The Daily Deal, January 25, 2002 |
Judgement Call Corporate
by Susan Webber
book addressing excellence and ethics is marred by a failure to examine
how the quest for profits can be reconciled with the desire to act professionally
Ethics in business goes in and out of fashion. In the late 1980s, in
the wake of scandals in the securities industry - most notably, the
successful prosecution of former luminaries Martin Siegel, Ivan Boesky,
and Michael MIlken - many MBA programs added ethics courses, acknowledging
that the quest for profits needed to be tempered by a sense of social
That resurgence of interest in morality coincided with the last downturn,
and recessions are by nature introspective periods. But even in robust
economies, executives recognize the utility of instilling a strong sense
of values. They can not only check self-serving behavior, but more important,
can also motivate staff. Hence the perennial popularity of mission statements
despite the cynical reaction they often elicit.
In these newly-serious times, when employees are questioning the purpose
of their work, companies may need to articulate a response. Thus "Good
Work: Where Excellence and Ethics Meet," by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi,
and William Damon, seemed to have something to offer.
The authors, all respected psychologists and professors, have had a
long-standing interest in the relationship between high-level performance
and social responsibility. They explored this topic by interviewing
professionals in genetics and journalism.
It is remarkable how so much effort yielded so few results. Their main
finding, that it is easier for professionals to do good work, that is,
work they feel proud of and that is consistent with the values of their
field, when these values are aligned with those of other key actors
and stakeholders - is trivial, verging on self-evident.
The authors certainly did not need to talk to such renowned journalists
and publishers such as Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham of The Washington
Post, Daniel Schorr of the National Public Radio. or Tom Brokaw of NBC
to learn that reporters find it difficult to uphold traditional journalistic
standards in the face of the need to appeal to mass audiences and meet
This fuzzy-headedness results from a failure to define and work through
the issues prior to starting the research. As a result, the book is
largely a recitation of the obvious, such as, that genetics are happy
because they are on the leading edge of science. Worse, the authors
have not thought very deeply about what their subjects told them. Contradictions
For example, the geneticists uniformly said they were in no position
to decide the larger ethical questions genetic engineering raises; these
issues were better left to the community at large. Yet they also took
umbrage at popular concerns, such as fears about long-term health and
environmental effects of genetically modified food, arguing that the
public does not understand the science. Did it occur to them (or the
authors) that the public has been forced to participate in what are
effectively large scale experiments, and, as in clinical trials, it
has a right to consent? Similarly, the journalists complained about
the declining professionalism in their field, although all felt that
they were still doing high-quality work. Quite remarkable that a random
selection process turned up such a stellar group.
Finally, the authors ignored signs of a generational shift in mores.
For example, older journalists deplored playing fast and loose with
facts, while many younger journalists thought it was acceptable to shade
information if it illustrated a larger truth. What if what we now see
as a decline in standards is later depicted as an adjustment in response
to new technology or new social values?
The recommendations were clearly written by people who do not live in
the real world. Some, addressed to frustrated professionals - such as
forming a union, lobbying, joining or starting a company whose values
are a better fit - require far more time, intestinal fortitude, and
financial sacrifice than most people can give.
And suggestions like, "reaffirming the values of existing institutions,"
like the National Institutes of Health and The New York Times, are ludicrous.
Moreover, these institutions are already compromised. One interviewee
pointed out that the NIH grant review committees suffer from conflicts
of interest. And The Times, which had to issue a lengthy retraction
of its indictment of the falsely-accused nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee,
has continued to show questionable judgement in devoting disproportionate
space to its coverage of bioterrorism, feeding fears rather than serving
the public interest.
The cardinal fault of this book is that it did not examine how to reconcile
profits with professionalism. As Bernard Shaw demonstrated, most people
have a price at which they will compromise their ethics, and in these
corrupt times, many have been willing to make that trade. This mercenary
drift in cultural norms has been rationalized by ascribing virtue to
But a freely operating market is not a tidy affair like the heavily-regulated
U.S. exchanges. At best it is a bazaar, where buyer and seller spar
for advantage, and at worst a brawl.
Markets are efficient means of allocating goods, but not of serving
other social ends. By failing to discuss how to swim against this tide,
"Good Work" has proved to be anything but that.