Rensis Likert: Creator of Organizations
This article was originally written by Leslie Kish and appeared in The American Statistician in 1982.
Rensis Likert served as vice president of the American Statistical Association from 1953 to 1955 and was president of the ASA in 1959. His service to the ASA, however, hardly begins to indicate the breadth of the achievements of his long and vigorous career.
Likert was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1903. After living with his parents in several states, he entered the University of Michigan in 1922. There, he concentrated on civil engineering for a couple of years, until he took a course in sociology. Robert Angell recalls him from that class as his brightest engineering student. The respect was mutual, and Likert found that his scientific interests were more in people than in things. He transferred in his senior year from the college of engineering and took his bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1926.
Likert went from Michigan to Union Theological Seminary for one year, then to the Columbia University Department of Psychology, where he took his PhD in 1932. At Columbia, Likert gradually moved from traditional fields of psychology to the new social psychology. In this, he was influenced by Gardner Murphy, who served as chair for his dissertation committee. His doctoral research dealt with a wide-ranging set of attitudes, interrelating student attitudes toward race and international affairs; it was published in 1932 as “A Technique for the Measurement of Attitudes.”
Engineering, sociology, psychology, ethics, and statistics. Likert maintained throughout his life an energetic appreciation of concepts and values from all these areas. He was always curious about how things work[ed] and how to fix them when they did not. His strong feel for structures and measurements also showed in his quantitative and pragmatic approaches to social problems and social measurements. The year at Union Theological Seminary was reflected in his openness, his optimism, and both his desire and his ability to do good.
Started by Rensis Likert, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR) is the world’s largest academic social science survey and research organization. For 60 years, social scientists have trained there to develop new research methodology.
Likert did well in several areas. During the course of his doctoral research, he developed what soon became the famous “Likert scale,” an early example of “sufficing” that exemplifies Likert’s pragmatic approach. He showed, with empirical comparisons, that his much simpler method (asking the respondent to place himself on a scale of favor/disfavor with a neutral midpoint) gave results very similar to those of the much more cumbersome (though more theoretically elegant) Thurstone procedure (based on the psychophysical method of equal-appearing intervals). The Likert scale has been adopted throughout the world, and continuing demand for the thesis led to its re-publication in the series Classic Contributions to Social Psychology. The scale also appears as Chapter 3 of the pioneering Public Opinion and the Individual, which Likert and Murphy published in 1938.
During his time at Columbia, Likert married Jane Gibson, whom he had known at [the University of Michigan]. They formed a loving, lasting, close bond. She was a lifelong source of support to him and, often, his collaborator.
Likert’s activities over the years 1939–1970 made a tremendous impact on the development of social statistics. In September 1939, he was appointed director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Division of Program Surveys. Henry Wallace, secretary of agriculture, had invited Likert to organize this new unit, which was created to obtain more reliably farmers’ experiences with, and reactions to, the diverse new programs sponsored by the department. This was a new idea—an independent statistical unit monitoring the activities of program agencies.
Based on surveys and studies in business, industrial, and government settings, Rensis Likert identified four main styles of leadership in his book The Human Organization: Its Management and Value:
Exploitive authoritative—where the leader imposes decisions on subordinates and uses fear to achieve employee motivation
Benevolent authoritative—where the leader uses rewards to encourage productivity, but management is responsible for all decisions and there is no teamwork
Consultative—where management does listen to subordinates and incorporates some employee ideas, but most subordinates do not feel responsible to achieve the organization’s goals
Participative—where the leader engages subordinates, solves problems with teamwork, and everyone feels responsible for achieving the organization’s goal
In 1941, the scope of Likert’s division expanded overnight from agricultural surveys and became the first general sample survey organization. Reliable and efficient multistage probability area sampling methods for households and individuals were developed and used with high standards for many national surveys of behaviors and attitudes. Several important new methods were introduced, among them the “fixed question with open-ended answers” to let respondents interpret questions on their own terms, rather than within rigid alternatives. The important surveys included research to explain and predict the buying and then the redemption of war bonds. In 1945, Likert also led a talented team of social scientists for studies of the effect of constant bombing of cities on the morale of the civilian populations of Germany and Japan. For the leadership of these strategic bombing surveys, Likert received the Medal of Freedom in June 1946.
In the fall of 1946, Likert and six associates left Washington to set up the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan. With support from professors Robert Angell and Theodore Newcomb, it was started in a basement of the university; much of the staff worked on PhDs while doing professional grant research. The center grew in size and prospered, and with the addition of three more centers, it became the Institute for Social Research (ISR).
ISR developed and published many innovations in statistical methods and applications; some were discovered during the busy war years in Washington. These included scientific probability methods of sampling from the country level on down to the household and personal levels, sound methods of controls for responses and nonresponses, improved questionnaire and coding methods, machine computations, and deeper methods of analysis and presentation of results.
In 1970, after 24 years, Likert retired from the University of Michigan as emeritus director of ISR and professor of psychology and sociology. He was impatient, at the age of 67, to put his ideas of organizational management into consulting practice and he created another organization, Rensis Likert Associates.
Most of Likert’s energies and time went into building and maintaining organizations, public service, and support and ideas for others. He wrote three more books: New Patterns of Management (1961), The Human Organization: Its Management and Value (1967), and New Ways of Managing Conflict (1976), the last in collaboration with his wife. These books—based on surveys and studies in business, industrial, and governmental settings—deal with principles of participative management. They represent Likert’s principal research interests and his collaborative efforts with many researchers, especially Robert Kahn, Daniel Katz, Floyd Mann, and Stanley Seashore. The central principles of his “System 4” are (1) supportive relationships between organizational members; (2) multiple overlapping structures, with groups consisting of superiors and their subordinates; (3) group problemsolving by consensus within groups; and (4) overlapping memberships between groups by members who serve as “linking pins.”
Likert’s optimism and friendliness were genuine and infectious. They were crucial assets in external relations for the diverse organizations he invented, established, and maintained. They were also important for creating self-confidence and confidence, loyalty, and inventiveness in the many talented people he attracted to lives in collaborations devoted to rational problemsolving in the social sciences. Likert’s initiative, enterprise, and unending energies had more important goals than merely being right; he wanted to make the world better, and he had a youthful belief that the sciences of human behavior can be developed to make unique and vital contributions to those goals.