13 September 2009

Mary Parker Follett on The Giving of Orders, and the Duality of Organizational Frames

Regular readers will note that my blogging is rather scant lately. I am now immersed in literature and drafting the "theoretical" framing of the thesis. In a month or so, I will begin to post chapters and ask for your assistance in reviews and commentary. But here's a bit of a sneak peak.

The story of management through the 20th century is usually told in a more-or-less linear fashion: each subsequent author, theorist, practitioner, and management guru builds upon the collective wisdom of those that came before. It is, as my supervisor describes it, like the unrolling of a ribbon that weaves through the last hundred years or so as organizations become progressively more contemporary in considering the factors that create motivation, good leadership, teamwork, and effectiveness.

However, I perceive another reading of that history or, to be more precise, the reading of dual histories. If one frames the 20th century as a time of transition from an industrialized, mechanized, Gutenberg-inspired world to a world of instantaneous, multi-way connections (a.k.a., the UCaPP world), one can tease apart two, distinct storylines to the 20th century: one that is primarily instrumental with functional primacy, and one that is considerably more humanistic, leading to relational primacy in understanding organizational dynamics.

My inspiration for this dual reading came not only from an expectation of what one might find during the nexus period from one cultural epoch to another, similar to the ambivalence that Plato displays in his reflections on the societal effects of phonetic literacy in ancient Greece. Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933), whom I would consider the great-grandmother of Valence Theory, initiated the parallel discursive track with her early understanding of human relations and the importance of affective connections. (As an aside, the great-grandmother of the other discursive line would undoubtedly be Lillian Gilbreth; however, there were many more prominent men involved with the instrumentalist line of thought, including her famous husband, Frank Gilbreth.)

In her classic, 1926 article, The Giving of Orders, Follett identifies the need to reconcile the inherent conflict in an individual between resisting taking orders, arising from the natural animosity felt towards “the boss,” and the requirement to follow orders necessitated by a desire to retain one’s employment. Follett claims that if both the boss and the employee “discover the law of the situation and obey that … orders are simply part of the situation, [and] the question of someone giving and someone receiving does not come up. Both accept the orders given by the situation” (p. 153). In that case, the order becomes “depersonalized,” according to the language of scientific management. That is, the requirement to act or perform in a certain way is removed from the arbitrary exercise of power that derives from the legitimated hierarchical power dynamic and becomes contingently based. It is, in effect, the situation and not one’s superior office that is giving the order. As well, the order is being given to both superior and subordinate equally and simultaneously.

This reasoning might be considered as an origin of organizational contingency theory. However, with shared knowledge and shared understanding of what is to be accomplished, individuals being able to figure out what is the optimal course of action can be read as an early precursor to what I now call organization-ba in the contemporary context.

I suggest that one can draw a nearly direct discursive line of theorists and practitioners from Mary Parker Follett to UCaPP organizations that defines a parallel discourse to that which has a primary focus on instrumentality, rather than mutual relationship. In fact, Follett herself suggests a primary organizing impetus of relationship:
I think [situational contingency] really is a matter of repersonalizing. We, persons, have relations with each other, but we should find them in and through the whole situation. We cannot have any sound relations with each other as long as we take them out of that setting which gives them their meaning and value. This divorcing of persons and the situation does a great deal of harm. I have just said that scientific management depersonalizes; the deeper philosophy of scientific management shows us personal relations within the whole setting of that thing of which they are a part. (p. 154; emphasis in original)
In that last excerpt, Follett expresses the two ends of the spectrum that I now define as BAH and UCaPP, leaning towards the latter as perhaps the more effective explanation of situational contingency. The age-old, proverbial question of “which came first…” is more appropriately reframed as, “which has primacy: the functional or the relational?” in organizational matters. In the managerialist (or functionalist, or instrumentalist) view, it is the former; in the context of Valence Theory, it is the latter. Depending on one’s perspectival frame, each can be true: an organization can technically exist via its externally imposed structure without people; witness the so-called shell company. That it can be thought of literally as an inorganic entity – lifeless, despite often being populated by people – is perhaps incidental; the purpose remains paramount. In contrast, primacy of relationship creates an entity that is (i.e., can be shown to be) an autopoietic, dissipative structure that perceives, processes through affective connections, and responds in a non-deterministic – but possibly historically and experientially conditioned – fashion. That characterization, according to Capra (1996), defines a living entity. The teasing apart of the paradoxical probe, “which came first…” enables organization members to choose and embody their preferred interpretive frame, and thus abide by a new, valence-relational appreciation of Follett’s “law of the situation.”

  • Capra, F. (1996). The web of life: A new scientific understanding of living systems. New York: Anchor Books.
  • Follett, M. P. (1992). The giving of orders. In Shafritz, J.M. & Ott, J.S. (Eds.), Classics of organization theory (pp. 150-8). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. (Original work published 1926).
(Update): The entire thesis draft is posted here.

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