Rick Hackett

Clara Lee and Timothy Wingate (graduate students from the University of Calgary' s I-O program) chated over the phone with Dr Rick Hackett and asked him to share some of his experiences, his research, his thoughts on successful academics and students, and the future.


Dr. Rick Hackett is one of the cornerstones of Canadian I/O psychology, having influenced researchers worldwide on the study of transformational leadership and leader-member exchange. Dr. Hackett received his M.A. in Applied Social Psychology at the University of Windsor, and his Ph.D. in I/O Psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Dr. Hackett’s supervisor and mentor during this time was Dr. Robert Guion, whom Dr. Hackett holds to be his greatest career inspiration. As a professor at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, Dr. Hackett also holds many esteemed positions, such as a Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in Organizational Behaviour and Human Performance, and Fellow of the Canadian Psychological Association.

In a telephone interview, Dr. Hackett reflects on his past and present research, gives insight into the links between academia and industry, and describes what it takes to succeed as an I/O psychologist. Our conversation spanned some common dilemmas for current and aspiring psychologists, like maintaining a balance of research and applied work, to the more personal and lighthearted, like careers Dr. Hackett might have pursued if not I/O psychology. Here, we present our conversation with Dr. Rick Hackett.

What are you working on right now?

I just received 5 years of [SSHRC] funding for a program on virtuous leadership. I’m interested – along with my doctoral students – to identify virtues associated with effective leadership, defined in terms of positive work outcomes, not restricted to OCB and task performance, but broadly to include the wellbeing of the supervisor or leader as well as the employees.

What past research accomplishments are you most proud of?

I’m especially proud of the research that I jointly publish with my PhD. students, because it’s my vocation to develop research-capable students, to get them to publish, and ideally to get them off to a solid research career.

There are two [research projects] that come to mind…

The first was published back in 1985 and it was my meta-analysis of the job satisfaction-absenteeism relationship. I’m proud of that because at that time there were virtually no meta-analyses published, and there were no software packages to conduct meta-analyses. Hunter and Schmidt had written their paperback book on how to conduct a meta-analysis, and I took that on as a side project in my doctoral program and spent many, many hours and days in the library the old fashioned way. We didn’t have access to downloading an article via a search engine or via the internet. Back then it was going to the bookshelves, pulling out the article, and standing in a lineup and photocopying and reading the article and pulling out all the coefficients. So, I’m proud of that because at that time it had generally been accepted that job satisfaction was quite strongly and consistently related to absenteeism in a negative way and I showed that the strength was really not all that strong, and it wasn’t consistent across the different measures of absenteeism. That went on to be quite impactful because it garnered hundreds of citations, and was actually also noted in the Wall Street Journal as being one of the most influential studies in the area of organizational behaviour. I think that was pretty cool. I was also proud of it because I published it with my mentor Dr. Robert Guion, who had an awful lot of respect and continues to; of course he’s now deceased. He is the former editor-in-chief of the Journal of Applied Psychology, and he was my mentor when I was at Bowling Green State University. [Here, Dr. Hackett is referring to Hackett & Guion, 1985: A Reevaluation of the Abstenteeism-Job Satisfaction Relationship.]

The second one is more recent. It’s a paper I published when I was with colleagues at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. I published it in the Academy of Management Journal back in 2005, and at that time we were trying to figure out what the relationship was between transformational leadership and leader-member exchange, and we came up with the idea that leader-member exchange mediated between transformational leadership and both performance and citizenship behaviour. That was quite a unique and I think substantive contribution – we were the first to show that relationship, and it’s just fun working on an international collaborative effort. I was in Hong Kong for two years, and I know that the one study (there were others) noted above has been highly influential, not simply in attracting a lot of citations but in clearly influencing researchers on how they approach the study of transformational leadership and leader-member exchange. [Here, Dr. Hackett is referring to Wang, Law, Hackett, Wang, and Chen, 2005: Leader-Member Exchange as a Mediator of the Relationship Between Transformational Leadership and Followers’ Performance and Organizational Citizenship Behaviour.]

How do you think your research interests have changed over the years?

It hasn’t changed a whole lot, except that I am placing my emphasis on leadership. My earlier studies were looking at more traditionally studied criteria: I started off looking at absenteeism and then motives. You’ll notice, if you had my CV, I branched out into looking at organizational citizenship behaviour, work attitudes, employee commitment, job performance, and meta-analyses of turnover, so always a big focus on the criterion side. Then, as my research evolved, I was thinking, “well, but what’s on the predictor side? Of the various predictors, which is the one that attracts my attention the most?” and that happened to be leadership. I kept reading the popular press about [how] one of the main reasons why people leave their jobs, or get discontented at work, or sabotage is a reaction to poor leadership. That’s where I went, and then my studies predominantly looked at transformational leadership and leader-member exchange. I am more interested now (over the last four or five years), less in leadership style and approach, but leadership characteristics, and an often overlooked aspect of leadership – not so much in popular press, but more in research – is leader character. And what do we mean by leader character? What are the virtues that have been identified and are distinguished in leader character? …There’s not much on the predictor side in terms of leadership character or leadership virtues and how we assess them, so my interests moved to that area.

Dr. Hackett has taken on a number of applied and academic roles over the years. He has acted as a Canada Research Chair, an Associate Dean, and PhD Coordinator. We were interested in how he balanced these responsibilities, along with his consulting and research work.

You do academic and applied work. Can you describe how these work together, and how the balance between the two has changed over the years?

The balance certainly has changed, [and] it’s probably in the opposite direction that you might think. I got a lot more applied consulting work when I was a junior professor than I do now. I had an independent consulting firm that was registered, and I just closed that down a few years ago, simply because there are only so many hours in a day. I still do some consulting, but relative to the first third of my career, I do much less now, and I also found that a lot of the applied projects were not terribly intellectually engaging for me. After you’ve done a number of them, you can pick and choose the bigger ones that you are more interested in, but a number of clients may or may not implement [your recommendations], and sometimes the people who bring you in for consulting projects have political agendas, [so] they want to see the results in particular ways. Now, I don’t want to give it a dirty brush, I think academics benefit significantly by continuing to work with practitioners, and even doing some sabbaticals within organizations is a good idea. We definitely need to do more of that, but the way my career has gone, with increased research responsibilities, I’ve had less opportunity in terms of time [to do applied work].

So how do the two intersect? . . .I was doing absenteeism research, I’d been working with a lot of hospitals and I had, at the end of the year, a collection and analyses of research data which was guided mostly by the theoretical questions I wanted to ask and have answered. For research purposes, we always incorporate the client’s interests and sponsoring organization’s interests into the questionnaire. At the end of the day, you write up a report with recommendations and you present it to the senior officers of these organizations, and some of the recommendations they pursue and some they don’t. . . .So you can collect data that can inform the research, but also working with practitioners, they raise issues that are pertinent to them that you may not even have thought about; that can help inform and direct your own research.

What is it like being a psychologist in a business department?

It’s interesting. It’s the reverse of what you would probably think. You’d think coming out of a Psychology department as a Psychology student who’s starting at a Business school [would be especially challenging]. . .my experience has been that I didn’t miss a beat. Strangely enough, where I’m noticing the differences is now! I’ve been at McMaster now for thirty years, and what I’m finding is tremendous pressure, tremendous force coming through the business school for our research to be more applied, to be more accountable, and addressing real world problems . . .I’m not saying this is a bad move, in fact I think it is a positive move, but it is a move, a change.

What makes a good student, and what makes a good student to supervise?

The obvious would be dedication, passion, conscientiousness, reliability, setting and achieving goals, the creative element, and all that is very important, but over my 30 years of experience of mentoring PhD students, and I believe I’ve graduated 12 to date, for me it’s writing. Of course, you have to have some original ideas to back up the writing, but a number of students are terrific – they have ideas that probably are quite pioneering, that will take a program of research to the next level – but have trouble communicating their ideas, and the results of their research. For me, the best students I’ve worked with are competent writers, and when you think about it, I guess, if you’re a disciplined thinker you’re more likely to be a competent writer too, being able to convey your “story” in a clear, compelling, engaging and efficient way.

That’s interesting – I hadn’t thought that writing would be such a huge component to being a successful student.

Well, when you think about where students are most challenged [it’s] when they’re all but done – or “all but dissertation” (ABD). That’s when most of the writing takes place, and going through various drafts, and writing to get papers out for review and publication along the way too because, we know today that if you want a chance at an academic position you better have at least a couple publications, if not in press, under “revise and resubmit” before you graduate.

Advice to students pursuing my career path:
Have a passion for what you are pursuing, set priorities, work hard, be bold and self-confident in your ideas, don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo, be resilient, keep some semblance of balance between your personal and professional life.

If you weren’t a psychologist, what would you be?

Hmm, that is a tough one. How about a soaring eagle, flying through the skies, with no constraints? That’s a really interesting question. I think a writer, but not an academic writer, not a scientific writer: maybe fictional writing, journalistic writing. I enjoy writing but I don’t have any regrets becoming a psychologist. I think the difficulty of that question underscores that I am quite happy to be a psychologist and I am hard-pressed to think of what else I would do.

I figure I will remain a full time academic for another eight years or so, we’ll see. Being a psychologist has tremendous rewards, as an industrial psychologist anyway. I’ve had my ideal career. I’ve done consulting, I’ve filled many administrative positions for the university, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of PhD, MBA, and undergraduate students. I’ve been able to evolve my research interests over the years. I have autonomy and discretion on how and when I want to spend my time. I get to fly all over the world to different international conferences, I get to work with consulting firms and come up with commercial projects – there is so much variety. I am very fortunate and grateful for having had the opportunity to be an industrial psychologist working in a business school, and working on research that I find very engaging. No, I’m quite content.

[That said,] I don’t think I am going to have any difficulty retiring when I step down. Some people are so married to their profession that they have trouble disconnecting. I don’t think I’ll have any difficulty with that at all. I have so many other interests, I so enjoy theatre, and history, and I enjoy reading, and I enjoy going for nature walks, and following current affairs, and I enjoy travel. I can’t imagine not being able to embrace, with enthusiasm and optimism, this next phase of my life.

Any final comments?

I just think industrial psychology is still a great area to be in. I never have any reason to be bored. As an industrial psychologist there’s so many options you have, you can go full-time and work for a management consulting firm if that’s what you want to do. Otherwise you can go into academia, which of course does not preclude doing applied projects for organizations. Indeed, much of the data fueling our research programs is derived from these community connections. This may be especially so in business schools, where there is the expectation that you will serve the business community.

…As an academic, you can also pursue the administrative path if that is something that challenges and engages you. Some psychologists have gone on to be provosts and presidents of universities. I think things are changing so fast, there are so many opportunities to be embraced…you really have to be passionate about it because I do think that the demands, whether in academia or management consulting, are great and rapidly rising, but if you are passionate about what you do, it’s not work, you feel nourished and energized by it.