Fred L. ‘Fritz’ Steele

Sense of Place We are beyond sad to announce the passing of Fritz (Fred L.) Steele (1938-2020). We will laugh less without his sense of humor, but we can take comfort in how he charmed us and inspired thousands to care for each other and see the world in a better way.

Fritz grew up in Topeka, Kansas, graduated from Yale in 1960 and then earned his PhD in Management at MIT in 1965. It was his love of architecture and watching people that resulted in him becoming the world-wide scholar of physical settings and behavior change. Fritz was also an internationally known consultant in organizational effectiveness, a pioneer in the fields of organizational development, change management, and organizational ecology (i.e., the design of our physical settings). He consulted to most of the Fortune 500 companies.

Fritz inspired graduate students the world over with his co-authored first major textbook in organizational behavior called Interpersonal Dynamics in 1964 (with Warren Bennis, Edgar Schein, and David Berlew). He taught periodically at the forerunner of the Yale School of Management and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Fritz was heavily involved with the National Training Labs, Development Resources Associates, and was an original member of the innovative Portsmouth Consulting Group. For many years, he worked closely with Barry and Karen Oshry who had developed the distinctive training program, The Power Lab, a workshop which examined the dynamics of the emotional roller coaster of influence and power in our culture. His many articles and 12 books addressed physical settings, workplace design, organizational consulting, and leadership.

Fritz championed concepts of how physical settings affect how people interact with each other. He claimed offices and even homes should be designed to facilitate people working together not just task accomplishment. His classic 1981 book, Sense of Place, expanded his ideas to the design of neighborhoods and communities. Fritz’s insights include the “edifice complex” when organizations become enthralled with erecting large, dramatic buildings and lose sight of their purpose as a signal of their decline. His other books and articles sometimes with noted co-authors Stephen Jenks and Franklin Becker, resonated with themes of power, how to inspire change (or squelch it), and how to help people become better at being together.

His engaging smile and quick wit endeared Fritz to anyone he met. His affable style and insightful observations made his friends, colleagues and clients feel that he was a special person to be around. Fritz loved the outdoors, whether playing with his family and friends on the beaches of Rhode Island, walking the woods of Maine, hiking in and around Prickly Mountain, in Warren, Vermont, tennis, golfing with his son in Scotland, or jogging on the banks of the Charles River. Fritz was also an artist. For over thirty years, he created collages. Although a casual observer might walk by one and think, “What is that?” You are soon drawn into feelings created by color, shape and context. You begin to see the world differently. Working with the York and Kittery Maine Art Associations, he was active in showing his work and sharing ideas and techniques with others.

He is survived by his wife, Debbie Jones-Steele (Brookline, MA), daughter Lauren Steele (Washington, D.C.) and son Graham Steele and his partner Moira Birss (Oakland, CA). In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be sent to York Community Service Association (855 US Rt. One, PO Box 180, York, Maine 03909) or The York Art Society (394 York Street, York, ME, 03911) or Kittery Art Association (PO Box 44, Kittery Point, ME 03905).

Originally published in The Boston Globe.