J. Richard Hackman (1940-2013)

by Ruth Wageman & Teresa M. Amabile

Overview — This paper—a tribute to the lifework of the late scholar J. Richard Hackman, a professor of social and organizational psychology at Harvard—recalls his many contributions to our understanding of work design and team effectiveness. As the authors note, Hackman's research changed the face of work design in countless industries, from service and manufacturing jobs, to education, health care, and the performing arts. 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. The author or coauthor of 10 books on group effectiveness, Hackman revitalized teams research with his insights into the conditions under which effective collective work processes emerge. Key concepts include:

  • Hackman 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, Hackman 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 model of groups 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.
  • Hackman's focus on context was a fundamental insight into both how to understand complex social systems like groups and how to facilitate their effectiveness.

Author Abstract

When J. 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.

Paper Information