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Richard Hackman; explored elements of successful teams

Dr. Hackman taught psychology at Harvard.Harvard University

NEW YORK — J. Richard Hackman, a Harvard psychology professor whose fieldwork sometimes took him to the cockpit of an airliner to observe the crew as he studied the dynamics of teamwork and effective leadership, died on Jan. 8 in Boston. He was 72. The cause was lung cancer, his wife, Judith Dozier Hackman, said.

Dr. Hackman, the author or coauthor of 10 books on group dynamics, was the Edgar Pierce professor of social and organizational psychology at Harvard.

In ‘‘Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances’’ (2002), he replaced the popular image of the powerful ‘‘I can do it all’’ team leader with that of someone who, as he wrote, had the subtle skills ‘‘to get a team established on a good trajectory, and then to make small adjustments along the way to help members succeed.’’ The conditions for a successful team effort — among them ‘‘a compelling direction, an enabling team structure, a supportive organizational context and expert team coaching’’ — ‘‘are easy to remember,’’ Dr. Hackman wrote.

‘‘The challenge,’’ he continued, ‘‘comes in developing an understanding of those conditions that is deep and nuanced enough to be useful in guiding action, and in devising strategies for creating them even in demanding or team-unfriendly organizational circumstances.’’


Besides tracking the interplay of pilots, copilots, and navigators aboard civilian and military planes, Dr. Hackman observed corporate boards, sports teams, orchestra players, telephone-line repair crews, hospital workers, and restaurant kitchen staff members.

And in recent years, for his 2011 book, ‘‘Collaborative Intelligence,’’ he was allowed to observe interactions within the American intelligence, defense, law-enforcement, and crisis-management community.

Anita Woolley, a professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said, ‘‘The key thing about Dr. Hackman’s work is that it stands in contrast to some of the more popular models of leadership that focused very much on style or how leaders behave, versus what they do.’’ Rather than viewing pay as a prime motivator for good performance, she continued, ‘‘he focused on features of people’s jobs that made them more intrinsically satisfied: the freedom to determine how they conduct their work, having a variety of tasks, having knowledge of the ultimate outcomes of their work, knowing how their work affects or is received by other people.’’


Dr. Hackman received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from MacMurray College in 1962, and a doctorate in psychology from the University of Illinois in 1966. He joined the psychology and administrative sciences department faculties at Yale, where he taught until 1986, when he moved to the psychology and business departments at Harvard.

Besides his wife, who is an associate dean at Yale, Dr. Hackman leaves two daughters, Julia Beth Proffitt and Laura Dianne Codeanne, and four grandchildren.

After Dr. Hackman died, The Harvard Crimson wrote that for years he had ‘‘quietly devoted countless hours to improving one team in particular — the Harvard women’s basketball squad, for which he volunteered as an honorary coach.’’