Taking the higher road.
Ethics isn’t about standards, rules and sanctions in isolation from society. Ethics is about people and their relationships with one another.”
- Linda Williams, Ph.D.
On January 28, 1986, Linda M. Williams was working in a policy position at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. when the space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight – killing all seven crewmembers. This moment stands out as a vivid experience that led many to “rethink” how we approach organizational decision-making.
Although, at NASA, decision makers were usually guided in their ethical decision-making by the 83-page "Standards of Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch" analysis by Linda and others of existing policy determined that nothing in that document could have assisted NASA managers in avoiding the tragedy. In addition, the Rogers Commission, appointed by President Reagan, found that NASA’s organizational culture and decision-making processes had been a key contributing factor to the disaster. An ethical decision making disconnect existed in the organization between policy and process.
From tragedy to transformation.
Immersed in analysis related to questions of ethics surrounding the Challenger disaster until her resignation from NASA in June 1988, Linda Williams decided to change direction in her career and follow a long-standing vision to serve the community through the social services sector.
She realized that her undergraduate and graduate degrees in business did not adequately equip her to make some of the tough decisions related to ethics. She returned to school in 1990 and earned a Ph.D. in ethics and public policy from Arizona State University with the intent to form a nonprofit corporation that could assist decision makers in addressing the kinds of ethical issues they’re faced with every day.
Research findings that were extraordinary.
While researching for her dissertation, Linda found that through the decades, businesses increasingly have relied on codes of conduct to control behavior with minimum impact on positive ethical behavior. To the contrary, the more rules given, the more people responded negatively to them. Three basic negative employee responses were noted in the research:
- The hostile response in which those subject to the call for compliance with respect to ethical conduct demonstrated anger relative to someone within an organization calling their ethics into question and commanding specific behavioral responses;
- The apathetic response in which individuals simply abdicate all responsibility for their actions and acknowledge no responsibility for organizational ethics; and
- The loophole response in which the maze of rules and regulations becomes so specific and complex that they almost present a challenging game for individuals to navigate around and through the details to find the exceptions to the rules.
These responses are, of course, counter to building a productive, engaging, ethical culture in any organization.
Over the years, TWI’s focus on promoting greater ethical awareness and personal responsibility in ethical decision making has had an ever growing impact, changing lives and organizations for the better.
Linda’s research led to her vision of creating an institute that would reintroduce and encourage personal responsibility in organizations to build more ethical cultures. The Williams Institute for Ethics and Management (TWI) became a reality in 1993 with Dr. Williams serving as President and CEO. Over the years, TWI’s focus on promoting greater ethical awareness and personal responsibility in ethical decision making has had an ever growing impact, changing lives and organizations for the better.
Williams in retirement
Dr. Linda M. Williams served as the first President and CEO of TWI for 14 years until 2007 when she relinquished that role to focus on consulting and research. In her parting comments, she referred to this transition as a promotion to do "nothing but the fun stuff." Her unique combination of management and people skills reflecting her education, professional experience, and commitment to ethics in community was instrumental in establishing TWI as a recognized leader in providing ethics resources and management services. Dr. Williams leaves a legacy to TWI that reflects: Twenty years experience in ethics research, analysis, evaluation and leadership; Ph.D., Ethics and Public Policy, College of Law and Social Sciences, Arizona State University; M.S., Logistics Management, Air Force Institute of Technology; and B.S., Business Administration, Wright State University.
Jim Williams served as Chair of the TWI Board of Directors until stepping down from that position in 2006. In addition, he fulfilled the responsibilities of Vice President of Sales and Marketing until 2007 when these responsibilities were assumed by the Vice President for Education and Development. Mr. Williams' extensive executive management background contributed valuable expertise in setting up the organizational structure to support the TWI vision.