By Paul Theerman, Associate Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health
April 5 saw the return of Mad Men for the conclusion of its television run. The show, of course, evokes the work world of 50 years ago: its style and flair, as well as its misogyny and racism, its messiness and dysfunction. To address that dysfunction, psychologist Harry Levinson would apply a strong dose of medicine.
In an era of paternalist corporate life and long-term employment, managers increasingly saw the workplace as a nexus for in human health, with corporate consequences. Industrial psychologists began championing the idea of organizational health. The result of good management, organizational health led directly to individual health, both physical and mental; healthy workers built successful companies.
One of the first of these psychologists was Harry Levinson (1922–2012). His Men, Management, and Mental Health (1962)1 portrayed the workplace as anything but a neutral space. A native of New York and trained at Emporia State University (B.S., 1943; M.S., 1947) and the University of Kansas (Ph.D., 1952), he became associated with the Menninger Foundation of Topeka. There, with a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, he founded the Division of Industrial Mental Health.2 For Men, Management, and Mental Health, he conducted almost 1,000 interviews and made site visits to more than 40 work locations at a Kansas power company over the course of 2 years. Levinson and his team delved deeply into the workings of the company, considering specific examples of tension and conflict, using case studies to flesh out his theories, and, as he put it, “specifying more fully our conception of mental health.”3
In his work, Levinson brought to bear the full panoply of psychoanalytic theory. He saw in the workplace the playing out of dependency needs and transference mechanisms; he traced the clash of rivalries, and viewed conflicts as arising out of deep psychological wells. Yet all this was comprehensible in terms of the psychoanalytical view of human nature. Chief among Levinson’s insights was that workers wanted, or even needed a psychological contract in addition to a labor contract, not based on specific rewards for services, but rather on such intangibles as security, job growth, mutual respect, and fairness. He called the bundle of these concerns “reciprocation” and held they were crucial for organizational success—and for the mental health and physical safety of employees.4
True to his psychoanalytical training, he saw executives and managers as having crucial roles, which he put into medical terms. When working well, the executive was “diagnostic, remedial, and preventive.” When failing, he was “iatrogenic”: illness-causing! Finally, he maintained that mental health was not a humanitarian add-on in American business, but an integral part of “getting the job done.” American management needed to move beyond psychological manipulation: “psychological understanding cannot fail.”5
In the late 1960s, Levinson joined Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical School, and founded The Levinson Institute, a consulting firm and his base until the early 1990s. He wrote numerous books and introduced workplace concepts familiar to this day, among them the employee assistance program, performance feedback, and coping with loss in workplace change.6
How would Harry Levinson deal with Don Draper? For Levinson, the most important goal is alleviating workplace stress, which Don does through alcohol—as well as other outlets. Levinson’s means were solidarity and leadership, with the aim of re-establishing a creative balance. How well Draper would have responded to this message is up for grabs: my guess is that he’d be out the door!
1. Harry Levinson, Charlton, R. Price, Kenneth J. Munden, Harold J. Mandl, and Charles M. Solley, Men, Management, and Mental Health (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962).
2. Levinson, Men, Management, and Mental Health, p. viii.
3. Levinson, Men, Management, and Mental Health, Appendix 1, “Research Team Operations,” pp. 173–82, quotation from page 179.
4. Levinson, Men, Management, and Mental Health, passim, but for those terms, see pp. 21 and 122.
5. Levinson, Men, Management, and Mental Health, chapter 10, pp. 157–72.
6. See also Diana Gordick, “Leader Speak: A Conversation with Harry Levinson,” The Consulting Psychologist: Spotlight on Consulting Issues, http://www.apa.org/divisions/div13/Update/2003Fall/Spotlight2Fall2003.htm. Accessed April 2, 2015.