The Daily Deal, January 25, 2002
Judgement Call Corporate Governance

Poor Work

by Susan Webber

A 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 responsibility.

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 Internet-paced deadlines.

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 abound.

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 markets.

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.