The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated February 22, 2002

Good Work, Well Done: a Psychological Study


The topic of work has long been the subject of academic study. Indeed, from their beginnings in the 18th and 19th centuries, the disciplines of economics and sociology accorded labor, production, and the organization -- and organizations -- of work a primary place in their firmament of concerns. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx documented the opportunities and challenges faced by individual workers; Émile Durkheim and Max Weber probed the nature of bureaucracy, the division of labor, and the sense of calling. Today, when adults around the world spend about half of their waking hours at work, the topic is ever more salient.

Yet the actual experience of work has been strangely neglected by the very discipline equipped to tell us the most about it: academic psychology. Influential psychologists have had relatively little to say about the ways in which workers conceptualize their daily experiences -- the goals and concerns that they bring to the workplace, the human and technical opportunities and obstacles that they encounter, the strategies that they develop to make the most of their experiences, the stances that they assume when faced with ethical dilemmas. Scanning the indexes in the psychology textbooks on my bookshelf, I find few references to work. That vast category is dwarfed by the entries for "word," on one side, and "working memory," on the other. To be sure, Freud deemed "lieben und arbeiten" the keys to a satisfying life; but, along with the majority of his colleagues, he directed most of his attention to sex and love, rather than to the experiences of work and the workplace.

Why have we psychologists shied away from studying something that means so much to so many of us? To be sure, any explanation is necessarily speculative. My own guess is that two facets of 20th-century psychology -- particularly of the American academic variety -- have militated against a holistic, experiential focus. On the one hand, psychology has suffered from a strong case of physics envy. It has sought the basic laws of the mind. The low-hanging fruit that has tempted us here are studies of sensation, perception, and the elementary operations of cognition. Indeed, those are the areas of academic psychology that have earned recognition in the National Academy of Sciences and even in the rare Nobel Prize.

The other feature of psychology has been its bias toward atomism -- toward breaking down complex processes and problems into their most basic and irreducible elements. So, when psychologists turn their attention to work -- or, for that matter, to play -- they focus on the identification of specific skills, like typing a paragraph or playing peekaboo, where the relevant variables are most easily identified and controlled for. The complex world of work, with its welter of experiences, is too hard to pin down in the laboratory.

That is not to say that psychology has ignored all aspects of work. Research on how skill and expertise develop tells us about the importance of steady practice and the emergence of well-entrenched scripts to govern our daily endeavors. Studies of motivation reveal the intricate interplay between external rewards for high-level performance and those intrinsic satisfactions that can keep us engaged over the long haul, even when things are not going well. Examinations of adult development document the importance for psychic well-being of satisfaction in the workplace and the pleasures we take in passing on our skills, understandings, and passions to the younger generation. And applied industrial psychology -- that exile from the university -- aims to secure optimal performances from employees.

The scant literature on the psychology of work thus exhibits a striking schism. Arrayed on one side are studies that focus on technical excellence: what it means to be an expert or an innovator. On the other are studies that focus on the individual as a member of a working group or team. What's largely missing from the contemporary psychological literature are those topics that initially intrigued Adam Smith, above all a student of moral sentiments, and Max Weber, an explicator of work as a calling. I'm talking about the place that work occupies in the overall life experiences of the individual. It is high time that members of the psychology community attempt to bridge that schism.

Two other psychologists, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon, and I have come up with a name for the line of study that has been neglected in our profession: We call it "good work." Since 1995, we have been conducting in-depth interviews with professionals in an effort to define work that is good in two senses: It exhibits a high level of expertise, and it entails regular concern with the implications and applications of an individual's work for the wider world. We seek to understand what is good work; where it is found; how it develops and can be fostered. Most especially, we examine how individuals who wish to do good work succeed or fail in doing so, particularly in a time like our own, when conditions are changing very quickly, when market forces have enormous power over the individual (with few, if any, significant counterforces), and when our sense of time and space has been radically altered by technologies like the World Wide Web.

Clearly, we believe that a frontal attack by mainstream psychology on the experience of work is overdue. Equally clearly, it is especially important at this time of rapid change throughout the world. But, perhaps most important, we, as researchers, have a mission with a moral agenda. Too often, psychologists like us have studied competence purely in a technical sense -- what does it mean to be intelligent, to be creative, to be a leader? What we haven't done is pay attention to the ways such talents are deployed. My colleagues and I want to see whether it is possible to understand that happy circumstance in which "good" in the technical sense converges with "good" in the moral sense.

To understand what we're after, think of two hypothetical individuals. Lawyer A wins most of her cases but cuts every possible corner and accepts only clients with deep pockets. Lawyer B defends the poor and the downtrodden, follows every regulation scrupulously, but consistently loses cases. Lawyer A is good only in the first sense of the term, of demonstrating expertise; Lawyer B only in the second sense, of showing concern for the wider world. We can all list individuals from various professions who appear to be good workers. My own roster would include the publisher Katharine Graham, the polio researcher Jonas Salk, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the tennis star Arthur Ashe, and John Gardner (no relation), the creator of many impressive institutions, to whom my colleagues and I dedicated our recent book, Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet.

We are continuing our study across professions as varied as theater and philanthropy, but we initially focused on two realms of work that are crucial today: journalism and genetics. We reasoned that they deal with two vital forms of information in our lives. Journalists tell us what is happening in the world and update us as needed; in the biologist Richard Dawkins's term, they provide our "memes." Geneticists study the information that is most important for our physical existence -- the code in the genes that reveals our life prospects. Until 50 years ago, genetics was carried out at some remove from our personal health. But in the wake of an epochal scientific revolution, geneticists stand poised not only to reveal our personal destinies, but also to provide the information and tools that could lead to genetic engineering, genetic therapy, and cloning of organs or entire organisms.

As psychologists, my colleagues and I wanted to know what it is like to work at the cutting edge of such influential professions. To find out, we conducted interviews with more than 100 geneticists and 100 journalists. Most were recognized leaders in their respective professions, but we also spoke with a number of young professionals and midlevel practitioners, those solid workers who are established but not leaders. We asked our subjects about their goals, their values, the obstacles that they encountered, the strategies that they used at such times, their backgrounds, their professional aspirations. We also posed ethical dilemmas and asked them to carry out a "Q sort," a procedure in which they rank their personal values in importance. Generally we accepted their testimony as sincere and truthful. Yet we also challenged them when it seemed appropriate -- for example, if they contradicted themselves or the published record -- and we reviewed each single-spaced page of each 30-to-50-page transcript in terms of our general knowledge and in light of the testimony of our subjects' professional colleagues.

At the time of our initial study, in the late 1990s, the experiences of the two groups of professionals could not have been more different. Geneticists were almost wholly a satisfied lot; they could not wait to get up in the morning and pursue their work. They felt that it was possible -- even likely -- that they could achieve their goals of deciphering the nature of life and catalyzing the discovery of procedures and treatments that could improve health and lengthen lives. They saw few obstacles in their paths. Nor did they express particular concern about ethical dilemmas that have since been widely reported -- about, for instance, the ethics of cloning, stem-cell research, and various forms of genetic therapy. (In fact, the greatest concern they raised was about misuse of genetic data by insurance companies -- the only area in which the geneticists themselves played no role.) In our terms, their domain was "highly aligned": In 1997-99, all of the principal stakeholders, from individual scientists to shareholders of biotech companies to the public, were in their corner.

In sharp contrast, the journalists were by and large despondent about their profession. Many had entered print or broadcast journalism armed with ideals: covering important stories, doing so in an exhaustive and fair way, relying on their own judgment about the significance of stories and the manner in which they should be presented. Instead, for the most part, our subjects reported that much of the control in journalism has passed from professionals to corporate executives and stockholders, with most of the professional decisions made less on the basis of ideals than of profits. They described what felt to them like an ineluctable trend away from stories of any complexity or sensitivity, toward material that is simple and sensational, if not of prurient interest. Journalism emerges, in our phrase, as a domain that is "poorly aligned": It is difficult to carry out good work in the profession; many individuals have left the field, and quite a few more are considering doing so.

While our findings might appear to be simply a "good news, bad news" story, we determined that it is more complex than that. Alignment or nonalignment are temporary conditions. Journalism was well-aligned in America in the 1950s; genetics could well become misaligned, if the research agenda comes to be set by corporate executives rather than by scientists, or if there is a major mishap in the field, a kind of genetic Three Mile Island.

Indeed, in the brief period since September 11, a realignment of sorts may already have commenced. The frivolous aspects of journalism have receded to some extent; readers and viewers want their news straight up, and they turn to the most reliable outlets. Genetics has not yet been directly affected. But it may be that, in the aftermath of September 11, there will be pressures to mobilize the best brains to fight bioterrorism rather than to carry out basic research in a field like genetics. The recession will no doubt also put a crimp in financing. And the very specter of bioterrorism reminds us of the essential amorality of all science and technology.

Whether, and to what degree, the work experience in journalism and genetics changes as a result of recent events, our study illuminates how individuals feel about good work in their fields. Consider the story Ray Suarez told us. In the early 1990s, the Chicago-based television journalist was assigned to cover a story about the possible dangers of video games; a producer had heard that such games might cause epileptic fits in children. The more that Suarez probed, however, the more he realized that the threat was not genuine. As he put it, "About halfway 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.'" Suarez had tried to get out of covering the story, but his boss insisted that he go on and file it. "If you have a contract and a contract says certain things, you have to do what you're told," the reporter reminded us. Suarez realized that he would continue to encounter such pressures and felt that he could not tolerate them. He was considering leaving the news business altogether when he landed a job with National Public Radio. From that time on, he has worked for public broadcasting. He has opted to pursue a career in which he is able to carry out work in which he feels pride.

A very different kind of situation was faced by a young scientist (who asked not to be named) who was working in a genetic-research program. To his surprise, he discovered that some of the protocols in his project were being financed twice -- by the National Institutes of Health, at taxpayers' expense, and by a for-profit drug company. Neither underwriter was aware of the double billing. Steeling himself, the young scientist reported what was clearly an improper situation to the dean of the medical school. The dean listened carefully and thanked the young informant. But the whistle-blower, who was trying to do good work, soon discovered that he was being moved to less sensitive positions on the team, and that nothing was being done to correct the lapse of ethics. Eventually, he realized that the dean had been the one to devise the system of double billing. The geneticist -- forced to choose between probably injuring his career and tacitly condoning a scam -- decided to leave the university.

The dilemmas that Suarez and the young scientist described are faced by workers in every domain. Anyone can be pressured to do questionable things that promise profits; anyone can discover an illegal procedure and be penalized for reporting it to someone in authority. And, as our study confirmed, the goal of carrying out good work is harder to reach when conditions are unstable and market forces are allowed to run unchecked.

What does that mean -- for our individual psyches and for society as a whole? In such situations, many, if not most, of us resign ourselves to our fate. It is difficult to quit one's job, let alone one's whole profession; and few in midlife, saddled with mortgage and, perhaps, tuition payments, have the fortitude to do so. As a result, we are left with a society in which profit motives reign supreme -- and in which few feel in a position where they can perform good work.

It is worth remembering, however, Margaret Mead's famous remark: "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Following Mead's quintessentially American sentiment, and on the basis of our study, my colleagues and I believe that the most likely path to satisfaction in good work -- in the sense of developing expertise as well as helping society -- is for each of us to take the initiative, one by one. We therefore call on people to focus on what we term the "three M's": Mission, Models, Mirror.

First: Define your mission. Whether you are a professional or a worker in a service or manufacturing industry, it is important to lay out the mission of your work. What are you trying to achieve, how does it serve society, what difference does it make? We are not speaking here about producing mission-statement boilerplate -- something to be promulgated and forgotten. Rather, we are talking about identifying the reasons that one originally chose one's work and making a serious effort to determine whether that mission still stands or whether one has strayed from it -- and, if so, in what direction. Evidence for the rarity of that exercise is the gratitude that many of our subjects expressed after they had taken a few hours to wrestle with the fundamental questions we had raised with them about their work experience.

Second: Identify role models. We probably all sense that it helps to identify individuals in our jobs whom we admire and strive to emulate. Many newspeople, for example, talk about looking up to Edward R. Murrow, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, or Katharine Graham. But we were intrigued to find that individuals are also influenced by anti-mentors or tormentors, individuals from whom they strive to distinguish themselves. Several scientists told us that they were emboldened to pursue a certain line of work when a colleague or mentor said that it could not be done or, worse, that they could not do it. A few older female scientists recalled that their own professors had questioned their commitment to the field, and they said they felt a particular mission today to work with promising young women.

Finally: Take the mirror test. Ultimately, individuals need to be able to look at themselves objectively and see whether they are the kind of person they wish to be. When you look at yourself in the mirror, are you proud or embarrassed by what you see? How do others feel about you? And how does your profession, as a whole, stack up -- does it pass the mirror test? Quite a few journalists we interviewed expressed dismay about the way in which their profession was evolving, and a few indicated that they had voluntarily left broadcast news. We were reminded of the remark by Harold Evans, who has edited major newspapers in England and the United States: "The problem many organizations face is not to stay in business but to stay in journalism."

There is no guarantee, of course, that everyone who strives to become a good worker will succeed. Nor is there any guarantee that individuals will always assess themselves accurately; we all have a tendency to see ourselves in a positive light. Yet the research that my colleagues and I are conducting indicates that the three M's can help us and our society.

Anyone involved in a study of the human sphere has searched his soul in the weeks since September 11. Stacked against the enormous political, ideological, financial, and religious forces that have been unleashed, the individual human psyche seems in some ways a slender reed. Yet I've been struck by the extent to which so many of us -- ranging from college students to the most experienced and successful professionals -- have been jarred into posing fundamental questions to ourselves: Am I doing the work that I should be doing? If not, what should I be doing, and how should I be carrying it out?

As a psychologist, I had thought that most commitments to good work arise from a personal revelation or trauma, when one's life is reoriented because of a Damascene experience. But clearly, on occasion, a tremendous jolt to our wider world can also bring about reconsideration. After the detonation of nuclear weapons over Japan, for example, many particle physicists confronted agonizing questions about their work. What is unprecedented, in my experience, is a shock like September 11, which reverberates through an entire society -- a shock so great that workers across the economic and political spectrum have come to pose existential questions to themselves. While such questions assuredly go beyond the hours at work, they cannot fail to ignore the substantial part of every day that is devoted to human labor. Perhaps the pervasive reflective activity of recent months may deliver a message to a discipline like my own, which has, for too long, virtually ignored the meanings of the central activity in our lives.

Howard Gardner teaches developmental psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. With Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon, he is the author of Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic Books, 2001).
Section: The Chronicle Review
Page: B7

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