FOLLETT, Mary Parker
3rd September 1869 to 18th December 1933
Follett was a highly influential writer on organisation and society whose work, late in her life caught the attention of the management community on both sides of the Atlantic. She is regarded as both a precursor and an intellectual leader of the human relations movement.
Follett was born 3rd September 1868 in Quincy, Massachusetts, the daughter of a somewhat shiftless member of an old established New England family. In 1885 she inherited an income from her maternal grandmother which allowed her to be independent of her family. She was educated at the Thayer Academy in Boston, and then in 1888 enrolled at the Harvard Annex (which soon after became Radcliffe College). Follett appears to have dipped in and out of her studies, spending a year at Newnham College, Cambridge and also teaching at a Boston school where she met her life partner, fellow teacher Isobel Briggs. Her first book, The Speaker of the House of Representatives, was published in 1896. She graduated summa cum laude in 1898.
Follett spent the next eighteen years as a civic worker in Boston, where she worked on a variety of projects including women’s suffrage, local education and the development of community centres. She founded the Highland Union, an educational association for young men, and was an early member of the Boston Equal Suffrage Association for Good Government. In 1902 she founded the Roxbury Industrial Association to provide vocational skills for boys. In 1909 she became chair of the Women’s Municipal League’s committee on education. It was largely thanks to her intensive lobbying that the Boston educational authorities extended their work to cover vocational training across the city. Many of her experiences during this time were embedded in her second book, The New State-Group Organization.
In the early 1920s Follett spent several years serving on minimum wage boards in and around Boston. According to Tonn (2003), it was this experience that led her to investigate more fully the dynamics and working processes of groups. The result was her last and most influential book, Creative Experience. One of those who read the book was Henry Metcalf, director of the Bureau of Personnel Administration in New York and a leading contemporary thinker on management. Metcalf invited Follett to give a course of lectures at the Bureau. It is likely that these lectures brought Follett to the attention of Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, who invited her twice to speak at the Rowntree conferences.
Follett’s later years saw her become increasingly fascinated with the problems of industry, as the papers collected by Urwick and Metcalf (1941) after her death show. Graham (1995) also believes that Follett found a warmer reception for her work in Britain than in the USA. This could well be the case; there is a collectivist element to some of Follett’s ideas that does not always sit well with American individualism, but there is an easy fit with the philosophy that Rowntree and his colleagues were trying to develop. The death of Isobel Briggs in 1928 also spurred her to make a change. Follett moved to London, where she settled in Chelsea with a friend, Dame Katherine Furse, who had led the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nursing service during the First World War and then been the founding director of the Women’s Royal Naval Service. In 1933 Follett returned briefly to Boston to settle some financial affairs, but fell ill and died there on 18 December 1933.
The direction of Follett’s thinking can be seen in The New State-Group Organisation, which explores the relationships between individuals and groups. That relationship, in Follett’s view, is not a straightforward dyad; she points out that relationships between individuals in a group affect perceptions of the group, and also argues that all relationships within a group should be seen as in a state of fluctuation.
This theme was developed more fully in Creative Experience, which is a much more complex work and takes in many other themes besides. Follett opens the book by questioning the role of technical experts. She is critical of what she calls ‘vicarious experience’, that is, relying on the experience and skills of others rather than acquiring knowledge for ourselves. She questions whether experts can be considered custodians of truth, just as it is questionable whether the law can truly be regarded as the guardian of truth. Follett does not reject experts out of hand, and says there is no doubt that their knowledge is useful; what is dangerous, she says, is the increasing tendency of others to use experts to do their thinking for them.
In Follett’s view, we should become more self-reliant; we should gather our own information, make our own decisions and define our own roles, or in modern parlance, become more empowered. At the same time, though, Follett rejects empiricism: experience should not be used to create rigid theories and concepts, but rather to inform the mind and ‘liberate the spirit’, in a process she calls ‘evocation’. Experience can thus become truly creative, a powerful force for advancement and progress.
Creative Experience has sometimes been called a work of social science, and at others a work of political science. There is a strong vein of psychological theory, and Follett was especially interested in Gestalt. However, it is hard to pin this work down to any particular school of though, in part because Follett herself believed in the unity of knowledge and rejected barriers between branches of human understanding. She drew on political, legal, economic and social theory as well as history, psychology and biology in an attempt to create a holistic picture of how we think, feel and behave, not only as individuals but also as individuals-in-groups.
It is Follett’s work on coordination and control that perhaps was of most interest to students of management. In one of her most important lectures, ‘The Process of Control’, first delivered in 1930 and published by Gulick and Urwick (1937), Follett rejects the notion of top-down control and says it is impossible to achieve in practice:
The ramifications of modern industry are too wide-spread, its organization too complex, its problems too intricate for it to be possible for industry to be managed by commands from the top alone. This being so, we find that when central control is spoken of, that does not mean a point of radiation, but the gathering of many controls existing throughout the enterprise (Follett 1937: 164).
What we think of as control, then, is in reality coordination. In an often cited passage, Follett lists four fundamental principles of coordination:
- coordination as the reciprocal relating of all the factors in a situation;
- coordination by direct contact of the responsible people concerned;
- coordination in the early stages;
- coordination as a continuing process(Follett 1937: 161).
She emphasises further how control is really the coordination of the parts:
Biologists tell us that the organizing activity of the organism is the directing activity, that the organism gets its power of self-direction through being an organism, that is, through the functional relating of the parts. On the physiological level, controls means co-ordination. I can't get up in the morning, I can't walk downstairs without that co-ordination of muscles which is control. The athlete has more of that co-ordination than I have and therefore has more control...
This is just what we have found in business (Follett 1937:166-7).
The most important control of all, Follett concludes, is self-control. In a passage which is a direct appeal to greater democracy in organisations – and which would undoubtedly have resonated with Rowntree and his colleagues – Follett argues that participation in control and coordination processes is the only way forward:
If you accept my definition of control as a self-generating process, as the interweaving experience of all those who are performing a functional part of the activity under consideration, does not that constitute an imperative? Are we not every one of us bound to take some part consciously in this process? Today we are slaves to the chaos in which we are living. To get our affairs in hand, to feel a grip on them, to become free, we must learn, and practice, I am sure, the methods of collective control. To this task we can all devote ourselves. At the same time that we are selling goods or making goods, or whatever we are doing, we can be working in harmony with this fundamental law of life (Follett 1937: 169).
Lyndall Urwick, who admired Follett, argued that ‘her thinking was and still remains very much in advance of the times’, and says that her contribution ‘was to apply psychological insight and the findings of the social sciences to industry and through this, to offer a new conception of the nature of management and human relationships within industrial groups’ (Urwick 1956: 132). He names Rowntree as first among those business leaders who found inspiration in Follett’s ideas. It was Rowntree himself who provided perhaps her most fitting epitaph:
Mary Follett devoted a lifetime to searching for the true principles of organization which would ensure a stable foundation for the steady, ordered progress of human well-being (Metcalfe and Urwick 1941: 7).
Follett gave two papers on her first appearance at the Rowntree conferences in 1926. The first, ‘Some methods of executive efficiency’, is based on one of Follett’s favourite themes, that of coordination. All organisations, she says, suffer from conflict, and businesses are no different. As well as the obvious conflicts between management and workers, there are also conflicts between different competing interests, different departments, different sets of ideas. Overcoming these conflicts and ensuring the smooth running of the organisation is one of the key tasks of management.
There are, says Follett, three ways of overcoming conflict: domination, or ‘the victory of one side over the other’; compromise, whereby both parties give up something in order to reach a resolution; and integration, a method whereby ‘both sides get what they wish, neither has to give up anything.’ In modern language, this might be described as a win-win. Follett obviously prefers integration, and gives some examples of how it can be done.
Integration is key, says Follett, because ‘the success of a business depends largely on the degree of unification you get into it’. All the individuals and all the departments within the firm have to pull together for a common cause. The lack of coordination between departments is for her a common and particular weakness: ‘In most of the businesses I have studied this has been the weakest point. Each department may function well, but there is often a lack of co-ordination between them.’ This is a weakness that must be stamped out:
It seems to me that the first test of business administration, of industrial organisation, should be whether you have a business with all its parts so co-ordinated, so moving together in their closely knit and adjusting activities, so linking, interlocking and inter-relating that they make a working unit, not a congeries of separate pieces.
The second paper, given the following day, on ‘The illusion of final responsibility’, is an extraordinary paper that was decades ahead of its time and still has things to tell us about leadership and organisation today. In an opening passage that is at times reminiscent of Tolstoy’s description of leadership in War and Peace, Follett gently debunks the concept of final responsibility, also known as ‘ultimate authority’ or ‘supreme control’. Executives are very ready to pat themselves on the back and take responsibility for a good decision well made, she says; but in fact, by the time the issue comes to the attention of the executives, the decision has already been made and the organisation has moved on. Far from having supreme control, executives spend much of their time – whether they know it or not, and in most cases not – playing catch-up, trying to get to grips with what is happening and what has already happened.
Why is this so? There are three inseparables in any organisation: function, responsibility and authority. Of these, the most important by far is function. As individuals, our responsibility and our authority – real authority, our real ability to influence and wield power, not the false authority we may attempt to claim – derive from function. Our power to act depends on what we do. ‘People talk about the limit of authority’, Follett says, ‘when it would be better to speak of the definition of the task. If then, authority and responsibility are derived from function, then they have little to do with hierarchy and position.’ Follett argues that the terms ‘over’ and ‘under’, meaning authority over or position under in the hierarchy, are obsolete, and declares she would like to abolish them.
Perhaps the most radical element of the paper is Follett’s challenge to the notion of delegated authority. It was – and in many quarters still is – axiomatic that the chief executive delegates part of his or her authority to more junior managers and others down the hierarchy. The argument is that when a business first starts, it is quite small and all authority is vested in the head; when the business grows, the increasing size makes delegation of authority necessary.
Follett says this is the opposite of the truth. When a business is small, it makes sense to combine certain functions in a single person. In small firms, it is not uncommon to find people taking on multiple roles and multiple functions. But as the firm grows, the logic of the division of labour means people take on more specialised functions; and as they assume those functions, they take with them the relevant authority. The head of the business does not delegate authority as the firm grows; it is taken away from him or her by people fulfilling other functions. In other words, as the business grows, the authority of the head of the business diminishes.
What happens instead is, or should be, a weaving or blending together of the various distributed authorities, which Follett describes (using a phrase borrowed from Henry Dennison) as ‘cumulative responsibility’. Authority, leadership and power are scattered throughout the organisation, and need to be coordinated and controlled in a way that ensures that all are acting in the organisation’s best interests. The chief executive or chairman becomes ‘a symbol of cumulative responsibility’, only occasionally stepping in to fill gaps or strengthen weaknesses in the organisation. As for delegating authority, Follett says, the only time any chief executive can be said to truly delegate authority is when he goes on holiday.
She quotes another business leader, Edward Filene: ‘I think some day we are going to recognise that this idea of one leader in a business is a fallacy.’ Here lies another important element of Follett’s criticism: well-run, scientifically managed companies (managed according to scientific principles, not necessarily Taylorist scientific management) already recognise that authority and responsibility are distributed. ‘The unfortunate thing is that in writing on business organisations is that our language has not caught up with our actual practice. As distribution of function has succeeded hierarchy of position in many plants, delegation of authority should be an obsolete expression, yet we hear it every day.’
Follett’s final paper, ‘Leadership’, given in 1928, is similarly ahead of its time, though it lacks some resonance for the modern leader because so many of its examples are drawn from contemporary politics, featuring names which are no longer common currency, such as the American senator Mark Hanna or the Swedish foreign minister Östen Undén. Her observations on leadership are, however, still worth reading. Follett opens with a discussion of what makes a leader, concentrating on the view that good leadership is a matter of strong personality; she discusses psychological research into ‘ascendancy traits’, characteristics which are said to give one person mastery over others.
Unsurprisingly, Follett is quick to pour cold water on the notion of ascendancy traits; the ability to organise is, she says, a far more useful attribute of a leader. Instead, she takes a functional approach. What leaders do, she says, is make it possible for others to do their job: ‘The test of a foreman now is not how good he is at bossing, but how little bossing he has to do, because of the training of his men and the organisation of their work.’
The job of a man higher up is not to make decision for his subordinates but to teach them how to handle their problems themselves, how to make their own decisions… The leader in the more progressively managed plants does not tend to persuade men to follow his will. He shows them what is necessary for them to do in order to meet their responsibility, a responsibility that has been explicitly defined to them.
In other words, the first job of the leader is to make more leaders, to empower (in modern parlance) people to lead others around them, and themselves.
Another important aspect of leadership is what Follett calls ‘obedience to the law of the situation rather than to arbitrary commands’. Why are leaders necessary? As well as making other leaders, they also coordinate the actions of others around them and keep them focused. To understand how this happens requires us to understand further that leaders are confined, and to some extent defined, by what is going on around them. They are also subordinate, like the men and women ‘under’ them, to the larger mission and goals of the organisation:
A leader gets an order followed, first because men really want to do things the right way and he can show them that way, and secondly, because he too is obeying. Sincerity more than aggressiveness is a quality of leadership. Both leader and followers obey an ‘invisible leader’ – the common purpose.
Follett closes her lecture with a powerful and evocative definition of leadership:
William James [the psychologist] tried to show us the relation between what he called the inmost nature of reality and our own powers. He tried to show us that there is a significant correspondence here, that my capacities are related to the demands of the universe. I believe that the great leader can show me this correspondence, can arouse my latent possibilities, can reveal to me new powers in myself, can quicken and give direction to some force within me. There is energy, passion, unawakened life in us – those who call it forth are our leaders.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, 1896.
The New State-Group Organization: The Solution for Popular Government, 1918.
Creative Experience, 1924.
‘The Process of Control’, in L. Gulick and L.F. Urwick (eds), Papers on the Science of Administration, 1937.
Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett, ed. L.F. Urwick and H.C. Metcalf, 1941.
Child, J., ‘Mary Parker Follett’, in M. Witzel and M. Warner (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Management Theorists, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Graham, P., Dynamic Managing: The Follett Way, London: British Institute of Management, 1987.
Graham, P. (ed.) Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1995.
Tonn, J.C., ‘Follett, Mary Parker’, in American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Tonn, J.C., Mary P. Follett: Creating Democracy, Transforming Management, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
Urwick, L.F. (ed.) Freedom and Coordination, London: Management Publications Trust, 1949.
Urwick, L.F. and Brech, E.F.L., The Making of Scientific Management, vol. 1, Management in British Industry, London: Management Publications Trust, 1949.
Urwick, L.F., The Golden Book of Management, London: Newman Neame, 1956.
Witzel, M., Fifty Key Figures in Management, London: Routledge, 2003.
‘Some methods of executive efficiency’, 1 October 1926, Balliol College
‘The illusion of final responsibility’, 2 October 1926, Balliol College
‘Leadership’, 28 September 1928, Balliol College