Mary P. Follett: Creating Democracy, Transforming Management

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Mary P. Follett (1868-1933) brought new dimensions to the theory and practice of management and was one of America's preeminent thinkers about democracy and social organization. The ideas Follett developed in the early twentieth century continue even today to challenge thinking about business and civic concerns. This book, the first biography of Follett, illuminates the life of this intriguing woman and reveals how she devised her farsighted theories about the organization of human relations.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300096217
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 4/10/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 640
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.90 (d)

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Mary P. Follett


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 Joan C. Tonn
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09621-7

Chapter One


More than one hundred years after the publication of her first book in 1896, Mary P. Follett (1868-1933) remains one of our preeminent thinkers about democracy and social organization. Without the benefit of modern research methods, Follett developed such original, penetrating analyses of leadership, power and authority, conflict, and group behavior that her ideas form the basis of much of our modern discourse about organizations and management. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, of the Harvard Business School, has observed that "many so-called new management ideas are previewed in Follett's work." Warren Bennis, at the University of Southern California, is even more emphatic: "Just about everything written today about leadership and organizations comes from Mary Parker Follett's writings and lectures." The continued vitality of Follett's thought is attested by the 1995 decision of the Harvard Business School Press to republish a selection of her writings, along with essays by several leading thinkers in management and organizational studies in the United States and elsewhere on the contemporary significance of Follett's writings.

Follett's work hasalways been well known in the fields of management and public administration, but now other academic disciplines - political theory, psychology, sociology, mediation and dispute resolution, social work - are also discovering the significance of her work. Nor has Follett's influence been limited to the United States. Today her ideas are being studied in countries as diverse as Japan, Germany, Australia, Italy, France, and Peru.

Despite this widespread interest, until now there has been no published biography of Follett. Thus, the question has remained unanswered: Who was this amazingly perceptive woman?

As an adult, Mary Follett was hardly captivating in physical appearance. She was tall (five feet seven or eight inches), bony, and angular. The heavy, dark brown braids of her childhood gave way in middle age to a buoyant "Gibson girl" style, but later in life she resumed her braids, woven close to her head like a tight-fitting cap. Follett paid considerable attention to her clothing, but her choice of old-fashioned styles and high-necked blouses made her appear stiff and solemn.

Yet her plainness faded as soon as she spoke. The warmth of her voice, the elegant gestures of her hands, her stylish wit, and her attentive listening were irresistible. Follett, one admirer recalled, was an "inductive worker par excellence." He recalled that she "would talk to anyone who cared to talk to her, and [she would] really listen. She was continuously testing her ideas against the facts brought to light as the results of these countless conversations." Follett relished these exchanges because "differences of opinion, rightly welcomed and followed up, were, she believed, the food of our souls, the materials of our growth." Differences, if handled collaboratively, could lead to something new.

A summa cum laude graduate of Radcliffe College, Follett continued reading history, economics, philosophy, political theory, psychology, sociology, and biology for the rest of her life. But her real passion was teasing out of these fields corresponding strands of thought that might illuminate human relationships. An erudite cross-fertilizer, she delighted in challenging distinguished academics to stretch beyond their disciplinary boundaries. At the same time, she could illuminate for any audience the most complex concepts with homely, unforgettable metaphors drawn from the minutiae of daily life.

She was hopeful and optimistic, and many who listened to Mary Follett found themselves coaxed to a larger vision of their role in society - and then inspired by her passion to a program of action. One of few not moved by her magnetism was the novelist Virginia Woolf, who met Follett at a 1932 dinner party in England. Characteristically acerbic in her diaries, Woolf described Follett as "verbose and diffuse."

For thirty years Follett lived in a devoted and loving relationship with Isobel Briggs, a vibrant teacher of Shakespeare and the headmistress of a Boston private school. Two decades older than her partner, Briggs devoted herself to helping Follett flourish in her career. The two especially cherished their cottage in the mountains of Vermont, where they read books, relaxed, walked in the summer daisy fields, and shared sparkling conversation with visitors.

Follett also had "hosts of friends." She deliberately reserved time for them, and her letters were "gems of wording." Unusually for the time, "she had a gift for friendship with men at least as great as her gift for friendships with women," and she built coequal friendships with both the husband and wife, as in her relationships with Richard and Ella Cabot and Henry and Mary Dennison.

Follett was a woman of "rounded culture," according to one associate, and she and Briggs were devotees of music, art, and theater in both the United States and Europe. But above all, Follett was a reader, not just of mind-stretching tomes but also of mysteries that Briggs would get for her from the Boston Athenaeum.

Patience, Follett once confided, was the only virtue she could claim. But her friends and colleagues were more likely to see her as intense, tenacious, and persistent. When a problem presented itself, she was eager to develop an action plan and was resolute about getting things accomplished. Her refusal simply to let things take their course led some to perceive her as controlling. Her penchant for analysis sometimes exasperated even her closest friends and associates. At the same time, she could be very hard on herself. One associate described her capacity for self-criticism as "infinite." In her personal life, she hardly ever gave way to impulse. If she did, one friend quipped, she felt almost sinful.

A woman of great personal dignity and reserve, Follett was extremely reluctant to share with friends the fears and frustrations occasioned by a serious chronic illness that was misdiagnosed throughout her adult life. She often could tolerate only a diet of milk, potatoes, and pudding, and at times her physical suffering confined her to bed for weeks or months at a time. During one such episode, while she was writing The New State (1918), a doctor warned her that she might not live.

Yet live she did, until 1933. The accomplishments of her sixty-five years mark this New England thinker and doer as one of our most outstanding theorists about democracy and social organization.

Even when Follett was a young woman, it was clear to her friends and her professors that she had an extraordinary mind. With the publication of The Speaker of the House of Representatives (1896), her groundbreaking, controversial analysis of political power, the wider world, too, began to recognize her abilities. Reviewers compared her analysis favorably with Woodrow Wilson's Congressional Government (1885), and Follett's book is still considered one of the most insightful and well-reasoned ever written about the U.S. Congress. Other equally brilliant works followed.

In The New State: Group Organization, the Solution for Popular Government (1918), Follett boldly grappled with issues of profound significance to a democratic republic whose very survival a mere half-century after the end of the Civil War was still in doubt. Democracy, Follett contended in The New State, should be "a genuine union of true individuals," but this sort of union had never existed in America. To attain it, Follett argued, we must "leap at once from the region of theory, of which Americans are so fond, to a practical scheme of living ... it is not merely that we must be allowed to govern ourselves, we must learn how to govern ourselves; it is not only that we must be given 'free speech,' we must learn a speech that is free; we are not given rights, we create rights; it is not only that we must invent machinery to get a social will expressed, we must invent machinery that will get a social will created." To replace a mythical democracy with the actual workings of one, the American people would have to "find a new principle of association." In elucidating that principle, Follett wrestled with issues that continue to resonate in our national life: how to create continually a common purpose or "collective will"; how to accommodate our need for collective control while preserving our individual freedoms; how to cherish our differences and, at the same time, integrate them; how to develop leaders that empower us rather than dominate us.

The New State, according to Benjamin R. Barber, is "an American classic of participatory democracy." And Jane Mansbridge praises Follett's recognition that democracy depends on local democratic processes and institutions, as well as her "insistence that the associations on which democracy should be based can maintain difference within unity, conflict within integration."

Creative Experience (1924), Follett's last book, was written following almost two years of service on minimum wage boards in Massachusetts - an experience that whetted her appetite for further group studies. Now, more than ever, she felt certain that the future of American social, political, and economic life depended on the working out of a new kind of group process. Surveying current efforts to resolve conflict in groups, Follett found jurists and economists too enamored of an "equilibrium" of interests, political scientists too enthralled with a "balance" of power, and ethicists too committed to "compromise." Follett rejected compromise because it sacrificed the integrity of the individual, and she saw little to recommend the balancing of interests and power, as these tactics merely rearranged what already exists.

A more promising route to "constructive" conflict seemed to Follett to lie in the eclectic reconceptualization of behaviorism offered by Harvard philosopher and psychologist Edwin B. Holt and the emerging research and theorizing of the German Gestaltists. Their work had demonstrated that behavior is a function of the interplay between a continually changing organism and the environment, which produces an evolving situation. Seeing our behavior and ideas as a product of this dynamic interplay, she deemed it unrealistic to expect that differences could be harmonized solely by intellectual activity. The successful resolution of conflict, instead, depends on changing behaviors - on engaging conflicting parties in activities that, over time, create a new situation in which their differences actually can be integrated. If we were to adopt this sort of nonhierarchical integrating as our primary mode of human association, it would have profound implications, Follett argued, not only for our understanding of the origin and exercise of power, but also for the dynamics of governing expressed in "the will of the people," "the consent of the governed," and "representation," and for the functions served by the legal system in a democratic society.

The New State and Creative Experience were informed by insights gained from twenty years of civic and professional work in Boston's immigrant neighborhoods. Through projects developed for the Boston Equal Suffrage Association for Good Government and the Women's Municipal League of Boston, Follett honed her formidable entrepreneurial, political, managerial, and fundraising skills and became an inspiring mentor to a new generation of Boston civic leaders. Dissatisfied with the efforts of the neighborhood settlements and the public schools to foster community, Follett slowly evolved a new approach to preparing Boston's newest citizens for their civic responsibilities: she created organizations in which they could govern their own activities and, thereby, prepare for participation in democratic government.

Follett's efforts, however, stirred controversy. Moving beyond the concept of the settlement (the model of reform to which many women were deeply committed) engendered suspicion and a certain amount of ill will. Urging that some of the limited resources of her suffrage organization be used in civic reform infuriated those who were single-mindedly pursuing the right to vote. Focusing on neighborhoods conflicted with the trend to centralize municipal and school government. Involving laypeople in civic education threatened the status of the new professional educators. And preparing citizens to make up their own minds about local issues undercut the power of the ward bosses. Follett, however, was at her best in complex, difficult situations; her efforts brought about the establishment of locally run community centers in virtually every neighborhood of Boston and, at the same time, contributed significantly to the organization of a national movement promoting community life.

Business leaders with whom she had worked in these civic endeavors urged her to apply her ideas about group association, leadership, power, and conflict resolution to the management of their own increasingly large and multifaceted business organizations. Follett soon became intrigued with the vast opportunities that business management presented for experimenting with more group-oriented and egalitarian forms of social relationships. She was particularly enthusiastic about the efforts of businessmen such as Edward and Lincoln Filene, Henry Dennison, and B. Seebohm Rowntree to involve their employees in new forms of organizational control. "Business, because it gives us the opportunity of trying new roads, of blazing new trails, because, in short, it is pioneer work, pioneer work in the organized relations of human beings, seems to me," Follett told one business audience, "to offer as thrilling an experience as going into a new country and building railroads over new mountains." Solving problems in business management "may help toward the solution of world problems, since the principles of organization and administration which are discovered as best for business can be applied to government or international relations. Indeed, the solution of world problems must eventually be built up from all the little bits of experience wherever people are consciously trying to solve problems of relations. And this attempt is being made more consciously and deliberately in industry than anywhere else."

In these and other endeavors, Follett was not one to shrink from high-powered intellectual exchanges. At various times in her professional life, she visited or corresponded with such notable public figures as Roscoe Pound, Walter Lippmann, Harold Laski, Viscount R. B. Haldane, Bernard Bosanquet, and leaders of the English pluralist movement. Follett spoke at Harvard and Syracuse Universities, the Taylor Society (later to become the Society for the Advancement of Management), the Rowntree Conference at Oxford University, the Bureau of Personnel Administration in New York (which sponsored the country's first executive development seminars), the American Historical Association, the American Philosophical Association, the Ford Hall Forum (the renowned public lecture series in Boston), and elsewhere. In these appearances, she more than held her own with deans and faculty in business and public affairs, heads of corporations, business consultants, and intellectuals of every stripe - from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead to the industrial psychologist Elton Mayo.

Nothing would have pleased Follett more than knowing that her ideas have helped shape the continuing search for effective ways of organizing human relations. "I hope ... there is nothing in what I have said that sounds dogmatic," Follett said in one of her last lectures. "I am not so much urging you to admit the principles that I have put before you as suggesting that you should try them out and decide for yourselves. I am urging that we should all of us take a conscious and responsible attitude toward our experience."


Excerpted from Mary P. Follett by JOAN C. TONN Copyright © 2003 by Joan C. Tonn. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 Introduction 1
2 A Childhood That Was Rarely Happy 7
3 "An Eager, Fearless Mind" 16
4 "What Shall We Do with Our Girls?" 27
5 "Very Unusual Privileges" 38
6 "The Great Milepost and Turning Point" 53
7 The Speaker of the House of Representatives 69
8 "To I. L. B." 94
9 Self-Realization and Service 112
10 Ward 17 133
11 Substitutes for the Saloon, Schools, and Suffrage 154
12 Private Funds for Public Purposes 181
13 "My Beloved Centres" 204
14 The Functions, Financing, and Control of Community Centers: Issues for the National Movement 235
15 The War Years 253
16 The New State 265
17 Not Neighborhood Groups but an Integrative Group Process 304
18 "Too Good a Joke for the World" 329
19 Creative Experience 360
20 Professional Transition, Personal Tragedy 389
21 "You Have Been Extraordinarily Helpful to Executives" 415
22 "I am Almost at the Same Moment Happy and Unhappy" 454
23 "Prepared to Go or Stay with Equal Graciousness 479
24 Afterword 491
List of Abbreviations 494
Notes 497
Bibliography 583
Index 605
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