Biography of Mary Parker Follett, Management Theorist

Seed Packing in a 1918 Factory
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Mary Parker Follett (September 3, 1868–December 18, 1933) was an American social theorist known for introducing ideas about human psychology and human relations into industrial management. Her articles and essays had a profound influence on the field of organizational behavior. Modern management theory owes much to her original ideas.

Fast Facts: Mary Parker Follett

  • Known For: Follett was a management theorist who incorporated ideas from psychology and human relations into her theories.
  • Born: September 3, 1868 in Quincy, Massachusetts
  • Parents: Charles and Elizabeth Follett
  • Died: December 18, 1933 in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Education: University of Cambridge, Radcliffe College
  • Published Works: "The Speaker of the House of Representatives" (1896), "The New State" (1918), "Creative Experience" (1924), "Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett" (1942)

Early Life

Mary Parker Follett was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, on September 3, 1868. She studied at the Thayer Academy in Braintree, Massachusetts, where she credited one of her teachers with inspiring many of her later ideas. In 1894, she used her inheritance to study at the Society for Collegiate Instruction of Women, sponsored by Harvard, and later completed a year of study at Newnham College in Cambridge, England, in 1890. She studied on and off at Radcliffe College as well, starting in the early 1890s.

In 1898, Follett graduated summa cum laude from Radcliffe. Her research at Radcliffe was published in 1896 and again in 1909 as "The Speaker of the House of Representatives."

Career

Follett began working in Roxbury as a voluntary social worker in 1900 at the Roxbury Neighborhood House of Boston. Here, she helped organize recreation, education, and social activities for poor families and for working boys and girls.

In 1908, Follett became chair of the Women's Municipal League Committee on Extended Use of School Buildings, part of a movement to open schools after hours so that the community could use the buildings for activities. In 1911, she and others opened the East Boston High School Social Center. She also helped found other social centers in Boston.

In 1917, Follett took on the vice-presidency of the National Community Center Association, and in 1918 she published her book on community, democracy, and government, "The New State."

Follett published another book, "Creative Experience," in 1924, with more of her ideas about the creative interactions that take place between people in group processes. She credited her work in the settlement house movement with many of her insights.

She shared a home in Boston for thirty years with Isobel L. Briggs. In 1926, after Briggs' death, Follett moved to England to live and work, and to study at Oxford. In 1928, Follett consulted with the League of Nations and with the International Labor Organization in Geneva. She lived in London for a time with Dame Katharine Furse of the Red Cross.

In her later years, Follett became a popular writer and lecturer in the business world. She was a lecturer at the London School of Economics in 1933, and she also provided personal advice to President Theodore Roosevelt on organizational management.

Management Theories

Follett advocated for a human relations emphasis equal to a mechanical or operational emphasis in management. Her work contrasted with the "scientific management" of Frederick W. Taylor and promoted by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, which stressed time and motion studies. These approaches did not account for human psychology and the ways in which work demands might be in conflict with personal needs; rather, they treated human activities as machine processes that could be optimized to produce better results.

Unlike her contemporaries, Follett stressed the importance of the personal interactions between management and workers. She looked at management and leadership holistically, presaging modern systems approaches; she identified a leader as "someone who sees the whole rather than the particular." Follett was one of the first (and for a long time, one of the few) to integrate the idea of organizational conflict into management theory, and is sometimes referred to as the "mother of conflict resolution." Follett believed that conflict, rather than presenting a need to compromise, could actually be an opportunity for people to develop innovative solutions that they would not have been able to devise on their own. In this way, she promoted the idea of reciprocity within organizational structures.

In a 1924 essay, "Power," Follett coined the terms "power-over" and "power-with" to differentiate coercive power from participative decision-making, showing how "power-with" can be greater than "power-over." "Do we not see now," she observed, "that while there are many ways of gaining an external, an arbitrary power—through brute strength, through manipulation, through diplomacy—genuine power is always that which inheres in the situation?"

Death

Mary Parker Follett died in 1933 on a visit to Boston. She was honored widely for her work with the Boston School Centers, including her promotion of after-hour programming for the community.

Legacy

After Follett's death, her papers and speeches were compiled and published in 1942 in "Dynamic Administration," and in 1995 Pauline Graham edited a compilation of her writings in "Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management." "The New State" was printed in a new edition in 1998 with helpful additional material.

In 1934, Follett was honored by Radcliffe as one of the college's most distinguished graduates.

Her work was mostly forgotten in America, and is still largely neglected in studies of the evolution of management theory, despite the accolades of more recent thinkers like management consultant Peter Drucker, who has called Follett the "prophet of management" and his "guru." Follett's ideas also had a strong influence on psychologists such as Kurt Lewin, who studied group dynamics, and Abraham Maslow, who studied human needs and health.

Sources

  • Follett, Mary Parker, et al. "The Essential Mary Parker Follett." François Héon, Inc., 2014.
  • Follett, Mary Parker, and Pauline Graham. "Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management; a Celebration of Writings from the 1920s." Beard Books, 2003.
  • Follett, Mary Parker., et al. "Dynamic Administration: the Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett." Taylor & Francis Books Ltd., 2003.
  • Tonn, Joan C. "Mary P. Follett: Creating Democracy, Transforming Management." Yale University Press, 2003.