Follett, Mary Parker (1868–1933)

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Follett, Mary Parker (1868–1933)

American visionary of modern management theory and a proponent of democratic governance in organizations who worked as a social worker, political thinker, researcher, consultant, and author. Born Mary Parker Follett in Quincy, Massachusetts, on September 3, 1868; died in Boston on December 18, 1933; daughter of Charles Allen Follett (a skilled tradesman) and Elizabeth Curtis (Baxter) Follett; had one younger brother; graduated from Thayer Academy in 1884 at age 15; attended the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women in Cambridge, then an unaffiliated annex to Harvard University which became Radcliffe College; spent a year abroad in 1890-91 at Newnham College in Cambridge, England; attended intermittently and graduated summa cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1898 in economics, government, law and philosophy; also did postgraduate work in Paris; involved in long-term relationship for 30 years with Isobel Briggs (died 1926).

Returned to Boston after post-graduate studies in Paris to do social work and social service for 25 years; concurrently advised local and national organizations on management issues; pioneered the organization and management of vocational guidance centers in the public schools in Boston, the first program of its kind nationally (1917); served as chair of School Houses Sub-Committee to Women's Municipal League of Boston (around 1909); represented the people of Massachusetts in various public bodies, including minimum-wage boards, arbitration boards, and public tribunals; served as vice president of the National Community Center Association (1917–21); worked as consultant to business, analyzing problems in factories and organizations (1920s); lectured on business organization and management (1925–33) at annual conferences of the Bureau of Personnel Administration in New York; moved to London (1929), where she continued to study industrial conditions and lecture; lived with Dame Katharine Furse until shortly before Follett's death.

Selected publications:

The Speaker of the House of Representatives (1896); The New State—Group Organization, the Solution for Popular Government (1918); Creative Experience (1924); Freedom and Coordination (1949); numerous papers in Dynamic Administration—The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett (1973).

Unknowingly, modern management leaders have expressed the ideas of Mary Parker Follett—who never managed a business—decades after she pioneered the effective practice of management. After her death in 1933, her ideas, harbingers of contemporary management concepts, disappeared into the annals of management literature. She has since been acknowledged as a "prophet of management." Her ideas about flatter organizations, participative management, conflict resolution, and leadership derived from ability rather than position are ideas whose time came after their creator. When Follett introduced them in the 1920s, they did not reflect management trends of her day. Follett's fundamental abiding interest was in the individual in the group and society. Her innovative approach to social work was a point of departure for her philosophical and practical ideas about organizational management.

Mary Parker Follett was born on September 3, 1868, in Quincy, Massachusetts, to a family of English-Scottish-Welsh heritage. Her parents were Charles Allen Follett and Elizabeth Baxter Follett . After her adored father, a skilled tradesman, died, responsibility for the household, its financial affairs, and her younger brother fell to Mary since her mother was an invalid. After graduating from the Thayer Academy in 1884, she studied English, political economy, and history for two years at the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, which would become Radcliffe College. During a year of classes abroad at Cambridge University in England, where she studied history, law, and political science, she wrote a paper that would be the core of her first book, The Speaker of the House of

Representatives (1896), which described in practical terms how the U.S. Congress worked and how effective representatives exert their power and influence. Her time at Cambridge instilled an interest in English life and matured her, but before she could take exams she was called home because of her mother's illness. Returning to Radcliffe after finishing her book, she received her bachelor's degree in 1898, graduating summa cum laude at the age of 29.

An inheritance from her mother's father made Follett financially independent. She spent the next 25 years as a volunteer doing social work in Boston, initially with clubs for boys and men in Roxbury, a poor section of Boston. In 1902, she chaired a committee that sponsored clubs in local schools, which she thought a better location than the patronizing environment of a settlement house. A series of community centers resulted. In 1908, Follett joined as chair of the Committee on Extended Use of School Buildings sponsored by the new Women's Municipal League of Boston, which focused on plans of action for solving community problems in cooperation with city agencies. Her innovative approach to management problems was apparent even in her social work activities. To get young people off the streets at night, her committee pioneered evening programs in the public schools. By 1914, the Boston School Centers had spread to six high schools with an attendance of around 7,000 young people. To address the need of school dropouts who attended the evening programs, she developed a vocational Boston Placement Bureau, working with a coalition of local community agencies, which expanded to serve all of Boston. Eventually this became part of the school system. Follett served as vice president of the National Community Center Association from 1917 to 1921. Her pioneering work has been acknowledged as a major influence on the emerging field of social work.

Follett's social-service activities that addressed management problems became a foundation for her later work in industrial management. Her second book, The New State (1918), began as a report on her work but became a critique of American institutions and political theory. She proposed the gradual replacement of various governmental institutions by a network of occupational, local, regional, state, national, and international groups. Follett introduced a theme that would inform her life work—group dynamics, which she had observed at the school centers. In light of corrupt practices of government officials, her ideas were new and welcome, and the book built her reputation.

The potentialities of the individual remain potentialities until they are released by group life. Thus, the essence of democracy is creating. The technique of democracy is group organization.

—Mary Parker Follett

Her books reflect an evolving perspective, from philosophical idealism to the new psychology of the day with its emphasis on group experience. She recognized that social life is constantly changing and is built on interrelationships and interwoven experiences; her recognition of the social life of organizations anticipated by decades similar observations of many in the industrial management field.

Follett's next book, Creative Experience (1924), concentrated even more on the subject of group experience. Through Henry Dennison, a board member of the Boston Placement Bureau, she observed the Dennison Manufacturing Company's progressive personnel policies in action at the Framingham, Massachusetts, headquarters. She also studied Filene's department store in Boston, Rountree and Co., Ltd., in York, England, and the Economic Division of the League of Nations. Insights about business that she published in Creative Experience popularized her ideas among business leaders and brought her invitations to lecture and consult. Her work at the Rountree Cocoa Works led to lecture conferences for managers and supervisors that took place at Balliol College, Oxford, on weekends.

Follett developed her ideas against a backdrop of the popular early 19th-century scientific management theory of Frederick Taylor, who focused on time-and-motion studies to determine how workers could do their jobs better; the worker, at the low end of a stratified organization that operated in a command style, was seen by Taylor as a tool of industry. Follett's approach was to use workers' firsthand experience to learn about management. Proponents of Taylorism, she said, "ignore one of the fundamental facts of human nature, namely, the wish to govern one's own life."

Because the study of organizations alone was not enough, she used participant observation to understand how people behave in groups. Follett's research involved everyone she met; from industrialist to maid, she engaged everyone in conversation to understand a range of perspectives. By 1925, she was lecturing on business organization and management. A year later, at a lecture for a British audiences at Oxford, she explained the rationale for her involvement:

The most profound philosophers have always given us unifying as the fundamental principle of life. And now business men are finding it is the way to run a successful business. Here the ideal and the practical have joined hands. That is why I am working at business management, because, while I care for the ideal, it is only because I want to help bring it into our everyday affairs.

Her lectures featured at annual conferences of the Bureau of Personnel Administration in New York between 1925 and 1932 were part of a series presented by leaders from a range of fields. They were designed to bridge the gap between the academic education of managers and administrators and their need for pragmatic information related to their changing industrial environments. Follett's lectures were later collected in the book Dynamic Administration.

According to Elliot Fox and L. Urwick, the editors of her collected papers, Follett had two fundamental concepts that were "at once simple, profound, and far-reaching." The first was the "universal fact," a circular or reciprocal response, to which Follett assigned numerous other terms as well. She did not believe that a simple stimulus-response existed between parties to an interaction in real life; rather, the parties influence each other and together produce a situation. Situations were always multifaceted, influenced by all the relationships that have bearing on the thoughts of the parties involved. Each situation was a dynamic process.

The second basic concept was the universal goal of integration, a harmonious synthesis of differences to produce a new result (she also referred to this as unifying, synthesis or coordination). Each solution has seeds of new differences, but they, in turn, contain the seeds of new solutions; thus the continuous environment of change is a fact of life.

Peter Drucker observes that of Follett's work, the most well known concerns her ideas about conflict management: "Constructive Conflict." She wrote, "As conflict—difference—is here in this world, as we cannot avoid it, we should, I think, use it to work for us." Assuming that both sides are right, they will give right answers, but to different questions. Follett believed that accurate information and expertise could only inform difference: "the object is not to do away with difference but to do away with muddle.… Difference based on inaccuracy is meaningless." According to Follett, the resolution of conflict hinges on using the understanding of each side's perspective to integrate the interests of both positions. This creative adjustment to different interests leads to "plus-values," new values that represent creative responses to social conflict. This is different from compromise, where each side gives something away. However, Follett did acknowledge that all disputes can be settled by integration and that irreconcilable differences can exist.

There are three types of leadership, suggests Follett: leadership of position, leadership of personality, and leadership of function, which she called the most important. She saw the leader's basic focus as organizing and integrating experience; the effective leader provides opportunities for participation, showing others how to meet their own responsibilities, and each individual assumes responsibility for a piece of the whole. Follett saw organizations evolving so leadership would assume "horizontal rather than a vertical authority," spurring easier exchange of information within organizations, which echoes modern management theory. In Creative Experience, she associated exercising leadership with cultivation: discovering a purpose in a situation was like finding an unfamiliar plant one cultivates without knowing what to expect; when it bears fruit, the purpose of the work comes clear.

Follett also was a proponent of worker participation, which encourages integration of the differences she promoted for resolving conflicts. She saw employee participation in management as a way of increasing collective responsibility but with limitations. Labor would assist management not by sharing existing power, but by developing joint power, therefore creating new power. Follett saw "power over" or domination as an obstacle to integration. She defined power as "the ability to make things happen." Integrated situations were characterized by "power with," which meant that individual power would be unified for the total power of the group. The power-with model is inherent in Follett's concept of conflict resolution as well as cooperation.

Some have criticized Follett for too much idealism in management. Her work suggests that everything is possible at the same time, e.g. collectivism can exist with individualism and freedom. However, Follett saw her idealism as reflecting a possible world, not an ideal world. She expressed in her work a belief in the potential for change in human nature and that education can change attitudes. Critics also note that her belief in the potential to integrate interests depends on a particular configuration of interests, and objectives and means to achieve integrative solutions may differ. Supporters, like Fox and Urwick, say she was in the vanguard of applying social science findings to the practice of management. By the time of her death in 1933 during the Depression era, sheer survival characteristics of management thinking had supplanted the interest of the 1920s in creative use of human potential.

According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter , Follett's long-term influence was not assured because she was neither an academic nor a chief executive who could sustain the impact of her work through a base of student disciples or an exemplary organization. Peter Drucker has noted that her ideas were against the management trends of the 1930s and 1940s. Making government more controlling and more powerful was in opposition to Follett's focus on the individual and reinventing the citizen; because of this, Follett was perceived as a subversive.

Commenting on the continuing respect for Follett's work in England and Japan since its introduction decades ago, Kanter writes in Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management that she was less of an immediate threat given the greater geographic distance. The Japanese started a Follett association in the 1950s to study her work. Her perspective of individuals as interdependent and interconnected reflects Japanese sensibilities about group membership, according to Tokihiko Enomoto. In 1991, the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution, whose members are involved in mediation and arbitration in the public and private sectors in the United States, established a Mary Parker Follett Award.

Follett has been described as a plain woman with an engaging manner who had little taste for power and prestige. She read Latin, Greek, French and German, and her interests included music, painting, nature and travel. Her circle of friends and acquaintances encompassed intellectual and social leaders of Boston, and leading industrialists—all of whom provided her with numerous connections. For three decades, Follett had a long-term relationship with Isobel L. Briggs , an Englishwoman 20 years her senior. They lived at Otis House in Boston until Briggs' death in 1926. Two years later, Follett met Dame Katharine Furse , head of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, during trips to Geneva to study the League of Nations. In 1929, Follett moved to London and lived with Furse in her Chelsea home.

Follett continued to study British industry and lecture in England, including a series at the London School of Economics, and in America. In 1933, she returned to Boston on financial business. In poor health, Mary Parker Follett died in Boston after an operation on December 18, 1933. Her ashes were taken to Putney, Vermont, where she had enjoyed enlightening conversation with friends in the summer home she had shared with Isobel Briggs.


Follett, Mary Parker. Creative Experience. NY: Long-mans, Green, 1924.

——. Freedom and Coordination. London: Management Publications Trust, 1949.

Fox, Elliot M. and L. Urwick, eds. Dynamic Administration—The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett. NY: Pittman, 1973.

Graham, Pauline, ed. Mary Parker Follett—Prophet of Management; A Celebration of Writings from the 1920s. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1995.

Linden, Dana Wechler. "The Mother of Them All," in Forbes. January 15, 1995, pp. 75–76.

Laurie Norris , intercultural relations consultant who works with immigrants and refugees encountering U.S. culture and making work transitions, New York, New York