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Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet

In the ethical, moral, and legal quagmire surrounding the Enron collapse, the concept of "good work" rings true. Harvard psychology professor Howard Gardner, co-author of a new book on the subject, says most of us can call on a strain of idealism to guide our work that satisfies the customer, treats employees with respect, creates great products, and is honest to clients and shareholders.

Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet

Harvard psychology professor Howard Gardner says the value of doing good work far exceeds what you bring to the bottom line. In a new book, Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, authors Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, and William Damon use the fields of journalism and biotechnology as examples to call for professionals to do work that is both expert and socially responsible in the face of tremendous market pressures.

In this e-mail interview with HBS Working Knowledge's Mallory Stark, Gardner outlines the rewards of doing good work and what organizations can do to promote it.

Stark: What are the rewards of good work?

Gardner: The extrinsic reward of good work is that fellow citizens will thank you for actions that go beyond self-aggrandizement and monetary reward. But the intrinsic rewards are at least as important. It is satisfying to do a job that is expert. It is satisfying to do a job that is responsible.

The satisfaction of performing in an expert fashion and of doing so in a way that is ethical and responsible is multifold. In fact, our studies show that individuals who are steadily good workers are likely to achieve a sense of flow and are maximally stimulated ethically.

Q: How do you know if you're doing good work?

A: We propose that good workers regularly review the three Ms:
a. What is the Mission that undergirds your work?
b. Who are the role Models you admire and emulate and why?
c. When you look at yourself in the Mirror as a worker, are you proud of whom you see? And if all of the workers in your profession were like you, would you want to live in a society like that?

Of course, no one can know for sure whether he or she passes the mirror test. But individuals who regularly review mission, role models, and the mirror are far more likely to be good workers than individuals who do not take these three Ms seriously.

Q: How can a leader encourage good work?

Leaders have two potent weapons: the stories that they tell about their enterprise and the lives that they lead as workers.
— Howard Gardner

A: Leaders have two potent weapons: the stories that they tell about their enterprise and the lives that they lead as workers. A leader who encourages good work and who herself carries out good work is likely to lead an organization in which many individuals carry out good work with enthusiasm. Preaching without practice does not work—you are soon seen as a hypocrite. Individuals who themselves are good workers will influence their follow workers; but it is the special opportunity and burden of leaders to articulate the reasons why they (and their organization) are doing what they are doing.

Q: How can an individual respond if good work is at odds with company practice? How does one fight the tide?

A: We have been influenced by the writings of the economist Albert Hirschman, who writes of "exit, voice, and loyalty." Individuals owe a certain loyalty to their company but they must also be loyal to their own values and to the values of their profession. If you clash with the values of your company, you should first try to voice your concerns to peers and to supervisors. Sometimes you may achieve success. In any event, you should do what you believe to be right and do so in a way that is honest and non-confrontational. Sometimes this will be enough for you to survive and perhaps to influence others.

Ultimately, however, if your own values clash with those of the company, you should begin to look for another setting. In our own study, we are impressed by workers who create their own institutions or who move to institutions that embody their own values. Margaret Mead famously said, "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Q: What should business managers take away from reading your book?

A: When you are immersed in your business, and when economic pressures are pronounced, it is too easy to forget a broader mission, or to assume that your only mission is to turn a profit. If that is the case, you may survive, but you will not be a good worker and few will speak well of you outside of your hearing.

But most of us have or have had a strain of idealism and it is never too late to recapture that idealism. Businesspeople who are good workers talk about the importance of satisfying the customer, of treating employees with dignity, of creating the finest products, of being honest to clients and to shareholders.

Perhaps paradoxically, these seemingly extraneous actions are actually best for businesses. Indeed businesses rarely survive unless leaders and managers have these idealistic goals. Workers want to work in such settings; and if they are trapped in settings where only profit matters, they sooner or later want to move to a setting that looks beyond the bottom line to lines that will not be crossed because it is not ethical to do so.

Q: Any surprises while doing your research?

A: Our project is actually a very large project. We hope ultimately to look at twelve different professions; to work with subjects ranging in age from ten to eighty; to examine good work cross-culturally; and to investigate a whole series of ancillary questions, ranging from the role of contemplation in good work to the way in which good work practices are handed down from one generation to another. The results of some of this research is posted on our Web site goodworkproject.org and is described in a series of articles and books that will be coming out over the next few years. Just to whet your appetite, here are some trends and findings that have surprised me:

  • At the time of our study, genetics and journalism were almost opposites in terms of the self-report of the scientists and the journalists. Geneticists were excited by their work; they could hardly wait to get up in the morning. In contrast, journalists were quite depressed by their calling, since they felt that they could not carry out journalism in a way that satisfied their own standards.

  • These capsule portraits changed significantly after September ll. Suddenly, people were looking to journalists for work of high quality. Conversely, geneticists began to worry that there would be less money to fund their research and that their work might be seen as contributing to bioterror rather than leading to the cure of disease or longer life.

  • Young persons want to do good work. Yet, they are also willing to cut corners. They tell themselves that when they gain fame and success, they will no longer cut corners. But they risk proceeding down a slippery slope from which they are unlikely to escape.

  • Businesspeople who have been nominated as good workers rarely highlight the importance of the bottom line. Those who are equally successful but were not nominated as good workers almost always talk about the importance of the bottom line.

  • Good work occurs in scientific lineages. However, members of the lineage rarely speak about the direct influence of the head of the lineage. Instead, they speak about the influence of others in their peer group. My colleagues and I believe that one of the ways in which the head of the lineage exerts influence is by virtue of the younger persons that he or she selects to join a laboratory [for instance] and also by the daily arrangements and procedures that have become standard operating procedure.

As we continue our studies, we expect to encounter many more surprises.

· · · ·

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Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education Chairman of the Steering Committee of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Adjunct Professor of Neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Good Work in Difficult Times

Howard Gardner

by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon

In every historical era, many people have sought to carry out good work. It has always been true that some people do their work expertly but not very responsibly. People who do good work, in our sense of the term, are clearly skilled in one or more professional realms. At the same time, rather than merely following money or fame alone, or choosing the path of least resistance when in conflict, they are thoughtful about their responsibilities and the implications of their work. At best, they are concerned to act in a responsible fashion with respect toward their personal goals; their family, friends, peers and colleagues; their mission or sense of calling; the institutions with which they are affiliated; and, lastly, the wider world—people they do not know, those who will come afterwards, and, in the grandest sense, to the planet or to God.

To be sure, no one can continually monitor each of these responsibilities. Like the proverbial centipede asked to explain how it walks, a worker would find this impractical and probably counterproductive. Still, a good professional maintains these concerns implicitly and returns to them explicitly from time to time.


Good work in uncertain times

To do good work is a laudable goal, one difficult to achieve even under favorable circumstances. In the modern world scarcely anyone is sealed off from rampant and rapid innovations or from intrusive market forces. Indeed, even in professions that might seem immune, these forces are dramatically evident. In education, charter schools and voucher programs are sprouting up in different corners of the globe. For-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix are roiling traditional liberal arts colleges and universities. In the museum world, where competition rages for bigger-than-ever blockbuster shows, exhibitions are sponsored by corporations that demand an increasing say over what is displayed and how. Churches are competing for larger congregations, more lavish buildings, and more charismatic religious leaders. And even traditionally secretive philanthropic foundations are hiring publicists to make sure that their "good works" are well known: They are contemplating "strategic alliances" with neighboring institutions and fretting about the challenges posed by new-style venture philanthropy or charitable accounts offered by investment houses. Similarly, there are physicians who cannot prescribe a course of treatment because it will not be underwritten by the HMO, corporate lawyers whose employers engage in shady practices, teachers who believe they should hug unhappy children but are forbidden even to touch them on the shoulder, and museum curators who need money to mount shows but like neither the artists, the policies, nor the restrictions imposed by the most generous arts funders.

Of course, ethical and professional dilemmas are not new. And many would argue, with some justification, that the ways to deal with them have long been known. They would say that the solutions can be found in the great religions, in the Bible and other sacred texts, in long-standing models of behavior contained in the very traditions of the professions, and in the behaviors of well-known exemplars—for instance, physicians such as Albert Schweitzer and Jonas Salk, and journalists such as Edward R. Murrow and I. F. Stone. But religious and professional traditions are not always available to young people, and they are not always credible. Much evil has been carried out in the name of religion, and many once-idolized figures (ranging from politicians such as John F. Kennedy to business titans such as Henry Ford or Walt Disney to athletes such as Ty Cobb) turn out to have had notable character flaws. And even when the idols remain relatively untarnished and the relevant texts have been studied, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know just how to draw inspiration from models in vastly changing circumstances. Murrow did not have to compete with the Internet; Salk did not face an environment in which virtually every medical discovery was immediately patented; Abraham Lincoln did not have every element of his private life scrutinized by the media or made into a lurid TV movie while he was attempting to command the Union forces: This is why we speak not just of "good work" but of "good work in difficult times." Not difficult, necessarily, in terms of daily creature comforts, but difficult in terms of people's ability to know the right thing to do and remain in their professions.

Still, there is an important clue as to whether one is carrying out good work. Doing good work feels good. Few things in life are as enjoyable as when we concentrate on a difficult task, using all our skills, knowing what has to be done. And, contrary to popular opinion, these highly enjoyable moments—the ones Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow experiences"—occur more often on the job than in leisure time. In flow we feel totally involved, lost in a seemingly effortless performance. Paradoxically, we feel 100 percent alive when we are so committed to the task at hand that we lose track of time, of our interests—even of our own existence. Intense flow can happen anywhere: in making love, in listening to music, in playing a good game of squash or chess. But it also happens surprisingly often at work—as long as the job provides clear goals, immediate feedback, and a level of challenges matching our skills. When these conditions are present, we have a chance to experience work as "good" that is, as something that allows the full expression of what is best in us, something we experience as rewarding and enjoyable. To be sure, feelings of flow do not always signal that one is performing "good work" in our sense; the robber who is fully engaged in cracking a safe may well undergo comparable engagement. Nor do we want to imply that "good work" is always accompanied by flow; it can be frustrating and discouraging at times. Yet, time and again, we have observed the rewards of flow bestowed on individuals who have become wholly engaged in activities that exhibit the highest sense of responsibility.

Journalism and genetics: an instructive contrast

Journalism and genetics are textbook examples of professions that must continually face new challenges. As we began to probe how journalists and geneticists carry out their work, we discovered that professionals in these fields differ in a way that we had not anticipated. Geneticists are working at a time in which the profession is tremendously exciting; all of the relevant forces in their universe are well aligned. The general public, the shareholders of genetech corporations, and the scientists themselves are working toward a common goal: ensuring healthier and longer lives for people. In sharp contrast, journalists tell us they are working at a time when their profession is wracked by confusion and doubt—that is, a time when the relevant forces are massively misaligned. Journalists may feel the need to take time to investigate a complex story, but the public is calling instead for gossip and scandal while management is seeking greater profits in the next quarter. At a time of alignment, good work seems relatively unproblematic. During a phase of misalignment, however, it becomes a challenge.

And so, to an extent that we could not have anticipated, genetics and journalism represent sharply contrasting—virtually polar opposite—cases in a study of professional realms. In well-aligned genetics, the pursuit of good work may appear to be relatively unproblematic; in misaligned journalism, the threat to carrying out good work is ubiquitous. Yet, the emerging story is not quite so simple. Apparent alignment may blind workers to troublesome forces, even as significant threats to good work bubble beneath the untroubled surface. There are in genetics today many reasons for concern, ranging from the blurring of the line between disinterested scholarly research and research carried out to ensure profits, to the tendency to deny the risks entailed in genetic therapy or the cloning of organisms. Conversely, blatant misalignment may actually have a beneficent dimension; such disequilibrium clearly exposes the threats to good work and may mobilize people to struggle productively, to confirm the essence of their calling, embrace high standards, and reaffirm their personal identities. Journalism may well become stronger—and better aligned—just because the fault lines in the profession have become obvious.

A crisis in the journalism profession

Time for an example. In 1993 broadcast journalist Ray Suarez found himself in a quandary—the biggest conflict of his professional life. His heart told him to get out of this line of work, while his bank balance told him to swallow his pride and do his assigned job. His head, where he had to sort out the alternatives and make a decision, was swirling.

Suarez, now senior correspondent for the Public Broadcasting Service's News Hour, has since 1993 been associated with public broadcasting. Best known for his six-year stint as the host of the two-hour afternoon show Talk of the Nation, on National Public Radio (NPR), Suarez has been an innovator, much honored within the profession and widely respected among the listening public. He was one of the first journalists to whom we spoke as part of our study of good work.

Before joining NPR, Suarez had a richly varied but not always palatable life in journalism. Having discovered a love of writing during high school, he had worked as a radio and television reporter both in the United States and abroad. Beginning in the mid-1980s Suarez had a seven-year stint in commercial news with Channel 5, an NBC affiliate in Chicago. While there, he encountered the dilemma that made him consider quitting the profession entirely:

When video games first started to become hot, a family sued the major makers of video games in the United States for some unbelievable amount of money . . . because their kids would get seizures. And about half-way into the reporting of the story, I realized that we were talking about one-tenth of one one-hundredth of one one-thousandth of the kids who play video games. But TV has a tendency to play everything like, "Here's a possible danger of video games."

And I called in, sort of to telegraph my concerns ahead, sort of in advance for this fight that I knew we were going to have, about the way we were going to play this story. And I said . . . it's irresponsible to give people the idea that video games are dangerous, or, in the way that television usually does, it teases "could be dangerous" to your family, making no guarantees but getting you to salivate and listen. I said, we're talking about a tiny number of American children, a tiny number. And once you find out that your kids have this, which you may have already known before they ever sat down to play one video game, because all kinds of computer and TV monitors shoot impulses to the eye at this number of times per second .... If they play anyway, and have seizures, well whose fault is that? We're talking about a story that we're going to play as a hot, big story, that isn't a story. Because we tell stories that have impact with large numbers of people, so what we're trying to do is just cross our fingers, put them behind our back, and we'll tell them at the end, oh, and by the way, your kids probably are okay. I said, I don't want to do that. I think it's cheap, I think it's not true, I think even, no matter how many times we couch it and qualify it, it will leave an untrue residue in the minds of people who watch the story. So what are we really doing? We're just winding people up. We're not telling them good information.

Suarez sadly summed up the battle with the executive of the station: "And that fight went on for a long time, in TV terms, like an hour or an hour and a half. I lost."

He comments ruefully on the outcome: "There's only so much in the way of showboaty integrity that you can afford to have, because if you have a contract and the contract says certain things, and one of the things is, you have to do what you're told." Eventually finding the situation intolerable, Suarez recalled, "At the time that NPR hired me, I was making active plans to get out of the news business. You know, thank God, I had that option."

During the course of their careers, most people find themselves in situations that test their sense of appropriate behavior and challenge them to reassess major aspects of their lives. At this point of crisis, Suarez probably found it helpful to take into account his personal goals, the core values of journalism, the needs of the television station and network that employed him, and, finally, the implication of his actions for those whom he did not know, especially the thousands of individuals influenced by his broadcasts. Sometimes professionals find ways to resolve complex dilemmas without too much stress. But when resolutions are not easily forthcoming, they are faced, as was Suarez, with a sharp set of choices.

What options would you or any other professional have in such situations? To begin with, you could decide simply to take the easiest course and go along with the mandated behavior. In fact, family and financial obligations might leave few other options. Or you could remain in your current position and continue to fight, perhaps even managing to convince your employer of the superiority of your stand. There would also be the risk of your getting fired or becoming exhausted, frustrated, and demoralized. You could band together with others who shared your perspective and begin to protest privately or even publicly. When management's behavior has been flagrantly inappropriate, as occasionally happens in the news media, group action can be effective. But as President Ronald Reagan demonstrated in 1981 when he summarily fired the nation's striking air traffic controllers, it is all too easy to replace a defiant crew with a more compliant one.

Of course, you could always choose to quit—a more viable option if you had marketable skills and other jobs were there for the asking. But abandoning a career altogether, as Suarez considered doing, is an extremely wrenching option.

Finally, you could find or create an organization that would allow you to realize your professional aspirations. This would be the ideal solution—and it is one of particular interest to us in this study of good work. If an institution already existed that embodied your values, you could try to secure a position with it, even at the cost of moving to a new locale or accepting a reduction in pay. Or you could help create or transform an existing institution. Suarez was not the creator of National Public Radio, but he helped turn it into the powerful and intellectually respectable broadcast news outlet that it remains today.

Mission, standards, and identity

Stepping back from Ray Suarez's quandary, let's look at how any engaged worker or professional might handle similar situations. Consider, for example, the HMO physician who believes that each patient needs to be seen until that patient has received a proper evaluation and diagnosis, but whose employer insists that she schedule at least six visits an hour and penalizes her when she does not comply. Or a lawyer working for a large multinational who is told that a bribe will be necessary in a third world country and is instructed to pay money under the table in a forthcoming negotiation. Or the teacher who believes that history is best taught by a deep immersion in a limited number of topics, but must abandon his curriculum and "teach to" a newly mandated state test that probes one's memory for disparate facts. Or the craftsman who believes in using only the finest materials, but who is instructed by his contractor to use inferior materials, which are unlikely to be detected by trusting purchasers and which will half the production costs.

At such critical times, we suggest, thoughtful practitioners should consider three basic issues: mission—the defining features of the profession in which they are engaged; standards—the established "best practices" of a profession; and identity—their personal integrity and values.


Each realm of work has a central mission, which reflects a basic societal need and which the practitioner should feel committed to realizing. The core of the mission of medicine is the healing of the sick and the afflicted. The core mission of the legal profession is the pursuit of justice, through the resolution of conflict or the orderly and civilized righting of wrongs. Teachers pass on the most important knowledge of the past and prepare their students for the future. Craftspersons make objects that are beautiful and useful. All practitioners should be able to state the core traditional mission of their own fields. At best, the mission is part of what draws the practitioner to a chosen profession and remains as a principal sustenance in times of conflict. A good way of clarifying this sense of mission is to ask: "Why should society reward the kind of work that I do with status and certain privileges?"


Each profession prescribes standards of performance, some permanent, some changing with time and place. The classic example is the Hippocratic oath: the physician is enjoined to do no harm, to respond to calls without attention to personal preferences; to keep confidences, to lead an honorable life, to use medicines only for curative purposes, and to desist from exploiting the patient. There are comparable standards for other professions. Lawyers are expected to be personally ethical, to provide the best possible defense for their clients, not to withhold information from the court, not to use perjured testimony, and to maintain confidences. Teachers are expected to be moral exemplars, to be well informed, to treat all youngsters fairly, and to avoid personal relations with their students. People involved in the crafts are expected to use the finest materials, to pass on their special skills and understandings to apprentices, and to avoid cutting corners in their work.

Professionals should be able to employ, as a standards test, the question, "Which workers in the profession best realize the calling and why?" A list of admired workers, along with their virtues, should reveal the standards embodied in the profession.


Our third consideration is a person's own background, traits, and values, as these add up to a holistic sense of identity: a person's deeply felt convictions about who she is, and what matters most to her existence as a worker, a citizen, and a human being. A central element of identity is moral—people must determine for themselves what lines they will not cross and why they will not cross them. But a sense of identity also includes personality traits, motivation, intellectual strengths and weaknesses, and personal likes and dislikes.

As psychologists, we have an enduring interest in issues of identity. (In fact, Howard Gardner and William Damon studied with Erik Erikson, the psychologist who, in the mid-1900s, developed the concept of identity.) Each person's identity is shaped by an amalgam of forces, including family history, religious and ideological beliefs, community membership, and idiosyncratic individual experiences. In the best of circumstances, these complement one another and add up to a coherent and positive attitude, one that makes sense to the person and to the surrounding community. Of course, such an integrated sense of identity remains an ideal: Nearly everyone suffers at times from some fragmentation of identity, some diffusion, some confusion. Nor does identity ever completely coalesce. Rich lives include continuing internal conversations about who we are, what we want to achieve, where we are successful, and where we are falling short.

There is a clear-cut gauge for identity, which might be called the "mirror test." The image comes from the story of a German ambassador in London who, as part of a celebration he had to host in honor of Britain's King Edward VII, was asked to provide a bevy of prostitutes. The diplomat felt that he could not do this and instead resigned his position. Asked why, he responded, "I refused to see a pimp in the mirror in the morning when I shave." Only when we can look proudly in the mirror can we be said to have affirmed our identity. Of course, on occasion the hacker who cripples a network or the politician who has no intention of fulfilling his promises may be proud of what he has gotten away with. In such cases, it is necessary to invoke the universal mirror test: "What would it be like to live in a world if everyone were to behave in the way that I have?"

Excerpted with permission from Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon. Published by Basic Books, 2001.