Workplace psychologist Harry Levinson helped change corporate America by urging business leaders to stop viewing employees as donkeys motivated merely by the carrot or the stick. He called his observation “The Great Jackass Fallacy,” the title of his 1973 book.
Theories Dr. Levinson introduced in the 1950s about a psychological contract between a company and its workers transformed management studies. He argued that the psychological dynamics of leaders are key to corporate success, more than economic factors, and he urged boards of directors and senior executives to strive for “greater psychological sophistication.”
“He was truly a remarkable man with a gutsy vision,” said Dr. Gerald Kraines, president and chief executive of the Levinson Institute, which Dr. Levinson founded in Jaffrey, N.H., in 1968.
“He was a tiny man in stature, but he projected a powerful image,” Kraines said. “When I would go out with Harry when he would meet with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, they would relate to him as though he was a foot taller than each of them.”
Dr. Levinson, a longtime Cambridge resident who taught for many years at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, died June 26 in Hospice of Palm Beach County in Delray Beach, Fla., the community where he had lived since 1997. He was 90.
‘He was truly a remarkable man with a gutsy vision.’
“Harry’s brilliance was revealed in the belief that genuine human motivation cannot be manipulated with carrots and sticks,” the Levinson Institute said in a statement. “However, it can be fully engaged by interactions that demonstrate trust and fairness and by behaviors that inspire employees to identify with their leaders.”
At the heart of his management theories, first coined in the 1950s, was a workplace version of the Golden Rule: “Employees will commit their creative initiative, time, and energy to help their managers succeed in direct proportion to the degree to which managers commit to their employees’ success.”
Managers who violate that rule can expect to have disgruntled employees who are likely to become depressed and produce less, he found.
At the Levinson Institute, he taught thousands of executives about leadership and wrote numerous books.
After losing a retina to cancer in his 40s, he had one glass eye, which rendered his gaze powerful. “It meant when he was looking at you, it felt as if he was looking at you and through you,” Kraines said.
Writing for the American Psychologist journal in 1994, Dr. Levinson blamed business failures on “organizational narcissism, unconscious recapitulation of family dynamics in the workplace . . . illogical organization and compensation schemes.”
Born in Port Jervis, N.Y., Dr. Levinson was the son of Jewish Russian immigrants, David and Gussie (Nudell) Levinson. His father was a tailor with no formal education. His mother spoke little English.
“As he put it, he didn’t learn to play,” said his son Marc of Glen Ridge, N.J. “He didn’t swim, didn’t skate . . . and he was never good at baseball.”
Books became his world. A high school guidance counselor advised him to avoid anti-Semitism in New York’s state colleges by studying in the Midwest, according to a biography prepared by the American Psychological Association, which gave Dr. Levinson a Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in 2000.
He graduated in 1943 from Emporia State University in Kansas with a bachelor’s degree before serving in a field artillery unit in Italy during World War II.
He married Roberta Frieman in 1946. They had four children and divorced in the early 1970s.
In 1990, he married Miriam Hazan Lewis, a widow he met when friends set them up on a blind date.
Dr. Levinson undertook doctoral studies in Kansas, where he studied efforts to reform the hospital system in Topeka, and he became involved in civil rights advocacy, chairing the state’s advisory committee to the US Civil Rights Commission. He received a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kansas.
His work at Topeka State Hospital drew the attention of William C. Menninger, who helped found the Menninger Clinic in Topeka. Menninger hired Dr. Levinson to study ways to maintain psychological health in the workplace. Kansas Power and Light Co. was his lab.
For two years, he studied workplace culture at the utility, and its more than 800 employees, before writing “Men, Management, and Mental Health.” That work drew attention to a theory of a psychological contract between worker and manager, a revolutionary concept at a time when psychology was rarely applied in business. His work launched the division of industrial mental health at what is now the Menninger Foundation.
In 1961, Dr. Levinson began teaching at the Sloan School at MIT. Later in the 1960s, he taught graduate classes at Harvard Business School, and also taught psychology at Harvard Medical School. He retired in 1992.
His articles in the Harvard Business Review forged new ground in how business leaders understand human dynamics in the workplace. In 1972, he wrote about how workplace upheavals could lead to feelings of mourning, with its accompanying stages of denial and anger.
Prophetically, Dr. Levinson told the Globe in 1969 that young workers should prepare for a life of changing careers.
“Guidance counselors in school and in industry should suggest a dual or triple career track,” he advised. “They should help people to think about change, about changes in their roles. We can’t prepare people for a single career any longer.”
In addition to his wife and his son Marc, Dr. Levinson leaves another son, Brian of Leawood, Kan.; two daughters, Kathy of Palo Alto, Calif., and Anne of Seattle; a brother, Sam of Potomac, Md.; and eight grandchildren.
At Harvard, Dr. Levinson had MBA candidates immerse themselves in a local organization for a year before recommending management solutions.
And in a 2003 interview with the journal Organisational & Social Dynamics, he cautioned consultants to guard against their own “professional narcissism,” which he said fundamentally “limits reflective learning and thereby interferes with developing insights and observations helpful to clients and their organizations.”
There are “no built-in protections such as ethical standards against human aggression and narcissistic injury,” Dr. Levinson said. “Like Freud, we have to teach ourselves what goes on in our guts and what goes on in our clients and their systems.”
J.M. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.