Tag Archives: Douglas McGregor

Vlatka Hlupic: Humanising Management

I am always interested to learn about a new leadership model, so I give you this week’s Management Thinker, Professor Vlatka Hlupic.

Vlatka Hlupic

Vlatka Hlupic

Short Biography

Vlatka Hlupic was born in 1965 and grew up in Croatia. She studied economics at the University of Zagreb, gaining her BSc in 1988, and continuing her studies there with an MSc in Information Systems. She then moved to the London School of Economics, where she completed her PhD in Information Systems in 1993.

From there, Hlupic took up a lectureship at Brunel University, where she remained until 2005, when she moved to her current academic role as Professor of Business and Management at the University of Westminster.

In 2014, Hlupic published her first non-academic book, The Management Shift, in which she documents her thinking.

Vlatka Hlupic’s Six Box Leadership Model

Models of leadership tend to come in three main flavours:

Characteristics models suggest that to be a good leader, you must cultivate certain characteristics in yourself. These could be anything from assertiveness and decisiveness, to friendliness and charm.

Styles based models suggest that effective leadership is a matter of style. A subset are what are called situational leadership models, which suggest that the right style depends on the situation.

Roles based models set about a number of roles that a leader needs to perform. If you can perform them all, to a high standard, then you will lead well.

Of course, nobody would seriously contend that any one of these is sufficient. Clearly a leader has a range of roles to fulfil. And they will do so best when they deploy the right style at the right time, applying the right character traits.

With that context setting out of the way, we can place Vlatka Hlupic’s leadership model clearly as a role based model. Hlupic sets out six roles for leaders to fulfil. Three of them are focused on people and the way a leader addresses those around them, and three are process roles that are concerned with material and abstract elements of an organisation.

Vlatka Hlupic - 6 Box Leadership Model

Vlatka Hlupic – 6 Box Leadership Model

Humanising Management

Hlupic sees the future for organisational success as being about relinquishing a measure of control and focusing on empowering people. This is hardly original. She sets up a Taylorist paradigm as a straw person to tilt at, declaring that an over-controlling management style is demotivating and stifles staff (as did Douglas McGregor and indeed Mary Parker Follett). She advocates treating people with respect and distributing decision-making throughout the organisation.

However, the fact that her consultancy and keynote speaking business is apparently thriving tells us much about industry and governments’ continued failure to grasp these ideas.

What I think makes Hlupic’s work valuable is the suite of tools she has developed, which help her to diagnose strengths and weaknesses and to prescribe practical interventions. These are backed by her academic research.

Five Shifts to Aim for

For a summary of the shifts she advocates, we can take a look at five dichotomies that appear in her work (in my terminology, not hers):

  1. From command and control to trust and empowerment
  2. From rules to principles
  3. From giving instructions to empowering teams
  4. From transactional relationships to alliances
  5. From short term profit motives to serving stakeholders

To me, all of this seems a little like obvious idealism. And yet some of it is swimming against the tide of international affairs, where many Governments are being formed by transactional, narrow interest politicians.

I’d like to think that Hlupic’s research base will finally tip the scales and make some of the changes become commonplace. Perhaps it will. Her latest initiative is an attempt to harness popular sentiment to drive change in large organisations’ cultures. I am interested to see if she will succeed.



Vlatka Hlupic talking about how reducing control can increase profit

Rensis Likert: Participative Management

Rensis Likert made an important contribution to management in the 1960s, which was to influence many large corporations in the US and Japan. Do you:

a. Strongly Disagree – b. Disagree – c. Neither Agree nor Disagree – d. Agree – e. Strongly Agree

Almost all of us have, at some time, had to use this type of simple perceptual scale. It is called a Likert Scale, after Rensis Likert, who invented it early in his career. But there is more to him than that, as we shall see.

Rensis Likert, 1903 - 1981

Rensis Likert, 1903 – 1981

Short Biography

Rensis Likert was born in 1903, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. In 1922, he went to study Civil Engineering (following his father) at the University of Michigan. However, during a Sociology class in his senior year, he realised he was more interested in people than in things, so switched subject and won his bachelors degree in Sociology and Economics, in 1926. In 1932, he was awarded a PhD for research in the new field of Social Psychology, by Columbia University. As a part of his research he developed a simplified scale for gauging opinions, which bears his name today. His research demonstrated that, despite its simplicity, it was able to achieve equally reliable results, when compared with more sophisticated approaches.

Likert then took on a series of increasingly important roles: lecturer in psychology at New York University, Director of Research at the Life Insurance Agency Management Association, and then  in 1939, he became a Director responsible for surveys at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Gradually his role in Government surveys expanded, and during the US involvement in the Second World War, he headed up a part of the Office of War Information.

After the war, Government contracted and surveys were no longer mandated by Congress. So Likert, along with his colleagues sought to establish a centre for reseach into surveys at one of the universities. In 1946, they settled at the University of Michigan and founded the Survey Research Center with Likert as its first Director. The centre changed its name in 1949 to the Institute for Social Research (ISR) and has grown and thrived ever since. Likert remained Director until his retirement in 1970, when his co-founder, Angus Campbell, became the second ISR Director.

During the 1950s and 60s, Likert directed his research interest towards management. His 1961 book, New Patterns of Management, proved highly influential. It introduced his four systems of management and articulated his advocacy for ‘System 4‘. He followed this, in 1967, with Human Organization: Its Management and Value. This further detailed System 4, and contains his most widely quoted statement:

‘…the greater the loyalty of the members of a group toward the group, the greater is the motivation among the members to achieve the goals of the group, and the greater is the probability that the group will achieve its goals.’

In 1970, he established his consulting business, Rensis Likert Associates, to capitalise on his thinking, and he also continued to develop and publish his ideas. His 1976 book, New Ways of Managing Conflict, was also very successful.

Rensis Likert died in September 1981.

Likert’s Four Management Systems

Likert articulated four styles of management. We can easily see these as an extension of the Theory X / Theory Y approaches that Douglas McGregor articulated.

Rensis Likert - the Four Systems of Management

Rensis Likert – the Four Systems of Management

The four systems are:

System 1. Exploitative-Authoritative

Decision-making takes place at the top of the organization and these decisions are imposed on others without consultation. There is little sense of teamwork and not much communication, other than threats, which form the primary means of driving performance (motivation). Consequently, it is only upper management who feel any sense of responsibility for the organisation’s goals.

System 2. Benevolent-Authoritative

This is a patriarchal, patronising system based on a master-servant relationship between management and employees. Rewards are the  motivators and teamwork, communication, and a sense of ownership of the organisation’s goals are still minimal.

System 3. Consultative

In this style, managers trust subordinates but not wholly. They motivate with both rewards and involvement, and expect a higher level of responsibility for meeting goals. There is  a moderate amount of teamwork and some communication across and between levels.

System 4. Participative

Participative management is based on trust and confidence in employees. Goals are determined collectively and form a basis for motivation and rewards. This fosters a collective sense of responsibility for meeting company goals, and incentivises collaborative teamwork and open communication.

The Characteristics of Likert’s System 4

Likert felt strongly that System 4 was the optimum system for managing an organisation, as McGregor argued for Theory Y as a means of motivating individuals.

He set out four principal characteristics of successful System 4 management:

  1. Supportive group relationships, both within the group and between the group members and the leader. A sense of care and collaboration.
  2. Each person’s individual contribution, needs, value, and development needs to be equally respected.
  3. The group undertakes problem solving together, and aligns behind their eventual consensus solution.
  4. Different groups overlap, with certain individuals playing the role of ‘linking pin’ between them. These are people whom Karen Stephenson refers to as ‘Gatekeepers’.

This all has a very modern feel to it and it is hard to feel the sense of novelty Likert’s ideas had in the 1960s. This, I suggest, is a measure of the importance of Likert’s ideas. So I choose Option e. Strongly Agree.

Arie de Geus: Living Company

James Dean or Kirk Douglas? Jimi Hendrix or Vera Lynn? Why do some people die young and other live long and productive lives? Arie de Geus, who himself is living a long and productive life, asked the same question of companies. And the answer he got was, like the long-lived companies,  unexciting, cautious, yet robust.

Arie de Geus

Arie de Geus

Short Biography

Arie de Geus was born in 1930, in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. While studying for his doctorate in Business Administration at the Nederlandse Economische Hoogeschool (now, Erasmus University) in Rotterdam, he started working at Royal Dutch Shell to support himself through his studies.

His career at Shell was long and successful. Over 38 years he took a number of regional and corporate roles. They culminated with leadership of Shell’s Group Planning Department, famous for its innovations in Scenario Planning. There, he focused his attention on Portfolio Analysis and Organisational Decision-making. He concluded that organisational learning was a key to successful decisions and corporate longevity.

He developed this theme in a Harvard Business Review article in 1988, ‘Planning as Learning’. When de Geus retired from Shell in 1989, he rapidly got involved with the newly founded Center for Organizational Learning, at MIT, joining Chris Argyris, and Edgar Schein among its advisors, and Peter Senge, as its first Director. In 1997, he wrote the book that has brought him most prominence: ‘The Living Company’.

The Living Company

In his research, de Geus found that the average life expectancy of European and Japanese companies is 12.5 years. For large multi-nationals, it is between 40 and 50 years. Why then, are some able to last hundreds of years? De Geus argues that all have a potential life of 200 to 300 years, and he set out to learn the secrets of those who have achieved it.

His principal conclusion is simple. The problem is profits. Or, more accurately, it is a short-term focus on building profits, at the cost of a longer-term focus on all aspects of the business. Chief among the long-term aspect, de Geus highlights the need to nurture people. How a long life, a business needs to prioritise human capital over financial capital.

The title of his book arises from two hypotheses de Geus sets out:

  1. A company is (in some ways) a living being
  2. The decisions made by the company are a result of a learning process

Therefore, for the living being to thrive, it must continually learn, and build on what it has, rather than constantly seek to throw out the old, and with it, the organism’s accumulated wisdom.

Other factors he found, which characterise the long-lived companies he studied, are:

  • sensitivity to their environment
  • cohesive, with a strong sense of identity
  • tolerant of experimentation
  • frugal financing decisions

He uses these to carry forward his metaphor of companies being like living organisms, in suggesting that these characteristics also represent successful survival strategies for real living creatures.


Without a doubt, de Geus sets out a corporate, rather than entrepreneurial growth agenda. And his approach to human capital aligns him with other proponents of the human side of the enterprise, starting with people like Follett, Owen, Mayo, and McGregor.

His analysis is also more nuanced and less of a ready-recipe, than the book that followed it a few years later and also looked at long-lived companies: ‘Built To Last’ by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. Perhaps the biggest difference is that, while de Geus saw average companies as lasting up to fifty years, and targeted longevity on 200-300 years. Collins was interested, in Built to Last, on those that make it past the 50 year mark. Maybe de Geus would see these as merely promising adolescents.






Charles Handy: Management Philosopher (Part 1)

In my research for this article, I found an unreferenced remark, suggesting that it was The Economist magazine that coined the term ‘management guru’, and that they first used it as a description of Charles Handy. Handy rejects the label – and so he should. It almost belittles the breadth of his thinking. From organisational theory, to management trends, to social polemic; Handy’s thinking goes well beyond easy categorisation.

Charles Handy

Short Biography of Charles Handy

Charles Handy was born in a small town a few miles outside of Dublin, in Ireland, in 1932. He was educated in an English public school, and at Oxford University, where he gained his MA in ‘Greats’ – classical history and philosophy. He went from there to work for Shell, taking a number of operational roles around the world, where he had great autonomy as a young manager. Returning to London, he found headquarters life didn’t suit him. What did, however, was a transfer to the staff college, where he found teaching much more to his liking than corporate administration.

MIT Sloan School

Having taught himself the basics of economics earlier on, so he could take up a role at Shell, he moved briefly to Anglo American as an economist, before travelling to MIT to study at the Sloan School of Management. here he met and studied among some of the greats of US management theory: Warren Bennis, Chris Argyris, and Edgar Schein, who supervised his studies. He was greatly influenced by them all, and also by the work of Douglas McGregor, who had also worked there and died a little before Handy arrived in 1965.

He returned to London to set up the Sloan Program at the newly founded London Business School, where he became a professor in 1972. It was there that he wrote his first book, Understanding Organizations, which has remained in print pretty much ever since 1976, with new editions updating it for modern readers. It is still a first rate introductory text, of which Handy says that he wrote it to get to grips with the ideas in it. He also (famously) recommends that once you have read it, you should re-write your own version and burn the original. In part, Pocketblog is my attempt at re-writing his book, though I never plan to dispose of my trusty 1993 fourth edition!

Handy finds his Voice

Whilst Understanding Organizations is very much a compendium and synthesis, Handy’s next book introduced his own ideas. 1978 saw the publication of The Gods of Management. We’ll take a look at the ideas in this book in part 2 of this blog.

In 1977, Handy left academia, in search of a somewhat more spiritually rewarding role. He found it in an organization set up by Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Church of England. St George’s House is an institution that encourages business and political leaders to come together, along with faith leaders, to consider contemporary and societal issues. His post as Warden allowed Handy to marry his philosophical and commercial instincts.

Portfolio Career

However, in 1981, Handy left, to pursue a new direction in his working life. This was a direction signposted in one of his most important books, 1984’s The Future of Work. In it, he signposted the development of portfolio careers, and the downshift from high-powered corporate jobs (the rack he had been on at Shell) to lesser-paid, but more congenial lifestyle careers. He embraced this downshift through the 1980s and started his own portfolio career that has served him to this day.

Handy further developed the ideas from The Future of Work in 1989’s The Age of Unreason. This book is full of ideas that we will explore further in part 2 of this blog. At its heart is Handy’s rejection of people as human ‘resources’. In modern organizations, we will want to assert our individuality.

A Stream of Ideas

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a particularly prolific time for Handy. He contributed to Making Managers, which sparked a new focus on management as a professional discipline, rather than a simple set of tasks, and led to the growth in the UK of management qualifications, and wrote Understanding Voluntary Organizations. In 1991, he presented a BBC TV series called Inside Organisations, and published a book by the same name, which set out 21 management concepts or ideas. Handy chaired the RSA from 1988-89.

His more philosophical leanings emerged from 1994, when he wrote one of his biggest selling books, The Empty Raincoat, about the emptiness at the heart of global economic growth. In the US, it was called The Age of Paradox. This book may be the most prescient among many of his works that seem that way.

Handy has barely let up with a stream of new books with new and interesting ideas:

A Summing Up

Without a doubt, Handy is a prodigious thinker. He has done and written so much, that we have to consider him one of the few of our Management Thinkers and Doers for whom a single article is not possible. Like another great, Peter Drucker, Handy is one of our foremost commentators on the nature of organisations. And like Drucker, his ideas have ranged well beyond that field. In Part 2 of this article, we will focus entirely on some of Handy’s biggest and most important management ideas.

Edgar Schein: Organizational Culture

Edgar Schein is a social psychologist who has introduced a raft of ideas around organizational culture, and placed his thinking at the heart of the subject. He was brought to The Sloane School of Management by Douglas McGregor, where he was a contemporary of Warren Bennis. Though less widely known, he seems to me to be every bit their equal.

Edgar Schein

Short Biography

Edgar Schein was born in 1928 in Zurich and moved to the United States. There he became a citizen and studied Social Psychology, gaining a BPhil from the University of Chicago, and MA from Stanford, and his PhD in Social Psychology from Harvard, in 1952.

Following this, he spent four years in the US army, studying both leadership and, importantly for his later thinking, the rehabilitation of prisoners of war (POWs) returning from Korea under the influence of brainwashing.

In 1956, Douglas McGregor invited him to join the faculty of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, where he became a professor in 1964 and chaired the Organizational Studies Group from 1972 to 1982. He remains an emeritus professor there.

Edgar Schein’s Work

Edgar Schein’s work is deeply concerned with organizational culture and its relationship to behaviours, motivation, learning, management and leadership, and careers. Let’s survey six big themes in his work.

Organizational Culture

Schein sees culture as the dominant force within an organization, and he defines it as a pattern of shared assumptions, about how we relate to one another, how we perceive truth and reality, the balance of task focus with growth and fulfilment, and others. These affect how people behave and the values and social norms that evolve.

His primary thinking was captured in his best known book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, originally published in 1985, but now in its fourth edition. In a later article, ‘Organizational Socialization and the Profession of Management‘ he argued that integrating with an organizational culture requires undoing, ‘unfreezing‘ prior cultural norms, and establishing new ones. He related this to what he learned during the Korean War, about brainwashing, and suggested there are three responses to these pressures.

  1. Rejection of the organization’s imposed norms and culture: ‘rebellion
  2. Selective adoption of certain values and norms: ‘creative individualism
  3. Full acceptance of the new culture: ‘conformity

Psychological Contract

In another of Schein’s important text books, Organizational Psychology, (1980), he focused on the idea of a ‘psychological contract’ between an employer and its employees. He credits the original idea to Chris Argyris, but develops it considerably. The psychological contract is a set of undocumented expectations between the organization and its employees. Where expectations match, there will be harmony: where they mismatch, problems arise, such as disloyalty, under-performance, and industrial disputes.

Management Cultures

Within an organization, Schein identified three management cultures that co-exist and, to a degree, compete unhelpfully with one another. Organizational Learning will come as people evolve their organizational culture to properly integrate these three cultures.

  1. Operator Culture: local cultures within operating units
  2. Engineering Culture: technicians and experts seeking optimal technical solutions, mistrustful of the soft roles of people in driving the right answers
  3. Executive Culture: managers focused on financially-driven metrics

Organizational Learning

Under the pressures of constant change, organizations can only thrive when they learn quickly. The problem is that it is frustrated by employees’ and managers’ fear of change. He calls this fear ‘Anxiety 1’ and argues that for learning to occur, it must be overwhelmed by ‘Anxiety 2’ – the fear of the consequences of not learning, and therefore of not transforming to meet the new realities. He therefore advocates the need for creating a culture where people can feel safe to learn and experiment, as a way of overcoming Anxiety 1 without the need to induce greater levels of fear.

Motivational Theories

Not surprisingly for someone who came to the Sloan School at the behest of Douglas McGregor, Schein’s fertile mind also paid attention to motivation. He created two contributions. The first was to group models of workplace motivation into three categories, and the second was to add a fourth category.

  1. The Rational-Economic Model
    McGregor’s Theory X, building on Taylor’s approaches to Scientific management suggest we act out of compliance with incentives of coercion.
  2. The Social Model
    Mayo’s Hawthorne experiments suggested we respond to social cures, which was in part captured in McGregor’s Theory Y.
  3. The Self-Actualizing Model
    Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and, to some extent, McGregor’s Theory Y focused on our need for something more than social or economic benefit.
  4. Schein’s fourth category really seems obvious from any distance…
    The Complex Model
    We are all subject to a whole array of needs, expectations, desires, and motivations, and a wise manager will engage with all the subtlety and complexity of each individual. For me, Self Determination Theory is a good introduction to that necessity.

Career Anchors

We all have perceptions about ourselves. Carol Dweck has shown that we are most successful when we feel free to enlarge these as we learn, rather than see ourselves in a fixed way.

In his 1985 book, Career Anchors: The Changing Nature of Careers, (now in a new edition), Schein documented, first five, then three more, perceptions that act as anchors in the career choices we make. The original five were:

  1. Their technical-functional competence
  2. Their general managerial competence
  3. Their need for autonomy and independence
  4. Their need for security and stability
  5. Their entrepreneurial spirit and sense of creativity

The three later components are:

  1. Their desire to give service or their dedication to a cause
  2. Their need for challenge for its own sake
  3. Their desired lifestyle.

What is Culture?

Excerpts from an Interview with Edgar Schein

Abraham Maslow: Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow never set out to be a management thinker: his attention was on people in the round. It was only his desire to test out his ideas – and those of colleague Douglas McGregor – that led him to be one of the best known names among managers. His model of motivation is almost certainly the most widely known in English speaking organisations. Does it deserve to be?

Abraham Maslow


Short Biography

Abraham Maslow was born in 1908 to Jewish emigré parents, who had come to New York to escape Tsarist pogroms in Russia. There, Maslow grew up amidst antisemitism.

He took his undergraduate degree at City University of New York and then gained his MA and PhD in psychology at the University of Wisconsin in 1934. His thesis considered dominance and sexuality in Monkeys, which later led noted sexologist Alfred Kinsey to seek out his assistance in the 1940s. Maslow, however, rejected Kinsey, challenging the rigour of his research and later publishing evidence of bias in Kinsey’s sample selection (of young women for his study).

Maslow spend the late 1930s and the 1940s teaching and researching at Brooklyn College, where he published his most notable work on The Hierarchy of Needs in 1943 (A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review, 50, pp370-396). This was later fully documented in his most important book, Motivation and Personality.

In 1951, he moved to Brandeis University, where he stayed until 1969, a year before his death in 1970

A Humanist First

The core of Maslow’s work as a psychologist was his move away from studying the psychology of people with problems, towards people who are successful. He used the term ‘positive psychology’ and was almost certainly the first to do so. It is now widely used, since its establishment as a (now very vibrant) field of research by Martin Seligman.

However, the movement he was instrumental in had the name of humanistic psychology and it is one that last week’s Management Thinker, Mary Parker Follett would have embraced.

The Hierarchy of Needs

His major contribution was a model that was designed to explain human behaviour and has subsequently come to be used as a theory of workplace motivation. He built a needs theory of human behaviour by first grouping human needs into classes, and then arranging these classes into a hierarchy. He argued that the prospect of satisfying an unmet need leads to motivation to act or choose.

Often shown as a pyramid, with basal (or ‘deficiency’) needs at the bottom and higher (or ‘growth’) needs at the top, the sequence means that our first instinct is to focus on the lowest level of unmet need.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


Physiological Needs
include warmth, food, sex, sleep and shelter – anything necessary to survival.

Safety and Security Needs
can now be thought of as job, wage or other economic security.

Love and Belonging Needs
are for social acceptance and the development of trusting relationships.

Esteem Needs
are firstly for power, status and prestige and then, for a self-belief that our place is merited.

Self Actualisation
was what Maslow was interested in: maximising our potential, living life to the full and contributing to our society.

In more modern needs theories of motivation, like Self Determination Theory of Ryan and Deci (popularised by Daniel Pink), belonging, esteem and self actualisation are still seen as powerful workplace motivators in the forms of relatedness (love and belonging), competence (esteem), and autonomy (actualisation).


There are two critiques that are commonly levelled at the Hierarchy of Needs – one valid, one not.

It is often argued that the hierarchy presents a rigid sequence and that we continually want more, so do not fully escape the lowest levels, whilst some artist, say, will self-actualise away in lonely poverty in a cold garrett ignoring the basement motivators. In fact, Maslow himself said that the hierarchy is neither universal, nor a rigid sequence. The price his legacy pays for fame, is that most people learn the model from a few paragraphs in a text book or fifteen minutes in a management training session – and not from Maslow’s own writing. (Up goes my hand too!)

The more valid critique is the shallow research base for the model, and the reliance Maslow placed on anecdote, interview and subjective interpretation. However, we must understand his motivation: which was to create a springboard for studying what really interested him – Self Actualisation.

In fact, he did spend time in industry, studying motivation, but it was Douglas McGregor’s Theory Y that he was testing – and he found it wanting. Much as he supported it, he found it too simplistic in the real world, where people need a dose of Theory X predictability to feel fully secure.

Above and Below the Pyramid

Interesting to me is Maslow’s argument that we cannot satisfy our needs unless we have sufficient freedoms. As a humanist, he argued strongly for basic human freedoms such as expression and speech, the ability to defend ourselves, and for a society that prioritises justice.

Above the pyramid, he argued we would find needs higher than self-actualisation in the way he described it. These may be some form of aesthetic, spiritual or transcendent needs. This is an idea that Clare Graves developed into Spiral Dynamics, although the merits of that model need careful assessment.

More on Motivation

The Motivation Pocketbook



Maslow, Mahslow, Mazlov… ?

For may years, knowing he came from Russia, I pronounced his name Mazlov. My research for this article shows that I was wrong. The name is common among Polish and Western Ukrainian Jewish families, where the -ow ending is pronounced with the soft w sound. A research student of his from the early 1940s records on a Wikipedia discussion page that Maslow pronounced his own name as Mah-zlow.


Mary Parker Follett: Management Visionary

‘Ahead of her time’ seems to be the most appropriate epiphet to apply to Mary Parker Follett. And many have done so: Peter Drucker described her as a ‘prophet of management’, while Warren Bennis has said:

‘Just about everything written today about
leadership and organizations comes from
Mary Parker Follett’s lectures and writings.’

Mary Parker Follett


Brief Biography

Mary Parker Follett was born in 1868, into a wealthy Quaker family in Boston. She was an exceptional scholar and a polymath, attending university at Harvard (the Society for Collegiate Instruction of Women – later Radcliffe College), during which time she also spent a year at Newnham College, at Cambridge University (in England). Although denied a PhD by Harvard, she studied widely in law, economics, politics, philosophy, and history. While at Cambridge University she prepared and delivered a paper that was to become, in 1918, her first book: ‘The New State’. It was about social evolution and group-based democratic government. It was reviewed by former US president, Theodore Roosevelt and remains in print today.

After studying, Follett spent the next thirty or so years (from 1890 to 1924) focusing on voluntary social work in Boston. She innovated, being the first person in the US to use a school as an out-of-hours community centre; a model that was widely reproduced across the country.

However, what interests us most at the Management Pocketblog is her work from 1924, when she turned her focus to industry. She wrote that it is ‘the most important field of human activity’ and that:

‘management is the most fundamental element in industry’

She became an early management consultant and was much in demand by industry leaders and academic institutions. She spent her time advising and lecturing, up until her death, at a relatively young age, in  December 1933.

Sadly, her work is not widely known of in the western world, despite notable figures like Drucker, Bennis and Sir Peter Parker praising her to the rafters. This is despite the fact that she anticipated a wide range of issues and thinking that is still today presented as modern and aspirational for our large organisations.

Follett’s Visionary Thinking

Let’s count the ways that Follett was ahead of her time in the field of management. I get to eight.

1. Humanistic Approach to Organisations

Growing up in the time of FW Taylor, and ahead of the work of Elton Mayo, Follett rejected the functional approach to industry in favour of her emphasis on what we now call humanistic principle. She was a progressive, rational humanist in the management field as well as in the political and social arenas, and puts me very much in mind of George Eastman, whom I also described as a visionary. She very much anticipated the work of Douglas McGregor.

2. Empowerment

Follett rejected the idea that managers and staff have fundamentally different roles and capabilities. Instead, she saw that an organisation’s success would come from recognising the part that each has to play in delivering its services or creating its products. She advocated giving power to where it matters.

3. Joined up Business (… and hence, Re-engineering and Lean?)

This created a need for a joined up organisation, where activities, departments, functions and people are properly co-ordinated – both across the organisation and from the bottom to the top (and vice versa). She referred to the relationships between staff and managers and among functions as ‘reciprocal relating’. A leader’s role is therefore to see the whole organisation and the ‘relation between all the different factors in a situation’. Is it too much of a stretch to see this as anticipating the mission of re-engineering and lean management to close gaps in process flow? I don’t think so.

4. Group Dynamics and Team Working – Participative Leadership

The equal balance of power between management and employees leads to the need for team co-operation and that, she suggested, develops a true sense of responsibility in workers. To me, it also demands a model of leadership that Robert Greenleaf was to call ‘Servant Leadership’. Follett did not herself go as far, but identified ‘Participative Leadership’ as the style that involves a whole team in creating products and delivering services.

5. Personal Responsibility

Tying together empowerment, co-ordination and group working is the sense of responsibility they inculcate in workers. Follett again anticipated McGregor’s Theory Y, by arguing that it is this which most develops people.

6.Management Training

If we are to delegate greater responsibility to our people, we must do so well. Follett was an early advocate of management training, believing when many did not that the leadership aspects can be taught.

7. Transformational Leadership

In a paper called ‘The social construction of leadership: From theory to praxis’, Edith Rusch notes the unacknowledged similarities between James McGregor Burns’ articulation of ‘Transformational Leadership’ and Follett’s writings. She presents a compelling argument that Follett not only anticipated the ideas of transformational leadership, but that she was the first to put them forward and even used the term.

8. Win-Win Negotiation and Conflict Management

One particular interest of Follett’s was conflict. She suggested three approaches of domination, compromise and integration, that  Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann would later refer to as competing, compromising, and collaborating. Her thinking on the benefits and mechanisms of creating integrated ‘win-win’ resolutions is rich and sophisticated. In her suggestion that we uncover the real conflict and get to each party’s deeper aims, and then seek to satisfy those, she anticipated a lot of the thinking in best-selling negotiation book, ‘Getting to Yes’.

My one Favourite concept…

from all of Follett’s writing is this: the idea of ‘circular response’. This is that our behaviour helps to create the situation to which we respond. It is the idea of a feedback loop of self reinforcing interpretations and behaviour. I don’t doubt that the essence of this very modern sounding idea goes back to the ancients and classical writings of many cultures. But her articulation of it (and of the compelling phrase ‘circular response’) is so clear, that it has got me thinking.

Thank you…

to Mary Parker Follett. Before I started researching this blog, I knew nothing of her (unlike almost all other management thinker subjects). I had hoped that, being less known, there would be little to read and writing this would be quick. Far from it. But I have gained a lot from learning about Follett, and I hope you will too.