Mary Parker Follett: Pioneering Thinker about Conflict

One of our esteemed correspondents @Store of Ideas, suggested we take a look at Mary Parker Follett, (1868-1933), an often neglected early thinker about interest based bargaining, and innovative approaches to management. And as we are responsive, her is a quick post about her, though I haven’t yet read her work, I have a book of her writing on my ‘to read’ shelve. So my more personal take later. 

Here she is and here below is Wikipedia on her. Time we read her I think.

Mary Parker Follett  was an American social workermanagement consultant and pioneer in the fields of organizational theory and organizational behavior. She also authored a number of books and numerous essays, articles and speeches on democracyhuman relationspolitical philosophypsychologyorganizational behavior and conflict resolution. Along with Lillian Gilbreth, Mary Parker Follett was one of two great women management gurus in the early days of classical management theory. She admonished overmanaging employees, a process now known as micromanaging, as “bossism” and she is regarded by some writers as the “mother” of Scientific Management. As such she was one of the first women ever invited to address the London School of Economics, where she spoke on cutting-edge management issues. She also distinguished herself in the field of management by being sought out by PresidentTheodore Roosevelt as his personal consultant on managing not-for-profit, non-governmental, and voluntary organizations. In her capacity as a management theorist, Mary Parker Follett pioneered the understanding of lateral processes within hierarchical organizations (which recognition led directly to the formation of matrix-style organizations, the first of which was DuPont, in the 1920s), the importance of informal processes within organizations, and the idea of the “authority of expertise”–which really served to modify the typology of authority developed by her German contemporary, Max Weber, who broke authority down into three separate categories: rational-legal, traditional and charismatic.[2]

Follett was born in Massachusetts and spent much of her early life there. In September 1885 she enrolled in Anna Ticknor‘s Society to Encourage Studies at Home.[3] In 1898 she graduated from Radcliffe College, but was denied a doctorate at Harvard on the grounds that she was a woman.

Over the next three decades, however, she published many works, including:

  • The Speaker of the House of Representatives (1896)
  • The New State (1918)
  • Creative Experience (1924)
  • Dynamic Administration (1942) (this collection of speeches and short articles was published posthumously)

She recognized the holistic nature of community and advanced the idea of “reciprocal relationships” in understanding the dynamic aspects of the individual in relationship to others. Follett advocated the principle of what she termed “integration,” or noncoercive power-sharing based on the use of her concept of “power with” rather than “power over.” Her ideas on negotiationpower, and employee participation were highly influential in the development of the fields of organizational studiesalternative dispute resolution, and the Human Relations Movement.[citation needed] Follett contributed greatly to the win-win philosophy, coining the term in her work with groups. Her approach to conflict was to embrace it as a mechanism of diversity and an opportunity to develop integrated solutions rather than simply compromising.[4] She was also a pioneer in the establishment of community centers.

Even though most of Mary Parker Follett’s writings remained known in very limited circles until republished at the beginning of this decade (beginning with Pauline C. Graham’s first-rate work), her ideas gained great influence after Chester Barnard, a New Jersey Bell exec and advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, published his seminal treatment of executive management, The Functions of the Executive.[5] Barnard’s work, which stressed the critical role of “soft” factors such as “communication” and “informal processes” in organizations, owed a telling yet undisclosed debt to Follett’s thought and writings. In addition, her emphasis on such soft factors paralleled the work of Elton Mayo at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Plant, and presaged the rise of the Human Relations Movement, as developed through the work of such figures as Abraham MaslowKurt LewinDouglas McGregorChris Argyris, Dick Beckhard and other breakthrough contributors to the field of Organizational Development or “OD”.[6] Her influence can also be seen indirectly perhaps in the work of Ron Lippitt, Ken Benne, Lee Bradford, Edie Seashore and others at the National Training Laboratories in Bethel, Maine, where T-Group methodology was first theorized and developed.[7] Thus, Mary Follett’s work set the stage for a generation of effective, progressive changes in management philosophy, style and practice, revolutionizing and humanizing the American workplace, and allowing the fulfillment of Douglas McGregor’s management vision—quantum leaps in productivity effected through the humanization of the workplace.[8]

Follett’s writings span the decades. In The New State, Follett ponders many of the social issues at hand today. “It is a mistake to think that social progress is to depend upon anything happening to the working people: some say that they are to be given more material goods and all will be well; some think they are to be given more “education” and the world will be saved. It is equally a mistake to think that what we need is the conversion to “unselfishness” of the capitalist class.” [9]

Pawelec, (1998) (now Ann Deschenes) found obscure reference pointing to Mary Parker Follet having coined the term “Transformational Leadership”. She quote: Rusch, Edith A. (1991) in “The social construction of leadership: From theory to praxis” discovered that”writings and lectures by Mary Parker Follet from as early as 1927 contained references to transformational leadership, the interrelationship of leadership and followership, and the power of collective goals of leaders and followers” (p. 8). Burns makes no reference to Mary Parker Follet in Leadership, Nonetheless Rusch was able to trace what appear to be parallel themes in the works of Burns and Follet.” Rusch presents direct references in Appendix A. Pawelec (Deschenes) found further parallels of transformational discourse between Follet’s ( 1947,1987) work and Burns(1978).

Footnote: This posting is also dedicated to my friend Alexandra C, who first brought Mary Parker Follett to my attention. Hope all is well Alex!

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Academic Conflict, Conflict Processes, Creativity and Conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Philosophy of Conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mary Parker Follett: Pioneering Thinker about Conflict

  1. YES! Mary Parker Follett is a gem. I hope you find time to read her works. MPF: The Prophet of Management, is a great place to start. Forward by Rosabeth Moss-Kanter and Peter Drucker. She’s brilliant on so many topics that are “hot” today.

    • Thanks Lecia. I have The Prophet of Management I think and will read it soon, and post some more about her work when I have done so. I wish more women would write about conflict as the current conflict literature is far too male dominated and accordingly lacks cognitive diversity so to speak. Let me know if you know of any other women who write in this field. Thanks for your interest in our blog.

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