Ethical work in a bottom-line time

A good job well done.

It's a goal most people hope to achieve when they head off to work each day. But what exactly does it take to produce work that is both excellent in quality and that benefits society, particularly in today's market-driven times?

It's a question Harvard education professor Howard Gardner addresses in the new book "Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet." Professor Gardner, known for his multiple-intelligences theory that defines distinct ways individuals perceive the world, wrote the book along with Stanford University education professor William Damon and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University in California.

They interviewed hundreds of people at different stages in their careers. All were asked to discuss their aspirations, decisions, and the ethical dilemmas they have faced at work.

The survey's twist: All of those interviewed worked in either journalism or genetics. Genetics, the professors found, seems to have entered a sort of "golden age." Scientists, the public, and genetics firms all have similar goals.

Journalism, on the other hand, was found to be facing a crisis: Media moguls, reporters, and the public frequently want very different things, often forcing journalists to make tough ethical choices.

On top of that, both professions have come under sharp ethical scrutiny. Already-intense cloning debates have gotten more heated with the human embryo cloning in Worcester, Mass. recently, and journalists have been the subject of both high praise and critical questioning for their post-Sept. 11 coverage.

The professors are now studying several other professions and are adding to the study variables such as cultural background and age. In a recent interview, Mr. Gardner discussed some of the group's findings so far:

On why the project interests him:

Work is central to everybody's life, and nobody wants to do bad work, but it's often very hard to unclutter your mind and say what's really important, what you're really trying to do, and what are the consequences, positive and negative.... How do you do good work when the market is so powerful? My absolute conviction, shared by my other colleagues, is that there are all sorts of spheres of society that are ruinous when they're governed by markets.

On some surprises from the first study:

We had no idea that journalism and genetics would turn out to be so different from each other - the fact that journalists were mostly depressed and were looking back to a golden age when they could do more what they wanted and they weren't always feeling they had to work very fast and get the stuff that was more sensational. Nor did we anticipate geneticists would be so euphoric....

We're all surprised at how blasé the geneticists we talked to were about ethical dilemmas. Things like patenting - nobody gave it a second thought. When Jonas Salk discovered a vaccine against polio, and someone said, 'Are you going to patent it?' he said that would be like patenting the sun.... It was a totally different attitude.

On changes within journalism:

This framework we have now can help us explain changes we're observing with our eyes. Journalism has gotten better aligned in the past month. How long that will stay is anyone's guess. There's no question journalists feel more energized. They feel legitimate. The pressures of making money are being diminished in favor of making sure everyone knows what's going on in the world.

On 'teaching' ethics:

We take a look at a very senior person in [a given profession]. Take Edward R. Murrow - we look at his students, and his students' students.... We believe the most important things about good work are transmitted from one human being to another. They're not in books, they can't be picked up by a computer program. It's about rubbing elbows with people who themselves are good workers. People may be inspired by reading about them. But really it's the people who get to work with them, who are trained by them, who breathe in their atmosphere.

On the importance of faith:

We were struck by how many of our subjects talked about religion as being very important when they were young.... Some of our subjects are very much involved in contemplative and meditative practices, and seem to find this a source of strength in their work.

Maybe when market forces are so powerful, you need a counterforce to balance them. What's been unprecedented in the past 20 or 30 years is there isn't any counterforce. The market has always been powerful in America, but there were [sufficient] religious or ideological counterforces until very recently.

On catalysts for change:

If you have a personal crisis in your life, it might very well make you turn toward good work. Malcolm X was in jail and could certainly have become a member of the Mafia, but he had a personal crisis, and sometimes this Damascene experience can set someone on the road toward good work. Or toward bad work. Bin Laden is clearly the opposite example.

If you think journalism is about truth and objectivity and fairness, and you find out it [seems to be] about 'if it bleeds it leads,' you've got a choice. Some people fight it, and those are the heroes in our book. Or you can have a society crisis, which we're going through now.... A society crisis throws things into sharp relief.

On the 'three M's' for workers:

What's your mission and why did you go into it? Who's your mentor - who do you admire? The mirror test: When you look at yourself in the mirror are you generally proud of what you're doing as a worker?

On meeting resistance:

You have options. You can stay in your job and put up with everything. You can go do what you believe is right and risk being fired. You can try [back-channel approaches] - sometimes it works, professions and organizations have been turned around. The most admirable thing is to try and start a new institution, with other people, that really does reflect what you believe in. Many people have gone into nonprofits.

On his hopes for the project:

I'd like people to be talking about good work. I would like people to be saying to people, 'Is he or she a good worker?' and for that to be the way in which we judge people at institutions.

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