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Howard Gardner: Doing good work

Increasing the incidence of good work in the United States has become the mission of the developer of the theory of multiple intelligences.

April 26, 2011

Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist and an education professor at Harvard University, is best known for developing the theory of multiple intelligences in the early 1980s. But for the past 15-plus years, he has been involved in the GoodWork Project.

GardnerHe began the project in 1995 with fellow psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon. Their research group interviewed more than 1,200 leading professionals to understand how they defined and identified good work and how they made ethical job-related decisions.

From that, Gardner set out to “figure out what’s the best way to reach young people on ‘good work,’” which he defines as the intertwining of excellence, engagement and ethics, he said.

The GoodWork Project group has published 10 books based on their research. The latest, written by Gardner, is “Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century.” It was released in April 2011.

Gardner spoke with Faith & Leadership about the GoodWork Project, how leaders can nurture good work, and the role that faith and social entrepreneurship play in it.

Q: Why the GoodWork Project?

Three of us started this project because we were interested in what would happen to professions at a time when markets are very powerful. We were seeing journalism being pushed off the stage, even before the digital revolution, because of the prioritization of profit margins. The notion of the public lawyer disappeared as law and corporate life became virtually indistinguishable. We didn’t know enough to include auditing in our initial set of professions, but Enron taught us that people who are trained as auditors and accountants are all too often for sale.

So the interest was, since we believed that professions are important and not easily replaceable, what’s their status at the present time?

Though it took us 10 years, we interviewed more than 1,200 people in nine different domains, mostly professions, to understand what they thought “good work” was, what helps people carry it out, what obstacles they encounter and how they saw the future of their own professional sector.

One of the things we discovered was that just about everybody could distinguish between good work and not-good work. But many young people said they couldn’t afford to do good work at present, because they were ambitious. It’s a classical ends-justify-the-means argument. At that point, I stopped being the researcher and said, this is serious. This has become a mission for me.

Q: How do you define good work?

It’s the intertwining of excellence, engagement and ethics. A good worker knows what he’s doing, cares about it and tries to do it in an ethical way. But good workers don’t just use their knowledge to promote their own selfish interests.

Q: What did you learn from the 1,200 interviews about how people understood good work?

A big thing was how important mentoring in the first job was for people. One of the things that many people lamented was that there’s much less mentoring now, because everything moves too fast and people move around from one job or city to another.

Fifty years ago, many senior people saw it as their job to mentor younger people, and people were much more likely to stay with the same law firm, the same hospital, the same accounting firm. The pre-doctoral and postdoctoral training of the scientist is probably the last area where mentoring is still very powerful.

In the absence of effective, positive mentoring, it’s very difficult to become a good worker. After all, on whom will you model yourself?

I often say to young people, to the extent that you have any choice, the institutional culture of the first place you work is going to have a very, very powerful influence on you.

Q: What did you learn about the relationship between faith and how people thought about good work?

Many people whom we would consider good workers actually referred to religious upbringing, whether or not they currently are believers or practice religion in any public sense. So it seems to be an important marker of your childhood and the stories you heard and whether you went to church or synagogue or whatever.

But in American life, particularly outside the South, if people have religion, it’s often not something they talk about. It’s quite personal. And so it didn’t come up that often when interview subjects on the coasts were talking about work. But the South is different. I think in the South people wear their religion more on their sleeves. And I’m not making a value judgment about that.

Q: What type of environment nurtures good work?

First of all, the leaders really have to believe [in good work]. Second of all, they have to embody it in everything that they do and say. Third of all, they can’t explain often enough what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Though to older people who grew up in a different time, things may seem obvious, it’s really not obvious to young people who live in a different time.

Just think about plagiarism. On the one hand, it’s so easy to borrow, and on the other hand, we know when the president gives a talk, or a CEO posts a blog, he’s almost never written it himself.

You can’t just sum it up and say plagiarism is wrong. You have to explain why it’s wrong and show what a world would be like when no one wrote or took responsibility for what was issued under his name.

And I think, as somebody who in a very small way has been a leader, it’s the people that you pick to work directly with you who really make the difference. I am in touch every day with my three wonderful project managers on everything, and I have two highly able assistants. I had a very difficult situation yesterday, and I called in my senior assistant and said, “How would you handle this?” I started to write a letter, and she said, “Let me write it.” And that was terrific. I didn’t ask her to do it.

I guess what I’m really saying is that you have to create a more simple, direct relationship between people who are in senior positions and people who we hope someday will carry on work that strives to be good.

Q: What are the implications of the theory of multiple intelligences as leaders try to galvanize people to do good work?

Leaders tell stories, and they have to be able to do so in ways that affect people. And that means that they have to have communications or linguistic intelligence, or they have to work with somebody else who has it. (Remember that Moses was not very articulate, but his brother Aaron was.)

Understanding other people is obviously important. That’s what we call interpersonal intelligence. It’s often called emotional or social intelligence.

The thing that I would add, which is less obvious, is what I would call existential intelligence. And that intelligence deals with the posing and reflecting on the big questions of life. The most effective leaders, whether they’re at universities or at corporations or in the political world, are people who remind us why we’re living and what we want to have, and hopefully it isn’t just having the most beans in our own pot just before we die.

Because people learn and understand in different ways, any leader should have a plurality of ways of conveying his or her message.

The other point I would make draws from my own experience. People often ask me how multiple intelligence has affected my teaching. The answer is, it hasn’t very much. I teach graduate students who write theses, and that doesn’t call for a wide range of intelligences.

But when putting together a research group, I used to think everybody should be just like me. And that sounds kind of stupid; one of me is enough. So I think a lot about putting people together with complementary skills. That’s a multiple-intelligence way of thinking.

Q: You have said that your definition of good work will require America to change its conception of success and that social entrepreneurship will help do that. Talk about the role that social entrepreneurship has in promoting good work and changing such big conceptions.

Social entrepreneurship is one of the most important [things to] emerge in the last decades. I’m sure it’s always existed, but it’s nice to have a name for it. It’s nice to meet young people who see themselves as social entrepreneurs, and there’s no question that anybody who’s trying to bring about changes can learn from organizations and institutions that have been successful in bringing about changes. And that’s why the entrepreneurial capacity and motivation can be useful for people who want to help the homeless or fight AIDS or whatever. That said, it’s not necessarily the silver bullet.

My great hero is John Gardner (who is not any relation), and he said, “There are so many young people in America doing so many good things, but it doesn’t add up, because it’s unconnected to the political process.” We see that now.

We have more social entrepreneurs in America than ever before, but don’t get me started on what’s happening with the legislation in the states and the country. It’s undoing decades of work. So as long as social entrepreneurship remains unconnected from political power, it’s more inspiring than it is transformational.

The other thing that I worry about is when you try to bring a strict market or accounting lens to social work, it’s often inappropriate and you end up distorting the work in ways which are not helpful to anybody. Even though anybody in America who says that they’re against accountability will be ridiculed, I place a lot more faith in letting individuals determine what the marks of success are, what the failures are and how to learn from them than simply saying, “You have to serve so many clients by such-and-such day if you want ever to get funding again.”

The inappropriate intrusion of uncritical hypermarket thinking can be very damaging to social enterprise.