Mary Parker Follett

Management Pioneer and Theorist

Seed Packing in a 1918 Factory
Seed Packing in a 1918 Factory. Topical Press Agency

Known for: pioneering ideas introducing human psychology and human relations into industrial management

Occupation: social worker, management theory writer and speaker

Dates: September 3, 1868 - December 18, 1933

Mary Parker Follett Biography:

Modern management theory owes a lot to a nearly-forgotten woman writer, Mary Parker Follett.

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

In 1898, Mary Parker 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.

Mary Parker 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 the poor families and for working boys and girls.

In 1908 she 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 building 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, Mary Parker Follett took on the vice-presidency of the National Community Center Association, and in 1918 published her book on community, democracy, and government, The New State.

Mary Parker Follett published another book, Creative Experience, in 1924, with more of her ideas about the creative interaction of people in group process. 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 from 1929 with Dame Katharine Furse of the Red Cross.

In her later years, Mary Parker Follett became a popular writer and lecturer in the business world. She was a lecturer at the London School of Economics from 1933.

Mary Parker 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 (1856-1915) and evolved by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, which stressed time and motion studies.

Mary Parker Follett stressed the interactions of management and workers. She looks at management and leadership holistically, presaging modern systems approaches; she identifies 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 considered the "mother of conflict resolution."

In a 1924 essay, "Power," she coined the words "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?"

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

After her death, her papers and speeches were compiled and published in 1942 in Dynamic Administration, and in 1995, Pauline Graham edited a compilation of her writing in Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management. The New State was reissued 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 Peter Drucker. Peter Drucker called her the "prophet of management" and his "guru."


Follett, M. P. The New State - Group Organization, the Solution for Popular Government. 1918.

Follett, M. P. The Speaker of the House of Representatives. 1896.

Follett, M. P. Creative Experience. 1924, reprinted 1951.

Follett, M. P. Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett. 1945, reissued 2003.

Graham, Pauline, editor. Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management. 1995.

Tonn, Joan C. Mary P. Follett: Creating Democracy, Transforming Management. 2003.