A Tribute to Renato Tagiuri, my Mentor and Friend

By John A. Davis

Renato TagiuriIt is challenging to adequately summarize, let alone fairly describe, the work of Professor Renato Tagiuri. His intellectual contributions are enormous, span six decades, cover many topics and add to at least three academic disciplines. And his writing and contributions are ongoing, with more intellectual and practical gems still to be appreciated.

Renato Tagiuri’s concepts and deep insights are what make his work so highly influential. Tagiuri and Bruner’s article, “The Perception of People” (Handbook of Social Psychology, 1954), was a pivotal article in its time and is still considered a must-read classic. Tagiuri’s Harvard Business School technical notes, containing pithy, wise advice to executives on performance conversations, dealing with unsatisfactory performance, developing mission statements, and on many other key topics, are still used to great effect in Harvard classrooms. His article with Davis, “Bivalent Attributes of the Family Firm” (Family Business Review, 1996), introduced the Three-Circle Model, which is the organizing framework for the family business field. Renato Tagiuri’s scholarship has influenced countless minds and has shaped academic fields.

It is entirely fair to say that Professor Tagiuri has been blessed with a great mind that he uses relentlessly to explain complicated, indeed messy, problems involving people, relationships and organizations. He then provides orderly, constructive approaches to managing these challenges. His ability to do this so fluidly has much to do with the fact that he deeply understands human psychology, and tackles problems like an exacting engineer. Not surprisingly, Tagiuri’s social and intellectual journey in life has shaped his abilities.

Renato Tagiuri was born in Milan, Italy in 1919. He suffered the loss of both parents as a boy and was raised by his grandparents. His early schooling was in Verona (which he still loves), where he focused on the classics and was recognized as a very bright student. He was always a tinkerer, however, and thought engineering would be a good field. So in 1938 he moved to England to study engineering, where he lived with his Australian aunt and his Italian uncle, his mother’s brother. That episode in his life was severely interrupted when Mussolini declared war on Great Britain in 1940. Italians living in Britain, including the 20 year-old Tagiuri, were rounded up, declared civilian prisoners of war, and imprisoned. Renato Tagiuri was deported to Montreal, Canada along with hundreds of other Italian prisoners where, for four years, he labored on roads, made rope, and did other menial jobs. His practical and philosophical nature was strengthened in these years.

At the end of the war in 1945, at age 26, he was released and stayed in Canada, where he quickly obtained his B.Sc. and his M.Sc. in Psychology at McGill University. He was also an accomplished statistician by this point. While at McGill he met his California-born wife, Consuelo, a psychiatrist, when he taught her statistics in a McGill classroom. Renato was encouraged to go onto Harvard for his Ph.D. and was admitted in 1946. (But only after reversing a brief rejection of his application because Harvard thought his name was Japanese and felt anti-Japanese sentiment was too high for him to attend.) Tagiuri obtained his Ph.D. in Social Relations (a combination of behavioral sciences) in 1951, at age 32.

Harvard, at that time, was the home of many of the world’s leading psychologists and sociologists and it was uncommon for a graduating student to be asked to stay on the faculty, but Tagiuri was. For six years, he taught in the Social Relations Department and did path-breaking work on the topics of person perception and social relationships. He earned his place as part of the establishment in the psychological world at Harvard but he was also eager to explore new horizons. In the 1950’s psychoanalysis was seen as an important new tool to understanding human behavior, but until then only medical doctors were permitted to become psychoanalysts. When the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute accepted other professionals for training, Tagiuri went through their rigorous program, becoming a psychoanalyst in 1957. As with all of his training, Tagiuri has employed the tools of psychoanalysis selectively, avoiding becoming a disciple of any particular disciplinary approach. His method of analysis and intervention has always stressed appreciating various perspectives and integrating appropriate tools to suit the situation, and is motivated by an engineer’s desire to be helpful.

By 1957, Tagiuri had grown increasingly skeptical of basing psychological theories on the behaviors of college freshmen—the mainstay of laboratory experiments in that day. It isn’t surprising that one day he crossed the Charles River to see what the Business School at Harvard was up to. There he met with Dean Teele, who brought much talent to HBS. Teele recognized the opportunity to focus Tagiuri’s immense skills on issues of organizational behavior and offered him a job as a professor; fortunately for me and for many others, he accepted.

Tagiuri’s active career at Harvard spanned thirty years from 1957-1986, although he lectured well into the 2000s and continues to write to this day. He briefly taught in the MBA program at HBS and then focused on executive education programs, enjoying the challenge of teaching experienced executives. He spent several years teaching human aspects of management in Harvard’s Advanced Management Program, Senior Executive Program (located in Switzerland) and Owner/President Management Program. Between 1973 and 1986 Tagiuri chaired the Seminar on Management in Industrial Research at the Industrial Research Institute. He also spent a year in Turkey organizing a business school on behalf of Harvard Business School. During these highly productive years, he wrote extensively on topics of management, leadership and family business. Between 1977 and 1982 I had the privilege of studying under him and working as his research assistant, and witnessed his enormous skill as a teacher, researcher and mentor. He continues to mentor me to this day.

Tagiuri is the recipient of the Harvard Business School Distinguished Service Award for decades of distinguished and important service to the School (1986), the Richard Beckard Practice Award from the Family Firm Institute for his contributions to the practice of advising family companies (2004), and an Honorary Doctorate in the science of education from the University of Verona (2005). He served as chairman of the Owner Managed Business Institute from 1989 to 2008, and is now chairman emeritus. His proudest achievement is the fine family that he and Consuelo have nurtured—sons Robert, Peter and John and their families.

Tagiuri’s written work stands as a testament to the three adages he has taught to me and to others during his long and productive career. First, be accurate. Use clear and precise terminology so that you and others understand what it is you mean to say and so that your words (which are tools) carefully build the images that you want to communicate. Second, keep it simple. Focus on the essentials of your study and don’t make it complicated. All social phenomena are influenced by numerous factors, which are in turn influenced by many more. A person can become overwhelmed assembling an explanation of a person, a social interaction, or an organization—unless you limit or bound what you are trying to explain and keep your explanation simple. Third, and probably most essential, be useful. Renato Tagiuri has always been fascinated with the real problems and lessons of life. He investigates problems and situations that matter to people and presents his analysis and his recommendations in ways so that others can use them. His great effectiveness at identifying useful problems to explore, developing precise explanations of these problems and crafting usable approaches to problems makes him a profound teacher and his writing a treasure.