Mary Parker Follett: The Prophet of Management

Posted by Ivan Osmak
on January 30, 2018

The story of Mary Parker Follett is, in many ways, the back to the future type of story.

Largely ignored in the 20th century, her ideas, books, and essays were living in the obscure corners of management and academic studies. Today, in 2018, her ideas are more relevant than ever. Moreover, I would say that many of us are plagiarizing her, though unknowingly.

The ideas she presented on management, motivation, performance, conflict resolution, teamwork, and leadership – sound like something that you’ve watched on TED last week. But here is the kicker – she was born in 1868, only three years after the end of American Civil War.

The brave new ideas, straight from the roaring 20s

These days companies talk about employee experience, engagement and culture. Being against hierarchy is as posh as being vegan – if not more. We talk about engagement and alignment. Holocracy, made famous by Zappos, is the staple of the brave new [millenial] world.

Now, here is what Follett wrote almost hundred years ago, on the subject of employee engagement and experience :).

“Many people tell me what I ought to do and just how I ought to do it, but Few have made me want to do something.”

Mary Parker Follett (1918). “The New State: Group Organization the Solution of Popular Government”, p.230, Penn State Press

It is impossible to cover Follet in a blog post, so I am not even going to try. That being said, it is a worthy exercise to try to map some of the contemporary trends with her ideas.

Mary Parker Follett
Mary Parker Follett

Follett vs The Future

It was none other than Peter Drucker, that dubbed Mary Parker Follet – The Prophet of Management.

To demonstrate just how fresh and well-placed in today’s world Follett’s ideas are, let us go through some of the current thinking and juxtapose it with her ideas.

Workplace Equality

Workplace equality is a hot topic today – be it based on the gender, sexual orientation, race or even age. The ideas of diversity and inclusivity are well accepted in today’s society – and it is interesting because much of the Follett’s work revolved around power. Especially interesting are her ideas around “power-over” [another person] and “power-with”. Or, as she so eloquently put it:

“Neither working for someone nor paying someone’s wages ought to give you power over them.”

On leadership

If you have logged on to LinkedIn over the past year, you must have seen the old quote about “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.” often attributed to Tom Peters, who was born some 9 years after Mary Follett passed away. Now, here is what Follett thought on that subject:

“Leadership is not defined by the exercise of power but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those led. The most essential work of the leader is to create more leaders.”

On OKRs

Okay, she did not exactly talk about Objectives & Key Results. However, I find it impossible not to see great influence of her ideas on the OKRs methodology. A prime example is

“The important thing about responsibility is not to whom you are responsible, but for what you are responsible.”

One of the tenants of OKRs, namely, is that objectives don’t follow the org chart.

On ambivalence

At this very moment, countless HR departments in the world are making engagement surveys and generating happiness indexes. Follett had a very intriguing thought on the subject:

“We must remember that most people are not for or against anything; the first object of getting people together is to make them respond somehow, to overcome inertia. To disagree, as well as to agree, with people brings you closer to them.”

On diversity and inclusivity

Arguably the hottest topics in business these days are diversity and inclusivity. Here is what Follett said on this almost century ago:

“Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim. We attain unity only through variety. Differences must be integrated, not annihilated, or absorbed.”

Follett’s central idea

While Mary Parker Follett wrote numerous books and essays, for me the pivotal idea is in her essay The Giving of Orders. While this may not be her most important work, I do find it most relevant to my personal sphere of interest.

The essay is concerned with the relationship between managers and employees. In it, she states – about 100 years before the rest of us go it – that

“…orders should be the composite conclusion of those who give and those who receive them; more than this, that they should be the integration of the people concerned and the situation; more even than this, that they should be the integrations involved in the evolving situation.”

The point Follett is making is very simple, yet profound. Don’t give orders, rather describe a situation and work together with everyone on the solution.

That, of course, is the cornerstone idea of Objectives & Key Results.