Harry Levinson (1922-2012)

Harry Levinson

Harry Levinson was a psychologist who specialized in organizational psychology. He is best known for his advocacy on behalf of workers and his research indicating a link between professional and emotional well-being.

Professional Life

Harry Levinson was born in Port Jervis, New York, on January 16th, 1922, the oldest of three children. As a young child, Levinson immersed himself in books to escape his impoverished surroundings, and he originally aspired to become a teacher. He attended Kansas State Teachers College, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1943. After serving in the military between 1943 and 1946, Levinson returned to Kansas to earn both his master’s degree and later his doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kansas.

As a clinical psychologist, Levinson began work at Topeka State Hospital where his work drew the attention of William Menninger. Levinson was invited to work with at the Menninger Foundation in 1954, and he began exploring the relationship between work and mental health. He founded the Division of Industrial Mental Health at the clinic and acted as its director for more than 14 years. Levinson also founded the Levinson Institute in 1968 with the mission of enhancing and expanding leadership and motivation through honesty and fairness. He began teaching at Harvard University beginning in 1972.

Levinson served as a visiting professor for business schools such as the University of Kansas, Texas A&M, Harvard University, and the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Levinson was recognized for his significant contribution to psychology with the Career Contribution Award from the Massachusetts Psychological Association in 1985 and the Distinguished Professional Contributions to Knowledge award from the American Psychological Association in 1992.

Levinson and his first wife, Roberta, raised four children and divorced in 1970. Levinson and his second wife, Miriam, established the Harry and Miriam Levinson Scholarship. Levinson authored several books before he developed macular degeneration, which eventually robbed him of his ability to read and write. Levinson died at his home in Delray Beach, Florida, in 2012.

Contribution to Psychology

Levinson helped develop the contemporary studies of organizational and occupational psychology, and was one of the first psychologists to focus on the effects work can have on psychology. Concern for psychological well-being was virtually absent in the world of business when Levinson began his career. Levinson noted that unmet professional goals and workplace stress could both lead to depression and posited that the workplace could be both a central source of stress and a significant source of emotional well-being.

He developed several specific theories, many of which continue to affect organizational psychology:

  • Emotional first aid: Levinson emphasized that people need emotional support on the job. His work on emotional first aid led to contemporary employee assistance programs. 
  • Psychodynamics of organizational change: Levinson found that changes in the workplace left employees’ with feelings of uncertainty and attachment to structure and routine. Levinson compared this experience to a kind of loss that required acknowledgment and processing. 
  • Psychological contract: Revealed in Levinson’s 1962 book, Men, Management, and Mental Health, this concept outlined the expectations workers have of their work lives. When employers leave the needs of staff unaddressed, performance and morale suffer.
  • Organizational diagnosis: Levinson’s developed criteria to identify, treat, and prevent systemic problems in the workplace that contribute to psychological problems. His book Organizational Diagnosis serves as a guide to analyzing organizations.
  • The fallacy of reward-punishment theory: This concept explains why punishments and rewards in the workplace don't always work. In The Great Jackass Fallacy, Levinson argued that incentives and punishments assume that people are rational, calculating beings, but human nature is much more complex than this and people do not always behave as rational, calculating agents. Instead, they have myriad sources of motivation, in which rewards and punishments may play only a limited role. 

References:

  1. Deutsch, C. H. (2012, June 27). Harry Levinson, psychologist for the workplace, dies at 90. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/business/harry-levinson-whose-ideas-altered-the-workplace-dies-at-90.html
  2. Diamond, Michael A. (2003). Organizational Immersion and Diagnosis: The Work of Harry Levinson. Organisational & Social Dynamics, 3(1). Retrieved from https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/3756/OrganizationalImmersionDiagnosis.pdf?sequence=1.

Last Update: 07-08-2015

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