For many managers, motivation and manipulation mean one and the same thing; but employees know the difference. –Harry Levinson

We lost one of the giants in the study of organizational learning and performance this week. Harry Levinson died at the age of 90 after a long and productive career making organizational leaders aware of the importance of psychological dynamics to their employees and themselves. Every Harrylevinson leader and manager should take heed of Levinson's thought-provoking theories and practice.

Levinson made us aware of the psychological contract between employer and employee. This is the implicit understanding of what is expected and how they will act toward one another. Acting contrary to this contract causes a great deal of stress for both and can be detrimental to the working relationship and productivity of employees.

Levinson was one of the first to speak about the impact of organizational culture on worker performance. In his article for Organizational & Social Dynamics titled “Organizational Immersion and Diagnosis: The Work of Harry Levinson”, Michael A. Diamond writes:

For Levinson, the informal and affectionate bonds between workers and their foremen (supervisors) helped to explain effective, physically safe and emotional[ly] healthy, management performance in the workplace. The study [of Kansas Power and Light Company] also pre-dated much of the popular enthusiasm several decades later with organizational culture.

Regarding Levinson’s notions about performance review, Diamond writes:

…he emphasized the human compassion inherent in and necessary for providing subordinates with unambiguous, direct, and honest feedback in performance evaluation.

Regarding Levinson’s thoughts about mentoring, Diamond writes:

Executives and their management must become better mentors, he argued, and to do so they must become more knowledgeable about what motivates their employees.

Levinson had some strong words for organizational consultants. He believed that they should do assessments (diagnosis) before recommending interventions. He didn’t seem to have much patience for consultants who are ready with a solution prior to fully understanding the problem. This belief became the cornerstone of Levinson’s advice to consultants and clients. In an interview that Diamond conducted with the consultant’s consultant, Levinson is quoted as saying:  

Clients and consultants prefer the `quick fix' approach to organizations. This approach assumes the consultant somehow magically knows what the client and client system require without organizational assessment and diagnosis. Moreover, it is this impatience and short sightedness that has led to the acceleration and popularity of more prescriptive approaches that promise more than they can possibly deliver. These approaches include executive coaching as practiced by many non-psychoanalytic consultants. Furthermore, these practices tend to focus on a part of or member of the system rather than the system as a whole and that contradicts the spirit of organizational diagnosis. One can imagine how this sort of orientation would leave consultants vulnerable to counterproductive collusions with the executive client…

Levinson blamed the psychological dynamics of leaders, more than business and economic factors, for the failure of large companies. In an article for the journal, American Psychologist, titled: “Why the behemoths fell: Psychological roots of corporate failure”, Levinson writes:

The failure of many American corporations to adapt to changed economic circumstances has become a major social concern. Many reasons have been alleged for those catastrophes. These allegations describe the ostensible reasons, but they do not explain adequately. The explanations are fundamentally psychological, significantly having to do with individual and organizational narcissism, unconscious recapitulation of family dynamics in the organization, exacerbating dependency, psychologically illogical organization structure and compensation schemes, inadequate management of change, and inability to recognize and manage cognitive complexity. To deal more effectively with such problems calls for greater psychological sophistication among boards of directors and senior executives.

That article was published in 1994. I wonder what Levinson would say today about captains of industry who are leading companies that are “too big to fail”. What would he say about the demise of some giant financial services companies over the past few years?

Much of what Levinson theorized and applied in his consulting has now become mainstream thinking among organizational psychologists and consultants. However, at the same time, much work still needs to be done to create psychologically safe cultures for employees and employers.