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Prof. Victor Vroom teaching

Remembering Professor Victor H. Vroom, 1932-2023

A pivotal figure in the history of Yale SOM and a beloved colleague and teacher, Victor Vroom's pioneering research into leadership and human motivation has been broadly influential. His colleagues and students remember his life as a scholar, teacher, and friend.

Victor Vroom, the BearingPoint Professor Emeritus of Management and Professor of Psychology and a member of the Yale faculty since 1972, died on Wednesday, July 26, 2023, at the age of 90.

Professor Vroom was instrumental to the founding of the Yale School of Management, serving as the chair of the cross-university faculty committee that created the school. He was a beloved pillar of the SOM community for more than 40 years, known for his generosity, devotion, and ability to deliver lessons on leadership and organizational psychology that stayed with SOM alumni throughout their careers. His groundbreaking work shaped the understanding of human motivation, decision-making, and situational leadership.

Prof. Victor Vroom

James N. Baron, the William S. Beinecke Professor of Management, was a longtime colleague of Vroom’s and remembered him as the leading figure in the nearly 50-year history of the school’s organizational behavior group. “He was without question the most influential person not only in the history and evolution of OB at Yale, but arguably also in the formation and early evolution of SOM itself,” said Baron. “For those of us who were his colleagues, Victor was and will always be the embodiment of Organizational Behavior at Yale. He built up the group and steered it through some difficult times, with grace and poise and wisdom. We are all his legacy. I have met very few people in my life who literally deserve the description of being ‘larger than life,’ but Victor was most definitely one of them.”

Professor Vroom’s former colleagues and students recall not only the quality and impact of his scholarship, but also a rich and unforgettable personality, using terms like “generous,” “good soul,” “wisdom,” and “unbounded kindness” when describing him. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies and Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management, said, “I’d known Victor as a colleague personally for almost 40 years. He was a globally celebrated intellectual… His pioneering research combined with his generous personal warmth, steadfast virtue, and devotion to the school’s ideals made him a magnet who drew so many to SOM, both faculty and students. His selfless, bold dedication to the school, to colleagues, to his friends, and to his family never wavered.”

Understanding leadership

Victor Vroom’s work helped shape two important areas of scholarly inquiry related to leadership and human motivation, in part by bringing quantitative rigor to complex subjects of human behavior without oversimplification.

In 1964, he published Work and Motivation. The book presented a quantifiable way to analyze the forces that shape how individuals act in organizations. Dubbed “expectancy theory,” this pioneering research created a way to understand why a given person’s personality will be motivated or de-motivated in a given environment.

A longtime colleague at Yale, Amy Wrzesniewski, now a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said, “It’s an incredibly powerful idea about what needs to be in place for people to experience motivation. It’s such a fundamental theory that it’s ubiquitous not just in the fields of psychology and organizational behavior but everywhere.”

Professor Vroom also produced pathbreaking research on situational leadership, or the question of what leadership styles are effective in different situations. In 1973, with the assistance of his PhD student Phillip Yetton, he published Leadership and Decision-Making. Further research led to The New Leadership: Managing Participation in Organizations, co-authored with Arthur G. Jago in 1988. In this branch of his research, Professor Vroom analyzed organizational decisions from a wide range of contexts and developed a mathematical model for contingency-sensitive decision-making. The model examined questions such as, What types of decisions should a leader make alone? When should the team be brought in? How do different personality characteristics come into play?

Over the course of decades, Professor Vroom surveyed approximately 200,000 managers about how they would respond to different leadership scenarios. The process enabled him to provide feedback and guidance to the participating leaders and to develop powerful insights about the nature of leadership. His models are still taught widely, including at Yale SOM, and used in a variety of leadership training programs.

“Victor’s contribution was as breakthrough intellectually among scholars as it was educationally in how we teach leadership,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. “Up until then, there was an emerging universalistic perspective among OB scholars of a single best way to manage and lead which was indifferent to the enterprise’s strategic context and the immediate work group. Victor fortified the view that the style used depends upon the confluence of distinctive factors that a given leader faced.  This perspective was not only important to MBAs but was a pillar of our executive education programs.”

In a 2010 interview, he explained why this work was important to developing a fuller picture of leadership—a critical enterprise for a business school. “People are looking for universals. They want the one ‘best’ leadership style... A few of us have been doing research on contingency or situational theories of leadership, which emphasize the fact that different kinds of organizations, different kinds of challenges, and different kinds of decisions require different leadership styles… I believe leadership is something that people exercise, enact, or display. Furthermore, it has its roots in values and skills which are learned.”

Dueling interests

Victor Vroom was born in 1932 in St. Lambert, a suburb of Montreal, Quebec. As a teen and young man, he was drawn to a career in music and gave little thought to the prospect of becoming an academic. He described the contingencies that eventually drew him to a career as a leading psychology researcher in “Improvising and Muddling Through,” a chapter he contributed to Management Laureates: A Collection of Autobiographical Essays. 

As a 15-year-old high school sophomore dressed in a sky-blue blazer and navy-blue slacks, Victor played alto saxophone and clarinet for the Blue Knights two or three nights a week at dance halls and nightclubs around Montreal. Decades later his fingers could still move through the Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Stan Kenton big band tunes that he had played thousands of times. 

After graduating high school, he wanted to join a big band in the United States. When he realized he had no idea how to follow that dream, his father encouraged Victor to take a job as a bank teller. Victor countered by enrolling at Sir George Williams College, now Concordia University. His work as a musician paid his $250 tuition bill at this small school, located on the third floor of the YMCA building in Montreal. An unusual feature of the school was that all incoming students took a series of psychological tests. The results of Victor’s tests suggested he might find a fit in either of two occupations: musician and psychologist. He had little idea of what psychology was, but the results sparked his curiosity. 

After one year at Sir George, he transferred to McGill for the remainder of his undergraduate studies; there he completed a special honors program in psychology. He continued on at McGill for a master’s in industrial psychology while continuing to perform with a big band. For his doctorate degree, he chose the University of Michigan. Though teaching and research took precedence over music during his years completing his doctoral studies, Victor continued to play professionally by organizing a jazz band he called The Intellectuals. During these years, he met and married a fellow PhD student, Ann Workman. 

His broad interest in the interaction between personal and environmental variables led to research on applying social psychological ideas to making organizations more effective. His dissertation, “Some Personality Determinants of the Effects of Participation,” received an award from the Ford Foundation and was published by Prentice Hall in 1960. In 2019 his doctoral dissertation was reprinted by Routledge as part of “Psychology Revivals,” a series developed to restore to print “books by some of the most influential academic scholars of the last 120 years.”

Victor Vroom teaching
Victor Vroom speaking
Victor Vroom on a sailboat

In 1960, Victor Vroom became an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and the next year he became a father. In 1963, he moved to Carnegie Mellon University, and the following year his family welcomed the addition of their second son. 

Professor Vroom’s new position required him to teach in the program of industrial administration: “I was still a psychologist first and foremost and still believed that there was something not quite intellectually pure about the mercenary interests of those seeking a career in business.” 

When he focused on research methods and the latest developments in psychological theory, the industrial administration students lost interest. “My salvation was found in a return to the experiential teaching methods,” he wrote. By appealing to learn-by-doing models, Professor Vroom connected with his students. That led to “an appreciation of the legitimacy of managerial interests and later a belief that the managerial world represented a rich source of problems for research.”

He initially experienced a similar discomfort with faculty colleagues, recollecting, “I found myself surrounded by colleagues in economics, operations research, marketing, and accounting—each of whom had a different language and set of scholarly pursuits that I found difficult to encompass into my psychological compartments. For the first few months, I kept my office door closed and restricted my conversations with my colleagues to the exploits of the Steelers, the Pirates, or the latest office gossip. Gradually these social encounters acquired intellectual overtones, and by the end of my first year, I began to embrace the interdisciplinary exchanges which then characterized Carnegie’s Graduate School of Industrial Administration.”

Founding a new school

In 1972, Professor Vroom was invited to visit Yale President Kingman Brewster, who hoped to recruit him to join the faculty. In an attempt to convince Victor to come to New Haven, President Brewster offered him a role in the creation of a graduate school of business at Yale. With this mission in mind, Professor Vroom joined Yale’s Department of Administrative Sciences, where he soon took on the role of department chair. He knew he was taking a risk because administrative sciences was in a difficult financial situation, and there was a possibility it would be eliminated. He was also given an appointment in the Department of Psychology and became the associate director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies.

A large bequest from the Beinecke family for the education of future managers at Yale led to a task force that would determine what such a program might look like. Professor Vroom was asked to join the dean of the Graduate School, the dean of Yale College, and the director of the Institution of Social and Policy Studies in proposing how Yale should take on management education and research. 

“I recall disliking intensely this sudden immersion into a strange world of power and politics. I was at a high point in my research production, and academic administration was never something to which I had aspired. I consoled myself with the observation that all parties aspired not to replicate any existing institution but rather to create something that was qualitatively different. This was a rare opportunity to leave a legacy by shaping an institution which could influence management education not only at Yale but throughout the nation.”

His next three years were dedicated to “administrative travail,” as he chaired the search committee for a dean, the committee that designed the first curriculum, and the first board of permanent officers. The result was the Yale School of Organization and Management. 

The new school was highly interdisciplinary with a participatory culture, including student input into many decisions. Professor Vroom found the collaborative environment and the sense of shared purpose invigorating. “In those early days, Yale’s School of Organization and Management was an exciting place. The students were challenging but a joy to teach; the administrative mechanisms were highly participative and the faculty highly collegial.”

Yale SOM’s founding dean, Bill Donaldson, noted in his book, Entrepreneurial Leader: “Perhaps the most striking aspect of the initial years was the pervasiveness of OB in the curriculum and the culture. Essential to education at SOM from the first day of class was building a collaborative community of students who would support one another in learning. In addition, the emphasis on individual and group behavior gave students knowledge and experiences that would inform their work as future leaders in organizations where working effectively in groups is required to be successful.”

Art Swersey, now an emeritus professor of operations research, started at Yale in 1976 and became a beloved fixture on the faculty. He recalled: “When I think of Vic, I think warmly of the original OB faculty he helped build which had a huge positive impact. When the early alumni write their thoughts at the reunion, they often have nice things to say about me and others but they always say OB had the greatest influence on their careers.”

Indra Nooyi ’80, a member of the third class to enter the school who later became the CEO of PepsiCo, commented, “He was a towering figure during my time at SOM. We lost an amazing teacher and a good soul.” 

A Yale career

Victor Vroom became a cornerstone of organizational behavior at Yale, teaching generations of students and continuing his ambitious research agenda. “He captured the synergy between research and teaching that all of us aspire to achieve,” said James Baron. “He has had a profound impact both on scholarship and on practice.”

As his administrative responsibilities wound down, Professor Vroom developed and taught Individual and Group Behavior, a core course that used an intense, experiential approach to encourage deep reflection while conveying psychological principles relevant to leadership. Students from this era often cite IGB as the most formative experience of their time at SOM. Vroom reported in “Improvising and Muddling Through” that alumni of the period voted it the most valuable course they took at the school.

In 1988, Yale President Benno Schmidt and SOM Dean Michael E. Levine made dramatic changes at the school. Among other steps, they terminated the contracts of untenured faculty in OB and cancelled the IGB course. Professor Vroom was livid. “It seemed to me that all of the things that had made Yale’s School of Organization and Management unique in a world of business schools had been eliminated by one administrative act that defied comprehension.” 

But he remained at the school and developed new leadership courses that he taught for many years. He also led executive education programs and served as a mentor to new faculty. Heidi Brooks, a senior lecturer in organizational behavior, who co-taught with Vroom in her early years at Yale, said, “He cared deeply about the collegial experience at the Yale School of Management. He had a lot to say about the importance of how colleagues interacted. It was consistent with the way he wrote and the way he crafted the less formal space by inviting colleagues and students to his home.” 

Professor Vroom’s style in the classroom was engaging, light-hearted, improvisational, and carefully orchestrated. “I learned an enormous amount about teaching from watching Victor,” said Amy Wrzesniewski. “His design for a three-hour session, which is a considerable block of time, would seem frighteningly simple yet be so well constructed and elegant that it created a very powerful learning experience. I bring his experiential approach into my teaching all the time.”

Portrait of Victor Vroom
Victor Vroom in the classroom
Victor Vroom playing the clarinet

Victor Vroom was a vibrant presence at many SOM community gatherings, not infrequently playing his saxophone or clarinet to entertain the crowds. He also regularly contributed an outdoor adventure and dinner at his shoreline home to the Internship Fund auction, a longstanding student-led fundraiser for students interning for nonprofit and government organizations. The students who won the evening needed to work for their dinner. After being supplied with trail maps and a compass, the group was dropped off in Westwoods, a land preserve in Guilford, Connecticut, by the Vroom SUV. The students needed to navigate their way along Lost Lake, past marshes, and through woodlands to reach the Vroom home, where libations awaited them followed by a home-cooked meal and a concert, courtesy of their professor.

Kavitha Bindra ’05, now assistant dean and executive director of executive education, was part of a student team that won the bidding for this event one year. She and her classmates managed to complete the challenge and Professor Vroom allowed them to choose a bottle from his “famous” wine cellar. “At dinner, he and his wife, Julia, regaled our group with early SOM stories, and asked about our lives, hopes, and aspirations. Victor was the most caring professor I’ve had either at college or at SOM, and he helped all of us understand that we each had our unique approaches to leadership.” She added, “He opened every class with his trademark twinkle in the eye and a joke, and then trained all of us to think about ourselves as leaders, and to understand what strengths we brought to the table and how we could cultivate strengths in others.”

Anjani Jain, Yale SOM’s deputy dean for academic programs, arrived at the school in 2012, and first knew Professor Vroom as a “towering intellect” and one of the founding figures who had shaped the school’s mission. Despite that stature, Jain says, “He carried his erudition with grace, humility, and unbounded kindness, and was revered by students and colleagues alike.”

Professor Vroom’s office in one of the converted mansions along Hillhouse Avenue was filled with citrus plants and orchids, and Robert Bartholomew, an administrator in the OB group, remembers him humming and singing as he tended his plants. Bartholomew pursued graduate study in psychology while working at SOM, and he and his class studied expectancy theory. Bartholomew promised his study group that he would ask Professor Vroom some questions about it. “Even though he was such a warm person, I worried that I’d be bothering him by asking. But I had already promised my group, so I had to go for it. He was delighted and invited me into his office right away. Victor talked about the process of writing the paper and introduced me to a short paper he had written on revisiting the theory. Victor was incredibly generous with his time, as he always was, and he was very open to questions even when I may have come off as critical. It was a truly magical moment in my education and in my work life.”

Professor Vroom’s research continued through these years, sometimes revisiting and further building on his early insights. He served as a leadership consultant to nearly 100 companies from a variety of sectors and industries around the world. He also founded Decision Making for Leaders, which provides training tools grounded in his decades of research. 

Victor Vroom’s academic career produced a long list of laurels. He published nine books and 75 articles. He was an elected fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and the Academy of Management. He was honored with the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology in addition to being one of its past presidents. His contributions were recognized by the Academy of Management with both the Distinguished Scholarly Contribution Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award. 

His scholarly influence continues in numerous ways. His seminal Work and Motivation has been cited hundreds of times just this year. His ideas also live on through the work of former students and junior colleagues who extol his caring and skill as a mentor. Edward L. Deci is an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. His research into self-determination theory built on Vroom’s work on motivation. “Victor Vroom was one of the most wonderful, insightful, effective, and brilliant men I have ever known,” said Deci. “As my primary mentor he was fabulous to me, and I observed him being helpful to many other people in many ways… His work and his support led me to a very fortunate career in studying and applying human motivation. I will always be grateful for that.”

Heidi Brooks added that Professor Vroom’s ideas are at least as relevant today as they have ever been. “Work is changing so much. Paying attention to what motivates employees and particularly to employee perception of what choices they have in the way that they engage with work and with each other is at the forefront of the way that people need to lead in this changing context.”

A full life

In 1977 a routine X-ray showed a mass on Victor Vroom’s lungs. After subsequent X-rays, tests, and consultation with an oncologist, he found himself on a surgical table with a diagnosis of advanced-stage carcinoma in both lungs. When he woke after surgery, he was told it wasn’t cancer but a rare and treatable disease, sarcoidosis.

“Even though the fear of imminent death was gone, my resolve to live my life differently did not disappear,” he wrote.

Professor Vroom pulled out his musical instruments, which had been packed away in a basement while the business of academic responsibilities predominated. He also indulged in what he called his “second passion”—sailing. “In the fall of 1978 I purchased my first serious sailboat… I was feeling somewhat guilty over time not spent with my two sons during their early years, and doing cruises seemed like a marvelous way of building the kind of relationship that I felt had been lacking.”

The Vroom family grew when Victor Vroom remarried. In 1989, he married Julia Francis; over the next seven years, they had two children. According to his wife, their boys practically grew up on the sailboat, which Professor Vroom had named Leadership.

Over the years, Professor Vroom sailed with family and friends from the Caribbean Islands to Nova Scotia and many places in between. Even while afloat and at the wind’s mercy, he kept finding leadership lessons. He described how using an overly autocratic style as captain served him well in moments of challenging seas and inclement weather. While effective in dealing with a crisis, his leadership style did not create teachable moments. Noting that he planned to “hold on to the sailboat and his sons for a long period of time,” he adjusted to a more consultative style to teach his sons sailing so they could learn the role of captain.

Victor Vroom is survived by his wife, Julia; his four children, Derek, Jeffrey, Tristan, and Trevor; and two grandchildren, Brendan and Cody.

This article was originally published on July 29, 2023, and updated on August 7.