What Does “Good Work” Mean Anyway?

You may have seen some of the recent articles about the ‘giant game of musical chairs’. Huge numbers of workers are leaving/changing their jobs as workplaces around the US are reopening. Perhaps you’re even one of those people who’ve chosen a new job or a whole new career path. While we’re living our day-to-day reality we don’t always have the wider perspective to see, but this time in workplace history will be studied, analyzed, and written about for decades (centuries?) to come. While many of us are using this as a chance to think about the work we do, and the role our work plays in our life, this seems like a good time to consider what doing “good work” means to us.

Twenty years ago, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I studied with Professor Howard Gardner. Prof. Gardner is best known for this Theory of Multiple Intelligences (which we will return to at a later date), but at the time, he had just released the book Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (co-authored with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon). The ideas in this book are ones I return to regularly in my work at Building Bridges Leadership.

The book makes the case that “Good Work” consists of three criteria:
Engagement – How does your work contribute to and support others?
Excellence – Is the quality of your work objectively of a high standard?
Ethics – How much does the work you do align with your morality and beliefs?

The authors suggest a number of questions that any of us can ask ourselves as we ponder our work, and give a number of real-life examples that help illustrate how these three criteria might be in conflict or alignment for any of us. Stemming from the work of book, The Good Project offers resources, toolkits, activities and more for anyone interested in this line of questioning. So how can the Good Work framework be helpful for you and your team this week?

This Week’s Tip:

Explore the questions of Good Work for yourself, and consider using some of The Good Project’s resources with your team:

  1. Regularly ask yourself “the three M’s”:
    a) What is the Mission that undergirds my work?
    b) Who are the role Models I admire and emulate? Why?
    c) When I look at myself in the Mirror as a worker, am I proud of who I see? And if all of the workers in my profession were like me, would I want to live in a society like that?
  2. Take a look at The Good Project’s Activities Database. Identify 2-3 activities or resources that would be helpful to look at with your team, and plan some time to do so in the coming weeks. You might choose to start with their opener, “What Is Good Work?” before moving on to an activity like Famous FailuresIdentifying Good Work Dilemmas, or Obstacles and Opportunities.

Try this out this week and let us know how it goes – we’d love to hear from you. If you have thoughts or questions, contact us or post in our Facebook group.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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