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Mary Parker Follett

Image of Mary Parker Follett

Mary Parker Follett (1868 - 1933) was one of the first people to apply psychological insight and social science findings to the study of industrial organisation and is recognised by many well-known management theorists, including Drucker, Moss Kanter and Mintzberg, as a great management philosopher.

Follett's work focused on human relations within industrial groups, and many businessmen became convinced of the practical applications of her ideas. She, in turn, viewed business as a vital, exciting and pioneering field within which solutions to human relations problems were being tested out, to the ultimate benefit of the rest of society.

After the Second World War, Follett's name became less known and her ideas were largely neglected, except in Japan where they had a formative influence on management culture and practice. Yet her work foreshadowed, and often preceded, current Western approaches emphasising involvement and cross-functional communications. More recent interest in Follett since the 1960s owes much to the management consultant and writer Pauline Graham, who has worked hard to reclaim and disseminate Follett's work.


Born in Massachusetts to a well-off Boston family, Follett was a brilliant scholar who graduated at 12. She was educated at the Thayer Academy, Boston, and Radcliffe College, Massachusetts. At 20, she attended an annexe of Harvard University called the Society for Collegiate Instruction of Women. In 1890, as a student of 22, she spent a year at Newnham College in Cambridge, England and went on to Paris as a postgraduate student. Graham describes Follett as a polymath, and records that she read law, economics, government and philosophy at Harvard, and history and political science at Newnham.

While at Cambridge, Follett gave a paper which she later developed into her first book, The House of Representatives. This was taken seriously enough to be reviewed by Theodore Roosevelt in the American Historical Review of October 1896.

Follett's family life was difficult. Her father, to whom she was close, died when she was in her early teens. Her mother was an invalid with whom Follett did not get on very well. From an early age Follett ran the household, and later she also ran the family housing business. Eventually, Follett broke all family ties and went to share a home with her friend, Isobella Briggs. Over the next 30 years, Isobella provided a stable domestic background, while her social connections were helpful to Follett's work. When Isobella died in 1926, Follett lost her home life as well as her closest friend.

Later that year she met Dame Katherine Furse, an English woman who was strongly involved with the Girl Guide movement. Follett later moved to England to share a house in Chelsea with Furse.

Follett the social worker

Follett was expected to become an academic, but instead she went into voluntary social work in Boston, where her energy and practicality (as well as her financial support on occasions) achieved much in terms of community-building initiatives. For over 30 years, she was immersed in this work, and proved to be an innovative, hands-on manager whose practical achievements included the original use of schools as out-of-hours centres for community education and recreation. This was Follett's own idea, and the resulting community centres became models for other cities throughout America.

Follett set up vocational placement centres in Boston school centres, and represented the public on the Massachusetts Minimum Wage Board. From 1924, she began to give regular papers relating to industrial organisation, especially for conferences of the Bureau of Personnel Administration in New York. She became, in effect, an early management consultant, as businessmen began to seek her advice about their organisational and human relations problems.

In 1926 and 1928, Follett gave papers for the Rowntree Lecture Conference and to the National Institute of Industrial Psychology. In 1933, she gave an inaugural series of lectures for the new-founded Department of Business Administration (now the Department of Industrial Relations) at the London School of Economics (LSE).

Later in 1933, Follett returned to America, where she died on the 18th December of that year, aged 65.

Key texts

The New State was written during 1918, and argues for group-based democracy as a process of government. Through this book, Follett became widely recognised as a political philosopher. It was based on her social work experience rather than on business organisation, but the ideas it contains were later applied in the business context.

The New State presented an often visionary interpretation of what Follett viewed as a progress of social evolution, and the tone is occasionally infused with religious poesy. The text argues that democracy 'by numbers' should give way to a more valid process of group-based democracy. This form of democracy is described as a dynamic process through which individual conflicts and differences become integrated within the search for overall group agreement. Through it, people will grow and learn as they adapt to one another's views while seeking a common, long-term good.

The group process works through the relating of individuals' different ideas to each other and to the common interests of the group as a whole. Appropriate action would, Follett held, become self-evident during the consultation process. This would eventually reveal a 'law of the situation', representing an objective which all could see would be the best course for the group as a whole to pursue. Conflict or disagreement were viewed as positive forces, and Follett considered social evolution to progress through the ever-continuous integration of diverse viewpoints and opinions in pursuit of the common good.

The New State envisages the basic group democratic process following right through to the international level, feeding up from neighbourhoods via municipal and state government levels into the League of Nations. Sometimes, Follett refers to an almost autonomous group spirit, which develops from the community between people, as the group process begins to work.

The Creative Experience was also written during 1918, and again focused on democratic governance, using examples from business to illustrate ideas. Dynamic Management - The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett and Freedom and Co-ordination were both published posthumously and edited by L Urwick. Freedom and Co-ordination collects together six papers given by Follett at the LSE in 1933, and these represent the most developed and concise distillation of her thoughts on business organisation.

Follett's business writings extended her social ideas into the industrial sphere. Industrial managers, she saw, confronted the same difficulties as public administrators in terms of control, power, participation, and conflict. Her later writings focused on management from a human perspective, using the new approach of psychology to deal with problems between individuals and within groups. She encouraged businessmen to look at how groups formed and how employee commitment and motivation could be encouraged. The participation of everyone involved in decisions affecting their activities is seen as fundamental, in that Follett viewed group power and management through co-operation as the obvious route to achievements that would benefit all.

Follett's views on power, leadership, authority and control

Follett envisioned management responsibility as being diffused throughout a business rather than wholly concentrated at the hierarchical apex. Degrees of authority and responsibility are seen as spread all along the line. For example, a truck driver can act with more authority than the business owner in terms of knowing most about the best order in which to make his drops. Leadership skills are required of many people rather than just one person, and final authority, while it does exist, should not be over-emphasised. The chief executive's role lies in co-ordinating the scattered authorities and varied responsibilities that make up the organisation into group action and ideas, and also in foreseeing and meeting the next situation.

Follett's concept of leadership as the ability to develop and integrate group ideas, using 'power with' rather than 'power over' people, is very modern. She understood that the crude exercise of authority based on subordination is hurtful to human beings, and cannot be the basis of effective, motivational management control. The power of single individuals, Follett considered, could erode overall organisational and social achievement, and she advocated the replacement of personal power with the authority of task or function and with the 'law of the situation' as revealed through group process consultation. Partnership and co-operation, she sought to persuade people, was of far more ultimate benefit to everyone than hierarchical control and competition.

Follett viewed the group process as a form of collective control, with the interweaving experience of all who are performing a functional part in an activity feeding into decision-making. Thus, control is realised through the co-ordination of all functions rather than imposed from the outside.

Follett's four fundamental principles of organisation

Follett identified four principles that she considered basic to effective management co-ordination:

  1. Coordination as the 'Reciprocal Relating' of all factors in a situation - relating the factors in a situation.
  2. Coordination by direct contact - direct communication between all responsible people involved, whatever their hierarchical or departmental positions.
  3. Coordination in the early stages - involving all the people directly concerned, right from the initial stages of designing a project or forming a policy.
  4. Coordination as a continuing process - keeping co-ordination going on a continuous basis, and recognising that there is no such thing as unity, but only the continuous process of unifying.

The context of evolutionary progress

Follett's thinking was ahead of her time, yet was founded on a conviction of social, evolutionary progress which, from our hindsight perspective, is flawed by the course of subsequent history. She lived through momentous times, when social and technological change seemed to make a new order inevitable. The destruction caused by the First World War also seemed to dictate the clear need for a determined effort to create a social order which would not break down so disastrously. Simultaneously, the war created pressures in both England and America to include labour participation in management, and led to a growth in internationalist ideas and to the birth of the League of Nations. Like other writers of the time, Follett made leaps of the imagination that grew out of the factual changes that were actually taking place. Her view was rational and progressive, and she could not know the degree to which some things would remain constant, undermining the apparently inevitable dynamic of social 'progress'.

From the end of the same century which Follett saw begin, we have only too full a knowledge of the Second World War, and countless other conflicts, of the discrediting of Russian Communism, and of worsening ethnic divisions and continuing human barbarities. The progressive, internationalist vision seems to be, from our contemporary perspective, a fast-receding dream.

Yet, while Follett's optimistic expectation of radical social change were largely mistaken, she drew from it the imaginative vision to transform at least some of her convictions into ideas about ways of living and working that have contributed much to both social and management practice. In fact, it is almost disheartening to read Follett and realise that she clearly and strongly stated, so many years ago, ideas that are being proffered as 'new' today and that are still rarely practised in any sustained way.

Further reading

Fox, E. M. & Urwick, L. F., eds. Dynamic administration - the collected papers of Mary Parker Follett. New York: Pitman Publishing, 1973

Urwick, L. ed. Freedom and co-ordination: lectures in business organisation. London: Management Publications Trust, 1949

Metcalfe, H.C.K. and Urwick, L. F. eds. Dynamic administration - the collected papers of Mary Parker Follett. Bath: Management Publications Trust, 1941

Follett, M. P. Creative experience. New York: Longmans Green, 1924

Follett, M. P. The new state: group organisation - the solution for popular government. New York: Longmans Green, 1920

Follett, M. P. The Speaker of the House of Representatives. New York: Longmans Green, 1896

Graham, P. ed. Mary Parker Follett: prophet of management - a Celebration of Writings from the 1920s. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press, 1995

Graham, P. Dynamic management the Follett way. London: Professional Publishing and British Institute of Management, 1987

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