself feeling sorry for myself and blaming the police for focussing on folks like me rather than the proper villains. Why? Because I had been only doing 36mph in a 30mph zone: “What’s the big deal! What difference does 6mph make?”  

The turning point came when I learned the impact of that extra 6mph. That 6mph is the difference between life and death. Turns out even an extra 3mph is the difference between a pedestrian walking away relatively unharmed and spending the rest of his life badly damaged.  To bring the point home, in the only way it can home, we were shown a film showing the human impact of speeding. This had such an impact on me that I left this course with the commitment to drive safely and that is what I do. If I catch myself exceeding the speed limit, guilt is present, and the presence of this guilt is enough to get me mindful and respectful of the speed limit.

We assume that it makes no difference if we turn up five minutes late for a meeting. Yet it does.  We assume it makes no difference if we tell ‘little lies’ to customers. Yet it does. We assume that it makes no difference if we push employees around and take advantage of their weakened position to get more out of them. Yet it does. We assume that it makes no difference if we push around our suppliers and squeeze them to drive up our bottom line. Yet it does make a difference.

3. Lack of willingness to put in place mechanisms and listen to feedback that points out a lack of integrity

It starts in the family.  The child points out of the lack of integrity between what the parent is preaching and what the parent is embodying-living.  One response is “Do as I say not as I do”.  Another kind of response is a slap on the face or some kind of punishment like that.  The third kind is to ignore the child, to pretend that you have not heard anything, and continue as before.  In all three cases the child learns the message. Be quiet, don’t rock the boat, don’t upset the authority figures.  And so the child muddles through as best as s/he can.

Put bluntly there is an unspoken agreement not to ‘speak truth to power’.    Breaking this agreement is no easy matter and as such only a few brave souls do so.  When you break the unspoken agreement not to threaten the status and power of those in power then you put yourself in a vulnerable position. The powerful and their allies turn their guns on you and target your livelihood, your reputation, your social status, your freedom and even your life.  

There is an excellent example of this unwillingness to listen to feedback and the consequences for those who speak ‘truth to power’ pointing out the lack of integrity of the system.  Listen to this piece on the NHS:

The NHS will “go bust” without radical change to drive up standards and rid hospitals of a “toxic” bullying culture that damages patient care, the head of its official regulator has warned.

David Prior, the chairman of the Care Quality Commission (CQC), says the safety of the most vulnerable patients is being jeopardised by a “dysfunctional” rift between NHS managers and clinical staff…..

He discloses that one in four staff have reported bullying, harassment or abuse from colleagues and managers, while whistleblowers are ostracised……

Mr Prior highlights the treatment of whistleblowers, saying the NHS is failing to listen to those who challenge poor care and champion the rights of patients. He says those who try to speak out are too often “ostracised” by their colleagues and managers.

He writes: “Too often, it delights in the ritual humiliation of those deemed to fail, tolerates and institutionalises outdated working practices and old-fashioned hierarchies and can almost encourage “managers” and “clinicians” to occupy opposing camps…..

Soon after Mr Prior took up his post as CQC chairman last year, the regulator’s previous management was accused of a “cover-up” and failing to properly investigate hospital scandals because it was too close to the last Labour government…..

Perhaps most crucially, we need to change the culture.”

Even when there is power to speak truth to, we do not speak truth: we don’t call people on their lack of integrity. Why not?  There is another unspoken agreement: “You don’t call me on mine, and I won’t call you on yours!”.  We are socialized into this early on with instructions to mind our own business and not to poke our nose into the affairs of others.  Furthermore, from an early age we are actively pushed to tell people what they want to hear and/or what will ‘save face’.  This becomes so much a part of us and our way of showing up in the world that we don’t even notice how much of social life, in all its favours, is based on this way of showing up.

4. The powerful ensure that they are immune from the impact of systems that lack integrity

As I reflect on the impact of systems that lack integrity I am struck by what is so: the powerful almost always profit and worst walk away unscathed and the powerless are struck with the impact-costs-wound arising from the lack of integrity. 

Who suffers most from the impact of poor teaching and poor schools?  The powerless – the children. Who has suffered most from the lack of integrity (through and through) in the NHS?  The powerless, the vulnerable – the patients.  Who has suffered as a lack of integrity in the world of finance?  The powerless – those who have the lowest incomes and the least politics clout.  Who is most likely to suffer from our way of living and the impact on the world that is our home?  The powerless – the unborn, the future generations.

Summing up

It occurs to me that all human systems exhibit a lack of integrity. And that the reason that this lack of integrity continues to persist is because we have not put in place cultural practices to call forth integrity and keep it in existence: detecting lapses in integrity and correcting course promptly to put the system back into a state of integrity.

Why haven’t we put these cultural practices into place?  It occurs to me that despite the lack of integrity in human systems we have successfully muddled through. In so muddling through, most of us do OK, and the powerful do great most of the time. Look at the business world: despite all the scaremongering (by those who hope to profit by selling their products-services) most organisations have muddled through all the ‘challenges and dangers’: they are doing OK.  Look at the banking crisis: we have muddled through. Look at the Euro crisis: we have muddled through.  Every time we muddle through we reinforce our addiction to muddling through.  Look under the hood of ‘business transformation’ and most and on on most occasions you will find plain old fashioned incremental change.

We do not put integrity into our way of being-showing up in the world because like thinking, genuine thinking, it is hard work. More importantly it is hard work that never ends. Why? Because integrity is always flowing out and so we have to be always putting it back in.  Then there are people like Jobs who set out to make a dent in the universe and accept nothing less. Or people like Gandhi who set out to set India free and accept nothing less. Or people like Mandela……

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant. Passionate about enabling customer-centricity by calling forth the best from those that work in the organisation and the intelligent application of digital technologies. Subject matter expert with regards to customer strategy, customer insight, customer experience (CX), customer relationship management (CRM), and relationship marketing. Working at the intersection of the Customer, the Enterprise (marketing, sales, service), and Technology.

11 thoughts on “Revisiting Integrity: Why Do All Human Systems Lack Integrity?”

  1. MAz, as always your observations are to the point.

    I do however have a point of disagreement in relationship to observing laws and regulations. Race driving happens to be a thing I love to do and I do it because driving fast in everyday traffic is rather stupid. That does not mean that driving any amount over the speed limit is not having integrity. Driving outside your own level of confidence and thus taking risks that might hurt someone is lacking integrity. A lot of accidents happen where all participants followed the law and many actually happen because of it. We know that drivers will say: ‘I have the right of way here so if an accident happens it is not my fault. That may be lawful but it is not integrity. I also have a Yachtmaster Offshore certificate and while there are ‘Rules of the Road’ (funnily enough) one says: ‘No matter if you have the right of way or not you must set all actions to avoid a collision.’ You will be found guilty if you act in a way that increases the risk of a collision even of the other vessel took your right of way.

    Driving rules are made for the worst possible drivers with the least of skill and experience. They cause many especially young people to intentionally disregard them because the feel that their rights are impaired and that is actually so. See my post on ‘The Power Paradox’. In Austria if a young driver goes over the speed limit or drives drunk they take away his licence and he has to do the whole course over again. I would give them a mandatory race driver course because that will not only teach them safe driving, the consequences of going fast but also take away the urge to speed. Suspending the license for driving drunk is however a good measure to make them stop. Do the same for being involved in an accident, your own fault or not and you will see a substantial reduction. You might even no longer need to penalize speeding.

    Many actions we take are within the rules that have been setup by humans to define human systems. Government is just one and NHS is another. Integrity is actually to act humane and moral despite and sometimes against those rules. Mandela went to jail for just that.


    1. Hello Max,
      I have read and re-read that which you share. Having done so and considered it at some depth, the following occurs to me:

      1. Your existing listening of “integrity” as “morality/ethics” has got in the way of you listening to that which I am sharing here. What am I sharing? I am sharing the distinction “integrity as the state of being whole-complete”. Best way to get present to “integrity as whole-complete” is to think of a car with a puncture. Think about a professional race. Now think of car that has only three functional tyres as the other is punctured-damaged. How well will this car perform even with the best driver against a race car that is fully functional – everything works in isolation, and interlock with everything else perfectly? No competition right. Irrespective of the moral standing of the cars or the race drivers.

      2. The point that I was alluding to and clearly did not make clear is that small stuff can have a big impact. A difference in speed of 3mph, which seems nothing, can be the difference between life and death for the person that happens to be hit by a car. Yet, I was not aware of this and as a result I did not respect the speed limit. The implication of this for “integrity as whole-complete” is that small slips-gaps in integrity can and do have big impacts.

      To sum up, I have no interest in “integrity as morality/ethics, rules of conduct, being a good person” in this post. I am concerned with “integrity as whole-complete-perfect” as in the state of an organism or system. And the impact of this integrity (or lack of it) on the performance of any organism/system. It occurs to me that I might have best explained that which I am getting at in the following post:

      I thank you for entering into this conversation. I always look forward to that which you contribute.

      At your service and with love


      1. Maz, I propose that it is not allowable to use a physical system concept of integrity (whole-complete) for human systems. Physical systems such as a car have a well-defined function/output and therefore integrity is defined to perform as designed.

        Human systems have no such function and the output is purely based in individual perception. Therefore ‘whole-complete’ is an idealistic interpretation from a single human perspective and will most likely not agree with many others. Consequently, I have seen determined race drivers bring a car with one tyre completely blown away across the finish line to win. And when they did not make it across the line, their determination brought them the applause of the crowd who love to see people overcoming adversity. The physical system was broken, but the human system (driver-spectators) functioned without being designed. Not only the winner got applause. In fact, a race in which all cars and drivers perform whole-complete flawlessly is utterly boring.

        In regards to speed-limits and seeing adherence as whole-complete integrity I heartily disagree. You can be far below the speed limit and wholly integer with the system and still be part of an accident that brings suffering. You may be found guilty or not and that has nothing to do with your actual actions. It is the law that makes the criminal. Justice systems are far from whole-complete and mostly because they lack moral ethics. Healthcare and fincancial systems (all human designed) fail to display even the notion of morality. But they do not necessarily or intentionally target the weak. Those proclaiming to be suffering from a poorly working system are often those who try to exploit it and are making it worse by doing so. The expectation that human systems (designed or not) can be whole-complete is simply wrong.

        System theories suggest the existence of cause and effect which are in fact human illusions. You can be a stimuli in a chain of events but that does not make you a cause. Hardly any outcome is defined by a single cause. Even if you intentionally pull the trigger of a gun pointed at someone, the outcome is defined by a much larger context. You simply missing, acting in self-defense, or within the authority of a police officer or soldier will not make you a murderer. The muscle response to pull the trigger happens half a second before you consciously recognize the wish to do so. So is it really you who has the choice or some other complex emotional context outside the control of your free will? It may have been uncontrollable fear.

        I am not splitting hairs here. I am just pointing out that integrity too is an illusion. And we find people that pretend to be perfect unpleasant and fake. We like people who can laugh about their own limitations and faults.

        Is there something that defines good and evil on a human level? Yes and that is INTENT. Not the outcome is relevant but what the intent was and we are quite sensitive to it. So in customer service if we find that there is good intent, but things go wrong despite it, we tend to be quite tolerant. If things work but it is obvious that people couldn’t care less, then we still will see things quite negatively. And yes, much of that is pure human perception too.

        Thanks again for a great post and your response. Max


      2. Hello Max,
        My intuitive response is to find myself to be in disagreement with you. As I respect you, I will ponder the situation and will share that which shows up for me in a follow up post. Until then, live well and make a massive difference. I thank you for considering me worthy of entering into a conversation with. You offer me a gift that I welcome.

        At your service and with love


      3. Thanks, Maz for the conversation. Disagreement is what produces progress. I am sure that we will find common ground. The way we have been brought up often makes complex adaptive systems look counterintuitive. Look forward to your reply. Max


  2. Maz,
    I think all of us have different levels of integrity depending on the area of our lives. I think if we have the courage, openness, honesty and desire to recognise this we can develop and improve our integrity simply by acknowledging where we are at and then taking small and deliberate steps to improve. Integrity in that respect then becomes like a muscle of our character.



    1. Hello Adrian.
      It occurs to me that when it comes to “integrity as morality/ethics” then there is case for saying that “all of us have different levels of integrity depending on the area of our lives”. And as such I find myself in agreement with you.

      Yet, in this post I started off by making it clear that I was not speaking about “integrity as morality/ethics”. Rather, the whole conversation was about “integrity as a state of being whole-complete”. And within the context of this conversation a human being is in a state of integrity or not. And any system is in a state of integrity or not. How to best point this out? It occurs to me that you either are pregnant or you are not pregnant. It is not possible, in the real world, to be “somewhat pregnant”. Notice, in this case the claim that one is 99% pregnant is to assert that one is NOT pregnant.

      Diving further into what you are pointing at. It occurs to me that being in a state of integrity is rather easy. Restoring one to a state of integrity can be done in one second, through one statement. How? If I am a liar-thief-cheat, in my way of being in the world, then I can put myself in a state of integrity by simply declaring to all concerned, all who deal with me, the following “I am a liar-thief-cheat.”

      At your service and with love,


  3. Maz,

    I think I agree with Adrian. If integrity is perfection, then there is no such thing. It is however to have levels of integrity.

    I have worked for a handful of large organisations and some show far more integrity than others



    1. Hello James,

      It occurs to me that one reason that there is a lack of integrity in human systems is our social conviction that “integrity is perfection and as such there is no such thing”. When you refer to “levels of integrity” it occurs to me that you are pointing at the human practice of “good enough”. Which I refer to as muddling through.

      Please note that there are people who insist on integrity as the state of being ‘whole-complete’ and accept nothing less. A great example of this is Socrates: given the choice of recanting or even fleeing, Socrates choose to live (and die) in a state of integrity. A more recent example, in the world of business, is Steve Jobs. How so? His insistence that the parts of the Mac computer, not visible to the human eye as hidden, had to be of the same quality (functional-technical-aesthetic) as those on the outside and visible to the customer.

      Please note that there are practices we can adopt to pull human systems towards integrity. For example, in the world of medicine, one can cut down the number of patients that die or are given the wrong operation simply through the use of checklists. Here I am pointing at the work of Atul Gawande and the Checklist Manifesto.

      I thank you for the opportunity of a fruitful conversation through writing.

      At your service and with love


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