Understanding Mary Parker Follett's Pioneering Organizational Theory

Of all the management theorists working during the early 20th Century, Mary Parker Follett shines out as one of the most recognizably modern. Her theories about employee engagement in the workplace continue to illuminate worker needs 100 years later.

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.

Applying Follett’s Management Theory to Employee Engagement

After Follett’s death, her work was largely forgotten—a reminder of how canonicity has often been dictated by gender. However, towards the middle of the 20th century there was a resurgence of interest in “soft” organizational theory, including Elton Mayo’s Human Relations Movement, which expanded on Follett’s group dynamic theories.

Follett’s incredibly modern-seeming approach has a simple central message: employees will be more engaged, productive, and happy if they’re given autonomy within their roles, if they’re treated as intelligent individuals, and if they’re allowed to work cooperatively. Over a century later, these ideas are at the heart of the modern workplace.

Understanding Follett’s Theories as Engagement Drivers

Follett argued that a single leader model, with a typical "boss" figure barking out orders, could never be truly successful in a complex organization. Allowing groups to use their own ideas and experiences not only harnesses a great intelligence resource, it also empowers employees by acknowledging their individual skills.

Working a century after Follett, people leaders can apply her theories in a multitude of different ways:

  1. Increase opportunities for colleagues to work together by establishing project teams, digital conference calls, or open-plan offices.
  2. Allow individuals greater flexibility to achieve their appraisal targets in their own way: your goals may be fixed, but how they’re reached doesn’t have to be.
  3. Encourage a flat hierarchy structure across the organization. Employees shouldn’t feel devalued but should feel that leaders are “powering with” employees.
  4. Create a buddy system. This is a good way to encourage people who don’t necessarily work in the same team to spend time and share learnings.

Engaging Your Employees with Mary Parker Follett’s Advice

Follett is sometimes credited with coining the term “win-win”; a fitting feat given that increased employee autonomy is certainly a win-win for both the organization and the individual.

The first step forward in achieving that win-win end state is giving your employees room to be heard. Follett was a huge proponent of reciprocal working relationships—that’s where two-way confidential conversations are essential.

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