Mary Parker Follett (September 3, 1868 – December 18, 1933) was an American social worker, sociologist, consultant, and author of books on democracy, human relations, and management. She worked as a management and political theorist, introducing such phrases as "conflict resolution," "authority and power," and "the task of leadership." She was also a pioneer of community centers, helping to open number of such centers throughout Boston.
Mary Parker Follett believed that group organization not only helps society in general, but also helps individuals to improve their lives. She held that as people from different cultural or social backgrounds meet face-to-face, they get to know each other. Follett believed that diversity was the key ingredient of community and democracy. Her efforts led to substantial advances in our understanding of human relationships and how people can work together to establish a peaceful, prosperous society.
Mary Parker Follett was born on September 3, 1868, into an affluent Quaker family in Quincy, Massachusetts and spent much of her early life there. She was educated at the Thayer Academy but spent much time taking care of her family and her disabled mother. She also spent a year studying at Newnham College, University of Cambridge (1890-1891). In 1892, she entered the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women in Cambridge, Massachusetts (later Radcliffe College). She graduated summa cum laude in 1898. In 1896 she published her first work The Speaker of the House of Representatives (her Radcliffe thesis), which was a great success.
From 1900 to 1908, Follett worked as a social worker in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. Through that work she realized the need for places where people would meet and socialize and started to advocate the need for community centers. In 1908 she was elected chairperson on the Women's Municipal League's Committee on Extended Use of School Buildings. In 1911, the committee opened its first center—the East Boston High School Social Center—which was initially a sort of experiment. The success of the project led to the opening of numerous social centers throughout Boston.
Before becoming the vice-president of the National Community Center Association in 1917, Follett was serving as a member of the Massachusetts Minimum Wage Board. The engagement with the evening schools and vocational guidance boosted her interest in industrial administration and management. She also became involved in a social reform movement called The Inquiry, founded by the Federal Council of Churches in America.
Beside her political work, Follett continued to write. In 1918, she published her The New State, which received a foreword by British statesman Viscount Haldane in its revised edition in 1924. In the same year her new book, Creative Experience, was published.
During the latter part of her career Follett spent her energies in writing about management.
Mary Follett died on December 18, 1933, in Boston, Massachusetts.
Follett was a firm advocate of community centers. She argued that democracy would work better if individuals organized themselves into neighborhood groups. She believed that community centers had an important place in democracy, as the place where people would meet, socialize, and discuss important topics of concern to them. As people from different cultural or social backgrounds met face-to-face, they would get to know each other. Follett believed that diversity was the key ingredient of successful community and democracy.
In her The New State, published in 1918, Follett argued in favor of community social networking. She held that people’s social experience was essential for their functioning as citizens, with this having impact on the ultimate functioning of the state structure:
The individual is created by the social process and is daily nourished by that process. There is no such thing as a self-made man. What we possess as individuals is what is stored up from society, is the subsoil of social life.... Individuality is the capacity for union. The measure of individuality is the depth and breadth of true relation. I am an individual not as far as I am apart from, but as far as I am a part of other men. (Follett 1918 p.62).
Follett thus encouraged people to participate in group and community activities and be active as citizens. She believed that through community activities people learn about democracy. In The New State she wrote, “No one can give us democracy, we must learn democracy.” Furthermore:
The training for the new democracy must be from the cradle - through nursery, school and play, and on and on through every activity of our life. Citizenship is not to be learned in good government classes or current events courses or lessons in civics. It is to be acquired only through those modes of living and acting which shall teach us how to grow the social consciousness. This should be the object of all day school education, of all night school education, of all our supervised recreation, of all our family life, of our club life, of our civic life. (Follett 1918 p.363)
Group organization, she argued, not only helps society in general, but also helps individuals to improve their lives. Groups provide enhanced power in society to voice individual opinion and improve the quality of life of group members.
The last ten years of her life Follett spent in studying and writing on administration and management. She believed that her insights from her work on community organizing could be applied to management of organizations. She suggested that through direct interaction with each other to achieve their common goals, the members of an organization could fulfill themselves through the process of the organization’s development.
Follett developed the circular theory of power. She recognized the holistic nature of community and advanced the idea of "reciprocal relationships" in understanding the dynamic aspects of the individual in relationship to others. In her Creative Experience (1924) she wrote:
Power begins...with the organization of reflex arcs. Then these are organized into a system - more power. Then the organization of these systems comprise the organism—more power. On the level of personality I gain more and more control over myself as I unite various tendencies. In social relations power is a centripedial self-developing. Power is the legitimate, the inevitable, outcome of the life-process. We can always test the validity of power by asking whether it is integral to the process of outside the process.” (Follett 1924 p.193)
Follett distinguished between "power-over" and "power-with" (coercive vs. co-active power). She suggested that organizations function on the principle of “power-with" rather than "power-over." For her, "power-with is what democracy should mean in politics or industry" (Follett 1924 p.187). She advocated the principle of integration and "power sharing." Her ideas on negotiation, conflict resolution, power, and employee participation were influential in the development of organizational studies.
Mary Parker Follett was a pioneer of community organizing. Her advocacy of schools as community centers helped open numerous such centers throughout Boston, establishing them as important educational and social forums. Her argument of the need of community organizing as the school of democracy led to better understanding of the dynamics of democracy in general.
Regarding her work on management, after her death in 1933, she became practically forgotten. Her ideas vanished from the mainstream of American management and organizational thinking in the 1930s and 1940s. She however continued to draw followers in Great Britain. Gradually her work re-emerged, especially in 1960s Japan, and several management thinkers started to re-apply her theories.
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