Research for Good: Ethics & Leadership

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Focus Research Social GoodResearch for Social Good is a MethodSpace focus for October. We are delving into this broad topic with guest posts, interviews, and links to articles or instructional resources.

This guest post is an interview with Dr. Donald Dunn, author of Designing Ethical Workplaces: The Moldable Model, part of the Principles of Responsible Management Education Collection.

Janet Salmons JS This series of posts includes perspectives about on two broad angles:

  1. Research about social issues, social change, social responsibility, or social justice; and/or
  2. Research that uses socially-responsible methods.

Your research exemplifies both themes. You studied leadership ethics, and used respectful approaches to gain trust needed to study sensitive matters. Can you briefly describe your study? What motivated you to study ethical leadership?


Dr. Dunn DD During my work to obtain a Master of Liberal Studies in Organizational Leadership from one of my state’s regent universities, my academic advisor and chair of the Leadership Studies Department asked me if I would teach at the university when my degree was finished. He wanted me to teach Ethical Leadership, which I had not had a single course on the subject during the course work. My advisor assigned me ethical leadership literature to study in one of my final classes, and to write on my research a mini-thesis. Through that research, I became passionate about ethical leadership.

As I approached the doctoral process, I knew I wanted to use ethical leadership (EL) as the broader topic for the dissertation. As I looked for a gap in the extant literature on EL, it became very apparent that there was no consistent component model in the literature for leading and managing ethics at the corporate level. Various components, such as value statements, ethics training, accountability processes of rewards and discipline, communication of company ethics, and even ethical audits, were highlighted across many research articles. It seemed to me that a value-add to EL research would be to discover a consistent component model to design ethical workplaces. Such a model would need to be flexible in order to aid any size of organization in any industry, either for-profit or not-for-profit companies.

The best research approach to discover how ethical companies led and managed ethics was a qualitative, multiple case study in order to hear the lived experiences of participants, to observe how the companies promoted ethics, and to review ethical documents used in those organizations. For the case study design, I obtained three, diverse organizations representing a global for-profit, a local for-profit, and a global not-for-profit. I conducted interviews with seven participants (2 executives/5 employees) in each organization, studied organizational documents related to each company’s ethical policies, and did organizational tours of each organization to see how company ethics was promoted to employees.


Janet Salmons JS How did you gain access to the research sites? How did you determine who the key stakeholders were in each organization? How did you any the three organizations you studied decide on the approach for collecting data?

Dr. Dunn DD I gained access to the for-profit global company in one of its local sites through networking with an acquaintance who knew one of the for-profit’s executives. I was able to access the local for-profit because I was acquainted with its President. I was very familiar with the scope and mission of the global not-for-profit, so when I requested research access, it was approved.


Janet Salmons JS How, in your role as a researcher, did you prepare for your interactions with the research sites/participants? After visiting sites, how did you process what you’d heard?


Dr. Dunn DD I followed very rigorous steps in preparing for the interactions with the research participants and sites. First, information re: the study was sent to either all of the employees or to a diverse sample of employees selected by site contacts to secure interview participants. If participants accepted an interview with me, I set up the date and secured a private space in the organization to conduct the interviews. To protect participant anonymity and confidentiality, I prepared an interview protocol with alphanumeric coding for each executive and employee who accepted an interview request from me. The interview protocol had had several questions about how the company led and managed ethics. In order to maintain consistency from site to site, I developed standardized worksheets to secure answers from participants, data from reviewing company documents, and data from the observational tours. It was important for me to bracket any bias I had in terms of my knowledge of EL or a confirmatory bias (seeking only confirming evidence of what I already believed), so I placed statements on each interview protocol reminding me of that bias and to be open to emerging data.

After visiting the sites, the handwritten data was processed in a Word document and emailed back to each participant for member checking and/or for any additional data the participant may have thought of following the interview. Then, the data from the three sources (interviews, documents, tours) was placed in visible matrices that had my research variables (components of an ethical system) that made up the rows of the matrix and that had the three data sources as the columns of the matrix. This was done for each organization, as signal case analysis for each company. Later, I cross-analyzed the cases (triangulation of data) to find correlating data or themes for multiple case analyses. These processes allowed for multiple touched of the data or researcher saturation of the data and the eventual support or denial of the research variables.


Janet Salmons JS Based on your lessons learned, what advice do you have for researchers who are studying sensitive topics?


Dr. Dunn DD It is interesting, but I soon realized that the term “ethics” brought some concern to site participants. In seeking companies for my research, an early company denied my request for research with a letter from their legal department. The company had sensitive and proprietary information that was at issue. However, I was not interested in their proprietary information or whether the company was compliant with all ethical policies. Some site executives also expressed concern about what “ethics” I intended to document. I learned that I had to separate personal morality from what I now call workplace morality or the standards of right and wrong used in the workplace. I had not quite yet made that distinction when I started the study. So, it is important to be clear about the data you are seeking, and how you plan to protect the anonymity and confidentiality of any participant. I took rigorous steps to protect all concerned based on my research and doctoral training into qualitative inquiry and the protection of participant rights and privacy.


Janet Salmons JS  You used findings to develop the Moldable Model, and wrote a book about it. Tell us how you have used this model with students and professionals.


Dr. Dunn DD That is correct! Through my research, I did discover a model to lead and manage ethics at the corporate level. The model has a three-pronged, fixed framework, but within each prong companies are free to decide how each part of the fixed framework is implemented. Thus, the model is moldable to any size organization in any industry.

The book, Designing Ethical Workplaces: The Moldable Model, published by Business Expert Press, is written with the busy executive and the graduate student in mind. So, it is both academic and practical.

I have utilized the PhD research and the Moldable Model in the 30+ courses I have taught over the past eight years in higher education for six different universities. In those classes, I have students at all levels of learning from undergrad to doctoral levels. Many students are accelerated, adult learners who lead and manage in their workplaces. The data in the book is used in my consulting business and in the executive coaching that I do. Three universities adopted the book for use in ethical courses. For one university, I am the subject matter expert (SME) in ethical leadership, which allows me to design all of that universities business ethics courses.


Janet Salmons JS  You completed your Ph.D. as an adult student with a lot of life experience. Do you have any suggestions for doctoral students who are interested in conducting research on social issues?


Dr. Dunn DD  Discover your passion, dig deep into the extant literature seeking a gap and a topic that will add value to your field, create a meaningful research design that is rigorous, and balance the academic theory with a practical application. Have fun in the difficult times, knowing that  your research will make a difference in your life and in the life of those who apply your results.


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