obituary

J. Richard Hackman

Obituary

For American Psychologist

Ruth Wageman

Teresa M. Amabile

 

            When Richard Hackman died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on January 8, 2013, psychology lost a giant. Six and a half feet tall, with an outsize personality to match, Richard was the leading scholar in two distinct areas: work design and team effectiveness. In both domains, his work is foundational. Throughout his career, Richard applied rigorous methods to problems of great social importance, tirelessly championing multi-level analyses of problems that matter. His impact on our field has been immense.

Among the first things Richard always said about himself was that he was from the Midwest.  He was born on June 14, 1940, and raised in Virginia, Illinois by his parents, Helen and John Hackman.  Helen was a devoted teacher and her son followed in her footsteps.  His childhood years were a happy time in which he developed his lifelong love of fly fishing and the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. He married Judith Dozier in 1962 and they raised two daughters, Julia Beth and Laura. His values of love, service, and generosity were evident in his scholarly work and in how he invested in people, especially his students.

Richard began studying the impact of work design on motivation at a time when decades of “scientific management” had had the widespread impact of reducing jobs to a few minimum repeatable steps, requiring little knowledge or skill, and experienced as stultifying and dehumanizing by the people doing them.  While many scholars focused on pay and rewards, Richard turned his attention to the work itself, asking: What are the qualities of jobs that make them inherently meaningful, motivating through a sense of accomplishment?  His theory (with Greg Oldham) of job characteristics, and his evidence about how one could redesign and enrich jobs, made it possible for workers not only to perform well but also to develop and make meaningful contributions through their work.  Richard’s research changed the face of work design in countless industries, from service and manufacturing jobs, to education, health care, and the performing arts.

Richard also rescued the field of groups research from a state of stagnation.  In the 1980s, our understanding of team performance focused on group process losses: the failure of group ideation practices like brainstorming; polarization in group decision making; and Groupthink.  These well-known phenomena characterized groups performing disastrously, especially compared to nominal groups whose members never interacted with each other.  Richard studied teams engaged in the real-time performance of work with no opportunities for “do-overs” —teams that had to get it right in the moment, such as cockpit crews flying aircraft or musical ensembles in live performances.  Richard revitalized teams research with his insights into the conditions under which effective collective work processes emerge. His focus on context was a fundamental insight into both how to understand complex social systems like groups and how to facilitate their effectiveness. Richard’s model has informed the design of countless task-performing teams, from cockpit crews and chamber orchestras, to teams leading organizations, performing surgeries, and gathering intelligence – all performing work that matters, in real time.

Although embarrassed by awards, Richard received many of them, including the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from APA’s Division 14, the Group Psychologist of the Year award from APA’s Group Dynamics Division, the Distinguished Scholar Award from the Academy of Management (AOM), the AOM Organizational Behavior Division Lifetime Achievement Award, the AOM Terry Book Award, and the AOM Distinguished Educator Award.

Notoriously solitary, Richard was vastly more attracted to studying groups than to joining them, but he embodied the principles he had discovered.  He was a master at creating a well-functioning group. Appropriately named “Groups Group,” Richard’s regular gathering of faculty and doctoral students from many Boston-area universities raised the rigor and impact of teams research, expanding his training of scholars well beyond the doctoral students he personally advised. He even (rarely) joined groups led by others. A trombonist, he was an enthusiastic participant in Harvard’s “Trombone Day” extravaganza.

A teacher noted for his breadth, passion, and humor, Richard had an enduring impact on generations of doctoral students. Recent advisees remarked that “This man treated you, an unproven student, as a peer”; “From our first meeting to our last, Richard always made me feel interesting,” and “His curiosity and passion for research were contagious.” In the words of another, “his feedback was like gold,” marked by “brevity and brutal honesty,” but – once a paper hit its mark – “he would be so enthusiastic and congratulatory.” To work with Richard required one to stretch the limits of one’s capabilities and to keep up with a very fast ride.  An early advisee, now quite eminent in the field, said that, “even though he is no longer with us, in my mind, doing work that pleases Richard, that he would find logical, well-written, evidence-based, and useful, is my personal definition of excellence. In my heart, Richard remains the only one I am really writing for.”

Years ago, when one of us was taking a campus walk with Richard and complained that she couldn’t see the lovely garden he admired as he peered over a high wall, he immediately lifted her up so that she could see, too. For decades to come, our field will be uplifted by Richard’s example, to better see how we can all strive for  excellence in research, teaching, and impact on the world. 

Hackman, J. Richard, Harvard University Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology, 72, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bethany, Connecticut, and Bradford, New Hampshire, died peacefully in Boston, MA on January 8, 2013 surrounded by family. He leaves his wife Judith Dozier Hackman, two daughters, Julia Beth Proffitt (W. Trexler) and Laura Dianne Codeanne (Matthew J.), four grandchildren, George R., Lauren E., and Edward M. Proffitt and Mattox J. Codeanne, one uncle, John E. Schaeffer, and three cousins. Richard attended public schools in Virginia, IL and received a BA in mathematics from MacMurray College (Jacksonville, IL) and a PhD in psychology from the University of Illinois. In 1966, he joined Yale University’s Departments of Psychology and Administrative Sciences (which later developed into the School of Organization and Management) and then moved to the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and Harvard Business School in 1986, also joining the Kennedy School of Government in later years. Richard’s devotion to teaching is visible in the 38 doctoral dissertations he supervised, and the larger group of devoted students who occupy senior positions in every major organizational behavior program in the country as well as in several non-academic institutions. He himself felt that his greatest contribution to the application of knowledge about human potential in organizations has been through his training of students. For his exceptional teaching and mentoring Richard received numerous awards including the prestigious Mendelsohn Excellence in Mentoring Award by the Harvard Graduate Council.

Richard believed that many of the most important features of human behavior are to be observed when individuals gather together in groups.  In his work, he was fascinated and frustrated with teams, in approximately equal measures, for his entire professional career. He studied groups in the laboratory and in the field, doing his most significant work by studying groups that operate in challenging organizational contexts – especially teams that must come up with creative solutions to challenging problems in real time. So he has studied flight deck crews in military and commercial aviation, chamber and symphony orchestras, athletic teams, top management teams, health care teams--and, over the last decade, a variety of teams within the U.S. intelligence community. His most recent books are Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, which in 2004 won the Academy of Management's Terry Award for the most outstanding management book of the year, Senior Leadership Teams: What It Takes to Make Them Great, with Ruth Wageman, Debra A. Nunes, and James A. Burruss, and Collaborative Intelligence: Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems. Along the way, Richard received considerable recognition for his work, including the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association's division on industrial and organizational psychology; the Distinguished Educator Award, Distinguished Scholar Award, and Lifetime Achievement award in Organizational Behavior from the Academy of Management; and the Joseph E. McGrath Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Groups. Posthumously he will receive the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award and the James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science for outstanding lifetime contributions to applied psychology. In addition to his university duties, which included chairing the Institutional Review Board and the Standing Committee on Information Technology of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, Hackman served on several governing, advisory and editorial boards, including the Intelligence Science Board of the Director of National Intelligence and the MacMurray College Board of Trustees.

Three of Richard’s other loves were music, fishing, and the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. He played the trombone in high school and college bands and later, with his wife Judith, in the Bethany Brass quintet.  He served as a member of the Brass Ring board of directors and at the time of his death was a member of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra board. Friends may visit with the family at the Magni Funeral Home, 365 Watertown Street, Route 16, Newton, MA between 6 and 9 pm on Friday, January 11. Memorial gifts are suggested to the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (NY, NY), Nature Conservancy, Housatonic Valley Association, Charles River Watershed Association, Powder River Basin Resource Council (Sheridan, WY), or MacMurray College. Further services will be held on January 26 with burial in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, CT and on March 2 in his hometown of Virginia, IL.