The discourse surrounding early management theory is often defined by male voices—a reflection of the adherence to patriarchal values at the turn of the 20th Century. But at a time when the US movement for women’s suffrage was being hard fought, women were also proposing new ways forward in the workplace. Meet Mary Parker Follett, the “Mother of Modern Management."
Born in America in the 1860s to a well-off Quaker family, Follett studied at Cambridge University before graduating from Radcliffe College summa cum laude in 1898 (she was later rejected from Harvard on the basis of being a woman).
Her many years of education, and her ensuing dedication to social work led to her developing of management theories that still resonate within the modern workplace—most particularly for her contributions to theories on group dynamics. There’s a reason she’s been described as “far ahead of her time."
What is Follett’s Organizational Theory?
Follett’s organizational theory focuses on individuals, and the power of autonomy in encouraging employees to work collaboratively. Far earlier than most, Follett drew attention to a people-oriented method of management.
Follett came to management theory from an unusual angle. Not long after graduating, she became a social worker in one of Boston’s poorer neighborhoods. Follett noted the damaging effect that a lack of community space had on the people around her, and set about creating social and educational groups. This was the beginning of her research into group dynamics.
Her central theory—that individuals and society shape each other equally—came from her work in community centers, not the boardroom. Later, when she translated her theories to the workplace, she found the same dynamics applied: a group would be successful if allowed to define its own roles and work collaboratively.
Follett developed the idea of leadership through "power with" not ‘"power over": in other words, the true leader focuses on collaboration, with conflict resolved through compromise. Her ideas were received positively: the woman once rejected by Harvard was headhunted by President Roosevelt for direct business advice on managing not-profit organizations.