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Integrity can be a tricky concept and always makes my short list of Tricksy Words. A common oversimplification is to say that having integrity means always telling the truth. But what happens when the truth is misleading? For example, I realized a few weeks ago that Belleview Consulting is technically 10 years old this year! Yet, I have made no fuss about this fact because I also realized that I won’t actually be celebrating that milestone until 2030.
As I often tell people when introducing myself, I founded Belleview when I finished grad school but got cold feet before really getting the business up and running. Somewhat ironically, I kept the LLC active all through the years I worked for other people specifically so that I could say that Belleview was founded in 2012. At the time, I thought that it would be helpful to have the credibility of an older company and I also did a small bit of consulting here and there so I was able to justify the active status to myself.
But when I really started to be a consultant full time, I quickly realized that I was uncomfortable implying a history other than my own. Leaning on the age of the business felt both disingenuous and unnecessary. Consulting may have only formally happened here and there but I really did spend those years honing my skills within the organizations that employed me. With the “10 year anniversary” looming large, I realized that I want my clients to hire me for my actual skills and experience rather than an implied resume, even if I am only using the truth to make those implications.
Integrity comes up fairly regularly in my work and so does metacommunication. Sometimes integrity comes up because it is a core value for a client. Other times, I find myself pushing leaders to dig a bit deeper into their goals so that we can align structures and systems with their true intentions. In the latter case, the word integrity may never actually be said and the leaders may never be lying but the concept hovers around us as surface level platitudes come into conflict with day to day business needs.
Metacommunication is, in these situations, tightly interwoven with the concept of integrity. Every statement we make, email we send, or communication we emit into the world carries layers of meaning. In my case, I prefer to say that integrity is what you do when no one is looking yet choosing to post this article also sends a message that I kind of want people to look. Both are true and both can be understood from this paragraph alone. For my clients, an email informing senior leaders that the company will be more transparent in communication going forward without including line staff on the recipients list also sends a message that transparency will actually still be somewhat limited.
When laid out this way, the transparency example may seem obvious or as though the leaders are being intentionally disingenuous but I often see exactly this type of mixed messaging emerge when a leader is conflicted about a decision. They may truly believe that greater transparency will be a positive change for their company and simultaneously hold some reservations about whether such a change will lead to media leaks or simply loss of face. Often, the leader is completely unaware of the mixed messages that they are sending.
So I am using this moment in my own business chronology as a reminder to myself and others to pause before we communicate important thoughts and decisions. Think through both the words you plan to use and the layers of messaging that will come along in your tone, method of communication, audience, etc. For me, integrity is what you do when no one is watching and also what you do when people are truly paying attention.