Why The Third E?: Excellence and engagement are not enough
In 1995, Mihaly Csikzentmihaly, Bill Damon, and I embarked on an ambitious line of psychological research, which eventually became the Good Work Project. After ten years of research, involving the efforts of many wonderful colleagues and over 1200 individual subjects drawn from nine different professions, we finally arrived at a succinct definition of Good Work. Indeed, we even captured it in a sleek visual:
On our account, good work in any profession entails three elements:
1. It is technically excellent. The good worker—be she a teacher, a lawyer, an engineer, a nurse— knows her stuff.
2. It is engaging. The good worker likes to go to work, appreciates the institution in which she works, values her colleagues, and relishes the opportunity to practice her craft.
3. It is carried out in an ethical manner. The good worker recognizes ethical quandaries, takes them seriously, consults as appropriate with colleagues, learns from her mistakes, and tries to do better the next time and share her insights, as appropriate.
It would be desirable if the three Es were essentially identical or highly correlated, but they are not.
Consider John, a hypothetical teacher. He might know his material well but has burnt out as a teacher, or he might be an enthusiastic teacher but has not kept up with the field. Or he might be both knowledgeable and enthusiastic but cut every corner in his work, has been insensitive to the needs of his students and colleagues, and is disrespectful of the institution in which he teaches. Or consider Sally, a hypothetical cardiologist. She might be well-informed or out of touch with current medical knowledge. She may be deeply involved in or alienated from her practice. And she might be scrupulous in avoiding conflicts of interest with regard to pharmaceuticals she recommends to patients, or, in return for the regimen than she routinely prescribes, she may take advantage of every favor that the local pharmaceutical company can bestow upon her.
All three Es are important; we’d like all teachers and physicians to exemplify excellence, engagement, and ethics.
In “The Professional Ethicist,” we focus chiefly on ethical facets of work, and particularly work in the professions. It is in the sphere of ethics—rather than in the realms of excellence or engagement—that we encounter a crisis. Professions cannot continue to exist, let alone merit respect, unless those who are honored with that title are constantly vigilant about the effects of their words and deeds on those whom they are supposed to serve.
No need to posit a golden age. It does not matter if professionals in the past did not always live up to this ideal. What does matter is that high-quality professional practice is nowadays in peril. The contributing factors are several: among them, a diminution of public spiritedness; an emphasis on monetary rewards above all else; and the disruptive facets (both energizing and troubling) of ubiquitous digital media. Indeed, if an aspiring lawyer who has only taken online courses can do as well on the bar exam as the graduate of a prestigious three-year law school, by what right can we deny her the title of lawyer and the right to practice law?
We focus here on the professions because it is in this vocational sphere that ethical standards have been explicitly stated. But it is important to stress that any worker—be she the chief surgeon at a major medical center or the waitperson in the local deli—can be a good worker. That person needs to do her job well, like to come to work, and care about the quality of her relations to those with whom she comes into contact as well as the problems that arise on the job. Nor does the awarding of a professional license make one automatically into a good worker. We all know of individuals who, despite their prestigious titles, are blind to the ethical aspects of their work—or who, despite having their eyes wide open, still fail to pass the ethical test.
It may be that professions as we know them will pass from the scene. (Indeed, some professions like barbering have disappeared and others, like journalism, are in jeopardy.) But unless they are replaced by comparable institutions, where the majority of practitioners strive to ‘do the right thing,’ we will have a society in which no one will want to live. And that would indeed be tragic.