Michael Maccoby Applied Psychology and Anthropology for Business

After earning his PhD in Social Relations from Harvard in 1960, Michael Maccoby drove a rusty Ford to Cuernavaca, Mexico, to help psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm explore the motivations of people in farming villages. They worked together for eight years and produced a book called Social Character in a Mexican Village.

It could have been the start of an academic career. Instead, Dr. Maccoby continued his fieldwork in factories and corporate suites, applying what he had learned in psychology, sociology, and anthropology to management consulting and general reader books, including Strategic Intelligence and The Productive Narcissist. He advised companies and authorities on leadership and employee motivation.

If you asked him what motivates employees, he would say it depends. Money is enough for some, challenging work for others. Some prefer a boring job that gives them the freedom to think about other things. Others must feel they are changing the world. Among other things, he prescribed “emotional competence, the ability to feel negative emotions and then arouse positive feelings”.

dr Maccoby advocated giving employees more freedom to make decisions about their work and more scope to broaden their horizons. He quoted Heraclitus in one sentence and W. Edwards Deming in the next. Among the many companies he advised were AT&T and Volvo.

He died of a heart attack on November 5 at the age of 89.

“Neither employees nor customers are inspired when a company’s sole purpose is profit,” he wrote in Strategic Intelligence, published in 2015. He advised leaders to demonstrate a purpose, to improve people’s lives.

In his 2003 book The Productive Narcissist, he wrote about CEOs who rely on their own visions and refuse to listen to others. “I didn’t come here by listening to people,” one such CEO told Dr. Maccoby. Although they sometimes failed spectacularly, according to Dr. Maccoby to be effective leaders when rapid change was needed. The productive ones have the charisma and drive to sell their ideas, he wrote, while the unproductive specimens “retire to their own worlds and blame others for their isolation.”

Neither narcissists nor empathic leaders are right for every situation, he wrote: “The type of leader who succeeds in one business often kills another.”

He was born on March 5, 1933 in Mount Vernon, NY. His father was a reform rabbi and his mother a teacher.

When he enrolled at Harvard, his mother wanted him to prepare for medical school. He chose history and literature. Then, bored with the novels of William Faulkner and Henry James, he became obsessed with playing pinball in a sandwich shop. Eventually, he switched his major to Social Relations, combining social psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology.

After being rejected twice from the Harvard Crimson, he eventually became a staff member and eventually rose to become president of the student newspaper. As part of his work there, he interviewed Dylan Thomas and accompanied the poet on a tour of Boston bars. Looking back on his time at the Crimson, he wrote: “I wasn’t a good leader. I was too much of an individualist, to preside but not lead, to criticize but not encourage.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree, he studied at New College, Oxford and the University of Chicago, where he was mentored by David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd. He returned to Harvard to complete his Ph.D.

Before moving to Mexico, he married Sandylee Weille, a portrait painter and former ice skater. She died in 2019. He leaves behind four children and seven grandchildren.

In Mexican villages, he came to the conclusion that changes in people’s lives were largely driven by US-developed technologies, which motivated him to study what was happening in US tech companies.

Upon returning to the United States, he interviewed people at companies across the country to examine their motivations and personalities, providing data for his 1976 book The Gamesman. An advertisement for this book featured a picture of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. The caption read: “The American manager must find his heart.”

dr Maccoby wanted to “humanize” work and save workers from what he called “tight, mind-numbing, repetitive tasks.” In the 1970s, he led an experiment at a Harman Automotive plant manufacturing rearview mirrors in Bolivar, Tennessee. Workers were encouraged to share ideas on how to make their work less regimented and more rewarding. If they met quotas, employees could leave work early or learn new skills ranging from welding to playing the piano. It was called “earned idle time”.

First, Dr. Maccoby found that the plant grew more productively. Then it ran into trouble as some workers cut corners to finish the job faster. Meanwhile, people whose jobs required a full day’s work resented those who were allowed to go home earlier.

“We were too idealistic,” said Dr. Maccoby to the New York Times in 1998. Nonetheless, other companies adopted some of the ideas behind the experiment and drew on employee suggestions for better work management.

dr Maccoby’s ideas continued to develop. In The Productive Narcissist, he wrote that early in his career he was “guilty of wishful thinking about leadership for many years.”

He told the Boston Globe in 2017 that he had coached 33 “successful narcissistic leaders” and that they were all liars. One CEO admitted to him, “Yes, I lie about our products and results, but I work very hard to make my lies true.”

Write to James R. Hagerty at [email protected]

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