Michael Maccoby Applied Psychology and Anthropology to Business

After completing his doctoral studies in social relations at Harvard in 1960,

Michael Maccoby

drove a rusty

Ford

to Cuernavaca, Mexico, to help the psychoanalyst and philosopher

Erich Fromm

conduct research on the motivations of people in farming villages. They worked together for eight years and produced a book, “Social Character in a Mexican Village.”

It could have been the prelude to an academic career. Instead, Dr. Maccoby pursued his field work in factories and corporate suites, applying what he had learned from psychology, sociology and anthropology to management consulting and books for general readers, including “Strategic Intelligence” and “The Productive Narcissist.” He advised companies and government agencies on leadership and motivation of employees.

If you asked him what motivates employees, he would say that depends. Money does the trick for some, challenging work for others. Some prefer a dull job freeing them to think about other things. Others need to feel they are changing the world. Among other things, he prescribed “emotional competency, the ability to sense negative emotions and then stimulate positive feelings.”

Dr. Maccoby favored giving employees more freedom to decide how to do their jobs and more scope to expand their horizons. He would quote Heraclitus in one sentence and

W. Edwards Deming

in the next. Among the many companies he advised were

AT&T

and Volvo.

He died Nov. 5 of a heart attack at age 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 an aim of improving 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 get here by listening to people,” one such CEO told Dr. Maccoby. Though they sometimes failed spectacularly, narcissists could be effective leaders when rapid change was needed, according to Dr. Maccoby. The productive ones have the charisma and drive to sell their ideas, he wrote, while the unproductive specimens “retreat into their own worlds and blame others for their isolation.”

Neither narcissists nor empathetic leaders were right for every situation, he wrote: “The type of leader who is effective in one kind of business often runs another into the ground.”

He was born March 5, 1933, in Mount Vernon, N.Y. His father was a Reform rabbi and his mother a schoolteacher.

When he enrolled at Harvard, his mother wanted him to prepare for medical school. He chose history and literature. Then, bored by the novels of

William Faulkner

and

Henry James,

he began playing pinball compulsively at a sandwich shop. Finally, he switched his major to social relations, combining social psychology, sociology and cultural anthropology.

After being rejected twice by the Harvard Crimson, he finally joined the staff and eventually rose to president of the student newspaper. As part of his work there, he interviewed

Dylan Thomas

and tagged along with the poet on a tour of Boston bars. Looking back on his time at the Crimson, he wrote: “I was not a good leader. I was too much of an individualist, presiding but not leading, criticizing but not encouraging.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree, he studied at New College, Oxford, and the University of Chicago, where his mentors included

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-skating champion. She died in 2019. He is survived by four children and seven grandchildren.

In Mexican villages, he concluded that changes in people’s lives were being driven largely by technology developed in the U.S. That motivated him to explore what was going on inside U.S. tech companies.

After returning to the U.S., he interviewed people at companies across the country to study their motivations and personalities, providing data for his 1976 book, “The Gamesman.” An ad for that book featured a picture of the Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz.” The caption read: “The American manager has to find his heart.”

Dr. Maccoby wanted to “humanize” work and rescue workers from what he called “narrow, mind-numbing, repetitive tasks.” In the 1970s he led an experiment at a Harman Automotive plant making rearview mirrors in Bolivar, Tenn. Workers were encouraged to share their ideas on ways to make their jobs less regimented and more enriching. When they met quotas, employees could leave work early or study new skills, ranging from welding to piano playing. It was called “earned idle time.”

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

“We were too idealistic,” Dr. Maccoby told the New York Times in 1998. Still, other companies adopted some of the ideas behind the experiment and tapped into employees’ suggestions on how to manage work better.

Dr. Maccoby’s ideas evolved. In “The Productive Narcissist,” he wrote that he had been “guilty of wishful thinking about leadership for many years” early in his career.

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

Write to James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com

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