PRB Articles


Good Work

The question of what it means to be a professional was explored at length in PRB’s September and October 2007 issues (“How Professional Are You,” Parts 1 and 2). One conclusion was that some managers aspire--or are inspired--to achieve a special type of professionalism referred to as a “calling.” This was explained as a harmonious combination of internal and external perspectives about skill set, motivation and perception.

In their book, Good Work, noted psychologists Howard Gardner (multiple intelligences), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (flow) and William Damon (morality) examined what it means to be “called” in relation to finding personal and professional fulfillment by producing high-quality work that also has a positive impact on society. The authors’ basic question is, In these challenging times, can people be both excellent and ethical?

Four Powerful Forces

The answer seems like a simple “yes,” but four forces in the modern world create scenarios in which managers are faced with difficult choices:

· Powerful technologies

· The growing dominance of the competitive marketplace

· The decline in a shared meaning of “ethical” behavior

· A reduction in the number of people who can be viewed as role models.

Outcomes influenced by the four forces have consequences for individuals, their agencies and society that are positive, negative or both.

For example, communication technology allows managers and staff to be “available” 24/7, but may interfere with their own recreation and leisure; budget issues can tempt public-sector agencies to hike user fees to increase revenue, but shut out people who earn lower incomes; mandates for higher productivity can tempt people to cut corners; and executive bonus payouts can influence staff to sell out or drop out.

Aligned Versus Misaligned

Balancing the four forces is alignment, while an imbalance among them results in misalignment, measured according to three criteria (see figure):

1. Quality or level of performance (low to high)

2. Effect on the individual/agency/society (positive or negative)

3. Matching decisions or actions to internal and external financial expectations (operating according to the organizational type: e.g., public, non-profit, or market).

Each of the criteria involves ethical choices that affect excellence, and also the degree to which agency employees “get into the flow” of what they do. The least desirable scenario exhibits low-quality, financial shenanigans and a negative impact on people. Conversely, excellent quality created within an appropriate financial philosophy that benefits everyone produces the feeling of fulfillment associated with good work.

Graffiti As A Financial Asset?

When I presented at a conference in Melbourne, Australia, in 2008, one of the political issues being debated was the fate of a small graffito depicting Star Wars’ R2-D2 spray-painted on an alley wall. To some officials it was an example of pure vandalism, an embarrassing defacement of property that collectively “costs local governments over $260 million a year to clean up," according to an ABC News Australian report. This scenario represents maximum misalignment. However, the story took a fascinating turn when a “positive” development was introduced.

It seems that the tagger--a young Englishman known as Banksy--had established an international reputation as a graffiti artist among the trendy set. According to the same news report, "This stuff is worth money now. It wasn't worth money four years ago, but … people like Angelina Jolie pay over 200,000 pounds for a Banksy piece, and … people [are] auctioning their walls in England on Ebay because it has got a Banksy piece on it.” So, the Melbourne tourism board wanted to feature Banksy’s R2-D2 as a cultural attraction, thereby generating income for the city. So, which is the “right” ethical position here? Who will do good work--the anti-graffiti team or the tourism board?

Death By A Thousand Cuts?

Budget reductions, furloughs and layoffs eventually take a toll on staff morale. Who feels authentically motivated toward excellence while fearing unemployment? Programs with long histories and solid foundations may be able to maintain a semblance of quality in the short-term, but at some point, corners will be cut--authorized or not--and the decline from excellence will be avoided only by luck. Eventually, luck will run out.

Similarly, will managers acting in their capacity as employers use their power to retain friends, or to extract favors, at the expense of those who may be out of favor or unwilling to “pay the price”? Is it ever ethical to cut corners, or to help friends (or yourself) on the job? However long the sense of relief may last, it will not feel like good work.

A Quest For Good Work

Gardner and his fellow authors readily admit that difficult times have existed throughout history, but suggest that the four forces have combined in such a way that traditional sources of guidance--religious texts, professional standards and “heroes”--seem less relevant, effective or invulnerable.

Although the Figure presented here does not claim to provide a solution, it does organize the four forces and three criteria in a way that allows managers to evaluate their own position, identify where ethical challenges exist. and set the conditions under which good work can be achieved.

When managers assign tasks that challenge staff to develop and use all their capabilities (thereby achieving flow), create, and follow a well-defined and inspiring mission that acknowledges and embraces fiscal and social responsibility, the four forces align to enable excellence and ethics.

Good work!

Works cited:

ABC News Australia. (2009). “Melbourne graffiti considered for heritage protection.” (Based on a report by Rachael Brown for The World Today). Retrieved from the Internet on Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/06/23/2282978.htm

Gardner, H., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Damon, W. (2001). Good work: When excellence and ethics meet. New York: Basic Books.

Uhlik, K. S. (2007). “How professional are you, anyway (Part 2).” Parks & Rec Business. (October), 120-121.

Uhlik, K. S. (2007). “How professional are you, anyway (Part 1).” Parks & Rec Business. (September), 48-49.

Kim S. Uhlik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism Management at San Jose State University. He can be reached via e-mail at kuhlik@casa.sjsu.edu.

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