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ost people want to do "good work" a combination of high-quality performance and social responsibility, says Howard Gardner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The question is how. So he and two colleagues, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor at the School of Management at Claremont University, and William Damon, a professor at Stanford University, created the Good Work Project to research how professionals in fields from science to journalism have answered the question.
Felicia R. Lee spoke with Professor Gardner.
Q: In an age when
The idea that most people want to do good work is based on self-reporting of values of the people we studied and the fact that people choose to go into lines of work where affluence will not be the reward. I have no doubt that most people want to do good work, but maybe a sharper way to ask the question is whether good work comes out on top in a head-to-head combat with success by any means. I do worry a lot about the idea that good work is not as important as achieving your ambition. The young people we interviewed all wanted to be respectable workers, but if that gets in the way of ambition, they were willing to bracket it. Among young high school scientists, wealth is what they value.
You are best known for your studies of multiple kinds of intelligence. Why did you start researching the topic of work in 1994?
There have been a lot of studies of morality and a lot of studies of work, but no one has looked at it together. Nineteen ninety-four and 1995 were a time when there was an aggressive conversation that the best mechanism for regulating different spheres of life was the market. The market means letting buyers and sellers adjust to one another's views and demands: education is available to people who can afford it, medicine is available to those who can afford it.
None of us are economists, but we had an instinctive feeling that there were all kinds of spheres of life in which it was not appropriate to cede to supply-and-demand issues. It took us five years to figure out what the question was that we would ask. Here's the question: How do people who want to do good work work that is excellent and responsible succeed or fail at a time when market forces are unprecedentedly powerful and there are no comparable countervailing forces?
What pushed us into this workaholic world of powerful market forces?
Markets have always been powerful. But until the end of the cold war there were other factors socialism, fascism, communism that were counter to the market. And religion. In the 20th century all over the world there has been a waning in religious factors affecting your work life. Until the 20th century, all colleges were religious institutions. If you feel that God is with you all the time and is looking at everything you do, you behave very differently. How you work had an impact on whether you got into heaven. If family and community values say you are home every night for dinner, that's different from saying you have to work 14 hours a day because the guy next to you works 14 hours.
What do you hope the project accomplishes?
We are trying to do two things. Understand where good work comes from, and, No. 2, increase the incidence of good work. We will work with high school kids to pose dilemmas, to have focus groups on the issue of good work. We want employers to ask not only is this person a good worker, but is this someone I would want to have in my company?
What issues did you explore in your interviews with the professionals in your study?
We have nine areas in which we code what people say about goals, guiding values, missions, obstacles, strategies. And open-ended questions like "The one person I don't want to be like: (fill in the blank)." We give them ethical dilemmas and ask them to solve them. Five years from now, we'll have data on about a dozen professions from all over the world, from age 15 on to people we call "trustees," like Walter Cronkite, who are no longer in the business but care about it. Our hope is to study about a dozen professions. We are largely done with business, done with law, just beginning medicine, and have done a lot of work in higher education and some in social entrepreneurship.
Why were the geneticists you studied mostly happy and the journalists mostly unhappy?
The biggest difference was in the absence of mixed signals about what is wanted from inside and outside the field. The current institutions are pushing journalists to do things they don't think they should be doing cranking out copy too fast, not enough research, things that are sensational, and avoiding any investigation that embarrasses the advertisers.
We found that there was very little pressure from the public to have higher quality journalism. The sensationalism got put aside for a while after 9/11 because people really wanted to know what was going on. The geneticists did not face the same conflicts. They kept the stockholders happy and they saw their work as important and meaningful.
What's next from the project?
We just finished a book on young persons, age 15 to age 35, and how they become good workers. There are three dilemmas that kids confront. One we call vertical dilemmas: the boss tells you something you don't want to do, like a journalist interviewing a family in mourning. Another is peer relations: people are in great competition with their peers. And then there are internal dilemmas: your conscience tells you one thing but the norm is a different thing. As you get older, more and more of this gets internalized. Bad work occurs when you have no authority figures at all, or the bulk of your peers are acting in an unethical fashion or your own sense of right and wrong begins to atrophy.
What has been the most surprising finding so far?
The finding with the youngest people. Many of them feel they can't do the right thing now, they have to wait until they get positions of power. The pressures on them what their bosses tell them to do, what their peers are doing are such that if they follow their conscience they think they will not be successful.