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THE PSYCHOLOGIST-MANAGER JOURNAL, 2005, 8
(1), 17–28Copyright 2005 by the Society of Psychologists in Management
California School of Organizational Studies
This article reviews the role of organizational diagnosis in managerial and organiza-tional consultative roles. The particular contributions of Harry Levinson are high-lighted. The ways in which Levinson, a pioneering clinical psychologist of work andorganizational issues and a pioneering psychologist-consultant, utilized and ap-proached organizational diagnosis are reviewed. Methods of integrating these per-spectives in the day-to-day work of psychologist-managers are discussed.
Of course, it is possible to be a manager who is also a psychologist and who makeslittle use of psychological training and background in implementing the adminis-trative role. To be a psychologist-manager, however, assumes that one applies ex-pertise from one’s psychological training and from the psychologist’s role to theday-to-day work as a manager or leader (Lowman, 1997). Psychologist-managersneed to be able to think in psychological, not just managerial, concepts and princi-ples, whether working for organizations as managers or as consultants. Althoughpsychologist-managers cannot be exclusively organizational diagnosticians andinterventionists when they are serving in the managerial or leadership roles—thatwould create a role conflict (Lowman, 1998; Newman, Robinson-Kurpius, &Fuqua, 2002)—they can benefit from applying their psychological expertise to themanagerial role and in thinking about their roles and responsibilities from the psy-chological, not just the managerial, perspective. Organizational diagnosis or as-sessment is part of this process. In this article, I highlight the contributions of oneof the premiere organizational assessors and consultants, clinical and consulting
Correspondence should be sent to Rodney L. Lowman, PhD, Office of the Provost, Alliant Interna-
tional University, 10455 Pomerado Road, San Diago, CA 92131-1799. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
psychologist Harry Levinson, to the process of understanding and implementingorganizational diagnosis.
HARRY LEVINSON’S DISTINCTIVE CONTRIBUTIONS
Harry Levinson is a clinical psychologist by training whose considerable body ofwriting and practice helped to pioneer the field of organizational consulting psy-chology. His books and articles have been popular both with managers and withpsychologists who would consult to organizations. The particular model thatLevinson has persistently espoused throughout his professional career is psycho-analytic. That derived from his training at the Menninger Foundation, from whichhis early work began (see e.g., Smith, 1978). Although Levinson has strongly ad-vocated the psychoanalytical model as a metaphor for understanding organizationsand the people within them, he is at least as concerned that psychologists base theirwork on a sound, integrated theory as that they espouse any particular theoreticalsystem.
Whatever other contributions the psychoanalytic approach may have made, its
advocacy of affective and intellectual honesty is surely an important one. It isabout the attempt to help people perceive accurately, with minimal influence of theinevitable intrusion of personal characteristics and distortion to which all peopleare prone. The psychoanalytical model is also about personal storytelling, helpingto make each necessarily subjective history possible to be understood in a way thatis clear, reasonably accurate, and minimally distorted. Imagine what some of thecontemporary companies now mired in scandal (e.g., Enron, WorldCom) mightgive now to have been, before their fall, subjected to an objective telling of theirstory—and the ability to act purposely on that information—during their heady ex-pansionary periods (see Levinson, 1994b).
Levinson was one of the first clinical psychologists to think systematically about
organizational assessment and intervention. It is difficult to single out from his manycontributions to organizational consulting psychological practice only a few for spe-cial focus. In this article, I want to focus primarily on Levinson’s contributions to or-ganizational assessment. In doing so, I can apply a bit of the psychoanalytic ap-proach to the task of understanding the advocated diagnostic methodology.
Because early experience is an important part of the psychoanalytic model and ap-proach, let me mention first a few historical, so-called genetic, notes about HarryLevinson. Although he spent much of his career at Harvard—a powerful forumwhere, if one has something to say, it can more easily get attention—he did not
start there. His personal origins were rather modest and, in many ways, his successinspirational. Like so many of his era, Levinson was raised in unpretentious cir-cumstances, in his case, in New York City. His father was a Jewish immigrant, a tai-lor. His undergraduate education was not at Harvard, Yale, Hopkins, or any of theother East Coast elitist academic institutions that can provide a jump-start to ca-reers but rather at a small, somewhat obscure teacher’s college in Kansas.
Harry Levinson’s attending college in Kansas reflected many things, including
his personal financial circumstances and the discrimination against Jews that wasrather rampant in higher education during that era. However, Levinson knew thathe had always wanted to teach, learn, and write; mastering the basics at an institu-tion devoted to the rigorous training of teachers, even if in the middle of a state towhich he had never been, was therefore not such a bad place to begin. It was a for-tuitous circumstance that, when he later pursued graduate training in clinical psy-chology, one of the best mental health training facilities in the world also happenedto be located in the middle of the prairie in Topeka, Kansas. His graduate work wasa combined product of the University of Kansas and the Menninger Foundation.
His graduate training in clinical psychology and subsequent early work experiencehappened to have been located in a place where much pioneering work was beingdone. (Education is not just about training in elitist institutions; it is taking advan-tage of the circumstances in which you find yourself.) Harry Levinson’s earlywork in Kansas at the famed Menninger Foundation, a remarkable mental healthtreatment institution in the most unlikely of places (Topeka, Kansas), early on in-volved an industrial component.
Levinson’s move from Topeka to Cambridge and Harvard came on the back-
ground of his having spent 14 years heading up the Division of Industrial MentalHealth for The Menninger Foundation. In that capacity, he learned about organiza-tional diagnosis first hand from such activities as riding in the trucks of men work-ing the power lines of Kansas Power and Light. His seminal early work Men, Man-agement and Mental Health
(Levinson, Munden, Price, Mandl, & Solley, 1962)derived from those experiences. At Harvard, he quickly became connected withcorporations of a different sort, Fortune 100 companies; that experience base,along with the hands-on work in Kansas, clearly helped to shape his assessmentapproaches.
I do want to say just a word about my own history by way of illustrating how im-
portant Harry Levinson’s contributions have been to me personally. For one suchas myself who studied both industrial and organizational (I/O) and clinical psy-chology in graduate school in the late 1970s, Levinson’s work was personally bothimportant and influential. I had found the I/O psychology I started out to study ingraduate school to be methodologically rigorous but somehow an insufficient baseon which to understand organizations. To combine I/O and clinical psychology inan era when nobody on either side of that equation thought that was a very relevantor good idea took a lot of convincing of many skeptics. I maintained then, as I do
now, that clinical and I/O psychology have a lot to teach each other and that clinicalpsychology knowledge is directly relevant to the world of organizations as arework studies to the world of clinical psychology (see e.g., Lowman, 1991a, 1991b,1993). Levinson’s work—especially his seminal work on Organizational Diagno-sis
—was one of the few milestones along the way in my professional training andpractice. (I am told it was for many years one of Harvard University Press’s peren-nial best sellers and is now, I am delighted to say, back in print in a revised andmuch updated edition published by the American Psychological Association; Lev-inson, 2002b.) When you want to do something that few others think at the time isof value or importance it always helps to have a few role models along the way andHarry Levinson was certainly one of those for me.
From the personal to the professional, I would like now to turn our attention to thespecific issue of organizational diagnosis and to some of Harry Levinson’s manyseminal contributions.
Imagine going to a medical practitioner who presented the patient with a pre-
scription before asking about symptoms or doing a physical examination, reminis-cent of the title of one of Harry Levinson’s books: Ready, Fire, Aim
(Levinson &Robinson, 1986). Although in this era of managed health care even that scenariomight seem not too far-fetched, as a knowledgeable consumer one probably wouldnot suffer this approach in silence. Because its early days, medical science appro-priately has been based on the reasonable assumption that treatments need to bematched with problems and that a demonstrated linkage between experiencedproblem and intervention is necessary before recommending a treatment. Treat-ments that are not preceded by diagnosis in today’s world would rightly be re-garded as quackery or medical malpractice. Also, until recently, when the publichas come under the influence of the heavy advertising of companies manufactur-ing such drugs as Prozac™ and Viagra™, medical patients did not typically go to aphysician requesting a particular treatment. Rather, they came in requesting helpwith a particular problem and the choice of which drug to use or whether to use aphysical treatment or some other type was not the particular concern of the patient.
This was so because, among other reasons, the technical knowledge to evaluate theconnection between treatment and intervention was not widespread in the generalpopulation. Furthermore, the sheer volume and complexity of the knowledge basewas usually beyond the lay person’s mastery.
Yet, in the field of organizational consulting, we often find the conceptual equiva-
lent to this Ready, Fire, Aim
approach, albeit abetted by our clients. How often docompanies call in organizational diagnosis (OD) experts and ask for team building,
conflict management, or values alignment with absolutely no interest in, or willing-ness to pay for, preliminary assessment work? It is not that such treatments are un-needed or cannot in some circumstances do some good —most companies probablycan use interventions of this sort. However, as Harry Levinson has taught us, withoutcompetent assessment there is no assurance that these treatments address what ailsthe organization or are likely to result in long-lasting change. In a recent chapter onlinking organizational assessments and intervention in the Handbook of Organiza-tional Consulting Psychology,
Levinson (2002a) says, “the implication of course isthat when a problem is more than transient, or casual, before trying to fix it, the con-sultant should understand what caused it and why it persists” (p. 318).
An interesting twist on the client’s desire for a product or a positive outcome
rather than focusing on the negative was one used by my graduate school mentor CarlFrost, another clinical-organizational psychologist. He was the nation’s premiereexponent of the Scanlon Plan
, a still-innovative participative management andgain-sharing system. Frost was usually called in by companies, usually after theyhad read about one of the Scanlon Plan success stories such as Herman Miller,Motorola, or Donnelly Mirrors, for the express purpose of assisting them in puttingin a Scanlon Plan. They wanted the product, the outcome—and preferably as quicklyas possible. After some pointed questions about the current state of the organization,Frost inevitably told them on his initial consultation visit that they were not ready fora Scanlon Plan. Until the organization had accurately identified its current situa-tional reality and its reasons for wanting to change, and made a convincing case to allpeople in the organization about the need for change and the need in particular for theScanlon Plan, it could not have one, at least not with Frost as the consultant. In otherwords, the organization had to do a thorough self-diagnosis before
it could undertakethe desired “change” program. Harry Levinson’s approach is similar.
OD OF WHAT, BY WHOM, AND FOR WHAT PURPOSE?
What does an organizational consultant diagnose, for what purpose, and using whatsystem? These are important questions that will very much influence the organiza-tional diagnostic process. We do not diagnose because it is something to do to passour time or because it is what medicine does but rather for some specific organiza-tional purposes. There are, I argue, at least two major kinds of organizational issuesfor which organizational consultants are likely to be brought in and two kinds of di-agnostic processes that derive from that. One of these concerns the assessment of or-ganizational dysfunction
(Lowman, 1993) and the other of organizational well-being and intended optimization.
Often requests based on apparent optimization aredisguised requests for problem solution.
approaches, an organization seeks help with
something that is perceived to be dysfunctional by someone influential in the orga-nization. There are two major issues that must be considered in this type of diagno-sis. First, has the client identified the correct problem? Levinson suggests that theusual answer to this question is no or at best a partial yes. Representatives of orga-nizational clients are usually careful in their request for the services of an organiza-tional consultant. This may be due, in part, because they do not want their dirtylaundry aired to a consultant before they know they can safely trust and rely on theperson. However, it is also the case that the nature of the organizational reality, atleast in private sector organizations, emphasizes competition and positive self-pre-sentation. Everything about a problem-focused diagnosis goes in the opposite di-rection—asking that problems be aired and directly discussed and that problems(as well as strengths) be unearthed, displayed, and discussed.
An analogy to family therapy rather than to individual therapy is apt because
families are (small) social systems with built-in issues of hierarchy and authorityand a strong push toward positive self-presentation to the rest of the world. Issuesof perceived disloyalty, the possibility of perceived subsequent retaliation, and theperceived loss of status and face are inherent in both family and organizationalwork. Such constructs and concerns suffuse Harry Levinson’s work on organiza-tional diagnosis.
There is no one way to conduct organizational assessments but that does not implythat anything goes. Levinson has sometimes—often—been criticized for his ad-herence to psychoanalytical principles long after they had been abandoned bymany other organizational assessors. Levinson did not, however, just adopt thepsychoanalytic model to the problems of organizations in a mechanistic or poorlyconceived manner. Rather, he extended that model to the world of work by im-mersing himself in the phenomenology of work and of organizations. Where thepsychoanalytic models fit, he used them and adopted them; where they did not, hecreated his own models and understanding. However, whatever the schemata, hefelt that diagnosis needed to precede intervention. About that, Levinson has beencertain.
Thanks especially to the work of Harry Levinson, the field of organizational as-
sessment has advanced significantly. As much as any other author on organiza-tional assessment, Levinson has addressed not only content issues but also processissues (see, e.g., Levinson, 2002a, 2002b, 2002c). What data should be collected,by whom, and taking into account what psychological processes that occur amongthose from whom data are being collected are all aspects of psychological assess-ment about which Harry Levinson helped to define the standards of practice in a
field he helped to create. One can choose different, less psychodynamically deriva-tive labels if one wants but the constructs and phenomena in organizational as-sessment of transference; countertransference; psychological loss; grieving; theaffective reactions; genetic, structural, and process data; and clinical inference areall ones that Harry Levinson has persistently brought to our attention (see, e.g.,Levinson, 1994a, 2002b). The fields of organizational change and of managementare richer, brighter, and better as a result.
By no means are we fully where we need to be in organizational assessment.
Taking the medical model as a metaphor, modern medical diagnosis did not get toits current state of sophistication overnight. It has taken centuries to reach the cur-rent highly complex level at which tools such as computed tomography (CT) scansand positron emission tomography scans can be used to diagnose physical ail-ments with an astonishing degree of clarity and rapidity. Let us learn from, but notidealize, medical models. Even now, medical systems are not foolproof and do notensure instant health. I remember being involved early in my career in a prestigiousmedical school-based study about pseudoseizures (see Lowman & Richardson,1987). In reviewing hundreds of electroencephalographic reports, it was amazinghow often in this supposedly science-based discipline the conclusions drawn wereinexact and inconclusive, in effect, “could be this, could be that.” So much for theprecision and exactitude of medical science.
No matter what diagnostic theory and problem taxonomies are used, organiza-tional diagnosis is a complex undertaking calling for the complicated interweavingof data from multiple sources to draw conclusions (inferences) about what ails anorganization and how it can be fixed or made better. Harry Levinson has taught usthat there is no substitute for judgment, clinical and otherwise, in integratingacross multiple sources of complex data to draw inferences and conclusions (seeLevinson, 2002a, 2002b, 2002c). If we are not yet where we ultimately need to bein terms of both assessment and the process of linking assessment and interven-tion, neither are we rank amateurs exploring terrain for the first time, thanks espe-cially to the contributions of Harry Levinson.
A second major issue in problem-focused organizational diagnosis is the issue
of diagnostic inference,
whether the type of anticipated or requested interventionmatches the nature of the appropriately identified organizational problem. We donot yet have an empirically derived literature that matches organizational problemwith intervention to determine the likelihood of success. For now, this remainssomething of an art form in which the observed conditions are matched with theknown literature of types of interventions that have been shown to have success insimilar type situations.
Equally well-trained, conscientious, and ethical consulting psychologists or psy-chologist-managers can differ in their diagnoses concerning the nature of an orga-nization’s problem(s), the type of further assessment or intervention needed, andthe preferred way of using a particular intervention. Moreover, more than one con-ceptualization of an organizational problem might be correct because problems inorganizations tend to be overdetermined and symptom clusters tend to exist. An or-ganization under serious external threat working in a highly competitive environ-ment, for example, may have many employees who experience a number of symp-toms of that stress. Addressing only one subset of the problems giving rise to thestressors (e.g., organizational strategy vs. management of affective reactions to thestressors) can be equally important and there is not yet a cookbook by which the“right” choice for a particular organizational condition can be made mechanistically.
Assessments also tend to differ in how much breadth and depth they encompass
(see Lowman, 1991a). Harry Levinson’s assessments (see Levinson, 2002a, 2002b)tend to be very detailed, anchoring the organization in its full internal and externalcontexts. Other approaches are much more circumscribed or technique driven (seee.g., Howard, 1994). My guess is that beginning consultants need the detail,whereas experienced and well-trained organizational consultants may diagnosemore intuitively and figure out, on the basis of much more limited information thando novices, what is problematic in the system and what is likely to work in thatcontext to bring about change. (Harry Levinson, for example, has been conductingorganizational assessments and consultations for 50 years.)
It is also possible for assessments in the organizational contexts to cover smaller
or larger portions of an organization. An assessment might have as its intended tar-get a single department or organizational unit, particularly at the high levels of theorganization, or it might, especially for a smaller organization, encompass the en-tire organization. Making explicit the focus of a particular organizational assess-ment is crucially important. Just as a medical practitioner cannot expect to drawconclusions about the kidneys’ functions from a CT scan of the brain, although thefunctioning of the two structures may be related, so too organizational practitio-ners must match diagnostic tool to experienced problem and limit the conclusionsdrawn to the systems analyzed.
If the major purpose of organizational assessment is to assist the client in the accu-rate perception of its situational reality (see Frost, 1996) so that informed choicescan be made on that understanding (see, e.g., the still-impactful work of Argyris,
1970), then organizational assessment is not something done by an organizationalconsultant for a consulting assignment. Assessment, rather, is an ongoing organi-zational need. Just as organizations have sophisticated systems for assessing mar-ket success, sales trends, and the like, so too must they incorporate assessment sys-tems that will continually provide current data on the state of the organization.
Annual employee surveys that provide a “temperature taking” of the organizationare just one example of the effective use of psychological methods on an ongoing,institutionalized basis. Such surveys provide useful information to the consultantand organization alike. There is still no substitute for organizational consulting psy-chologists’ involvement in the process of assessment and intervention. Just as mil-lions now monitor their own blood pressure or ensure that they have regular cho-lesterol readings as indicators of potential health or dysfunction, expert guidance isstill often needed to make sense of the numbers or to determine how to proceedwhen they are problematic. The psychologist-manager cannot always be his or herown assessor or interventionist.
Levinson’s contributions to developing a literature of organizational diagnosis alsobear comment. In contrast to some of the jargon-ridden prose of many writers—es-pecially psychoanalytic ones—who seem to think that psychoanalytic constructsare only worthwhile if expressed in the most arcane terms (a sort of gourmet foodfor the privileged), Harry Levinson writes clearly, strongly, and with an apparentsimplicity that makes it all seem effortless. Levinson’s work almost always beginswith the subject matter
of organizations not the constructs of psychoanalysis. Thereality of organizations, not a theory developed for some other purpose, is whereLevinson begins, which is one reason why his writings are instantly accessible.
Perhaps this straightforward style derived from his years spent living and workingin Kansas where plain speaking and directness are prized. His recent book on orga-nizational assessment (Levinson, 2002b) and two impressive chapters in the Hand-book of Organizational Consulting Psychology
(Lowman, 2002) are powerful il-lustrations of a master writing at the peak of his game. They contain many gems ofwisdom that distill 50 years of consulting practice and theory into deceptively sim-ple-sounding profundities. As one who values clear thinking as well as clear writ-ing, I cherish his talent. For example, concerning the purpose or mission of organi-zations, Levinson (2002a) wrote in one of his two Handbook of OrganizationalConsulting Psychology
All organizations are attack devices…Schools attack ignorance, churches inveighagainst sins, charitable organizations seek to alleviate poverty or strife, healthcare or-ganizations fight illness and death. All living organisms seek to master their environ-
ments for their survival, and to perpetuate their species. For the organizational con-sultant it is important to understand what the organization attacks, how well thatattack fits with its purpose, and how effectively it does so. (p. 327)
Again, concerning power in organizations, Levinson (2002c) writes in the sec-
There is one other issue that psychological organizational consultants characteristi-cally avoid: the exercise of power. Characteristically, they fear and decry power as ifthe exercise of power is bad. That does not make it disappear. (p. 444)
And finally, in an important chapter on “The Practitioner as Diagnostic Instru-
ment,” Levinson (1994a) said it all, and succinctly, when he wrote
Management, like all disciplines, is subject to fads as executives seek quick and easysolutions to complex problems…But there are no quick and easy solutions. Variousmanagerial techniques are applied to organizations without addressing the followingbasic questions: What is the specific problem in the organization? What are its multi-ple causes in the context of the economy, its own industry, and its unique organiza-tional history? How well is the organization able to cope with its problem?
An ethical consultant must answer such questions, report what he or she has
learned in a manner that can be understood, and recommend steps for change. Theserecommendations can be the basis for discussion within the organization and forevolving a plan of change that is in keeping with the organization’s capacities andcompetence. All this requires a formal, comprehensive diagnostic process… andsolid psychological skill (pp. 51–52).
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE PSYCHOLOGIST-MANAGER
How does the psychologist-manager make use of organizational diagnosis and ofLevinson’s models? Several suggestions can be made:
1. Assess before taking action. Managers typically think in terms of action
more than contemplation or theory building. However, psychologist-managersmust master the nonpsychological aspects of their jobs without abandoning theirpsychological training or perspectives (see Lowman, 1997).
2. Tie the results of assessment to the contemplated actions. Before acting, psy-
chologist-managers need a plan based on an understanding of what an organizationneeds and how the planned changes relate to those needs. The intervention planshould be based not just on the business or organizational needs but also on an un-derstanding of the psychological aspects of the situations at hand.
3. Use psychological consultants to assist in the process. In my experience,
some psychologist-managers ignore their training as psychologists and bring intoo few psychological organizational consultants and often too late in the processof managing organizational change. Perhaps they do so because they do not wantto seem to be using their special knowledge inappropriately. However, psy-chologist-managers need to know the value and the limitations of organizationalconsultants. If they err, it should be in the direction of overutilization not under-utilization. They also need to know how to manage consultants when they bringthem into the organization and how to get them out of the organization when theirroles have been completed (see Grabow, 2002).
4. Base the interventions on knowledge of what works and what does not work.
Psychologist-managers attempt interventions in their organizations that have aknown track record. There is now a substantial empirical research literature onwhat works and what does not in organizational consultation (see, e.g., Halfhill,Huff, Johnson, Ballentine, & Beyerlein, 2002). Psychologist-managers know therelevant literature and make use of it in their actions.
5. Evaluate the results on an ongoing basis. Measurement is part of the training
of most psychologists. Winum (2002) provides a model of evaluating organiza-tional consultation interventions. Psychologist-managers who want accurate diag-noses as a basis of action need continually to assess and to evaluate.
There is so much more that could be said about organizational diagnosis and thespecial contributions of Harry Levinson. The professional challenge of learninghow to conduct organizational assessments in a valid and reliable way —whatworks and what does not—is not over; it is really just getting started. However,thanks to the work of Harry Levinson, we—all of us who aspire to conduct organi-zational assessments in a way that creates meaning, relieves pain, and helps to pro-mote organizational well-being—stand on the shoulders of one of the giants in thefield, one who has been there before us and helps us to see, in a new light, all thewonders there to be viewed if only we have the competence, the patience, and thevision to do so. May we do as well by the next generations of organizational con-sulting psychologists as Harry Levinson has done by us.
An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the Ameri-can Psychological Association, Chicago, August 23, 2003 as part of the HarryLevinson Festschrift
in honor of Dr. Levinson’s 80th birthday.
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