Mary P. Follett: Creating Democracy Transforming Management

Ngaire Bissett (Graduate School of Management, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia)

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 1 June 2004




Bissett, N. (2004), "Mary P. Follett: Creating Democracy Transforming Management", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 17 No. 3, pp. 326-328.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

As part of a post‐modern journal edition, this review will deviate somewhat from the conventional focus on the composition of the text and the role of the author[1]. This is because I want to take a lead from Mary Follett and practise what she called “interpenetration”, that is, my task will be to relate and integrate her ideas to the theme papers. Her distinctive reciprocal, networking model of management and group interaction, has profound resonance for this edition. The theme of “relatedness”, albeit expressed in different forms, links all of the contributions. Mary's depictions of “reciprocal freeing” (relational diversity) effectively unite those ideas in her avant‐garde, process model of participatory democracy, designed to maintain diversity within unity. Her groundbreaking “pragmatic intellectual” program for progressive change is as relevant today as it was revolutionary for her time.

However, Mary provides no prescriptive, “fads and fashions”, guru blueprint, indeed she foreswore the notion of the all‐knowing expert/leader. Rather, working through the complex associations that link the constructs of power, authority, leadership, conflict and coordination, in relation to group processes, she attempts to lay the necessary grounding from which individuals‐in‐community (subjects‐in‐community) might proactively build a vital and inspirational workplace environment by themselves. Reflecting her immensely varied experience, working with all manner of individuals in civic community associations, and later in management organisations, Mary's deliberations would be characterised as “grounded theory” today. Nonetheless, hers is no small‐scale, domestic project, as she takes on the “big issues” that emerge from her ethical commitment to egalitarian principles.

The period was marked by a climate of fervent German idealist thought and British Fabian socialism. Mary demonstrated distinctive intellectual acumen by studying these ideas through the lens of a range of interdisciplinary social science perspectives, a most unusual approach for her day. Her tireless commitment to examining situations from a number of different angles is apparent in her capacity for integrative thought, and living systems principles. Critical of the reigning “adversarial individualism” (Darwin) and “atomistic rationalist” (modern science) prevailing philosophies, Mary turned to the evolving utilitarian philosophies (Locke, J.S. Mill) from which to develop an epistemological and ontological commitment to “relationalism” as a way of life. While this entailed a belief in individuals working for the greater good, her interest was not in sublimation but rather in the potential for the group to represent more than the sum of its individual parts. This relates to her important management ideas regarding the creating of contexts to stimulate creativity through the “interpenetration” of intersected ideas.

The period of Mary's life (1868‐1933) in many ways mirrors our “new times”. The late nineteenth century was marked by economic recessions brought on by unregulated financial markets and lack of accountability by a conglomerate of industrial cartels. The result was tumultuous change, high rates of unemployment and general social deprivation. No doubt her first‐hand experience, working with people in the community, enhanced her sense of moral conscience and intensified her interest in studying the necessary conditions to create economic and social prosperity. This immersion in her field of study not only ensured that her ideas had a “ivory basement” grounding but convinced her that these local inhabitants were capable of determining their own destiny in the right circumstances. To this end her life's work was given over to developing mutualist principles to ensure that employees, as potential entrepreneurial citizens, had the opportunity to work collaboratively with employers in an industrial democracy type environment. This is not to say that Mary held naive “corporate culture” consensus assumptions, as she acknowledged both structural inequality and the resulting distinctive sets of group interests. While she saw conflict in the workplace as inevitable, she believed it could be managed in productive ways if the “substance” of dissent was appropriately addressed.

In this regard, her social constructionist model of organisational self‐governing reflects the affirming attributes missing from the self‐regulating accountability‐model prevalent today (see Eveline and Booth), such that individuals are encouraged to carve out their own value systems within designated group activities. Many of Mary's ideas are decidedly postmodern. She explicitly rejects a static resource model of power in favour of a Foucauldian, fluid notion of power, as situational, “relationally” constructed, dynamic and contested. In this regard, she points out that community spirit cannot be imposed but rather has to be grown organically, grounded in the work of relationship‐building. Reflecting a contemporary “stewardship” theory of leadership, the traditional top‐down, distanced manager is dispensed with in favour of a post‐Fordist “coordinating” management role where leaders are very much a part of the team. Authority comes from function not hierarchy and leaders should be trained in commitment to community styles of organisation via a self‐governing model (see Kramar in Bissett).

In many ways Mary is a model manager herself, committed and caring, in her institutional roles where she exhibited both “heart and brain” (p. 233), building empathy in an embodied fashion. Equally her theorising reflects the “unification of feeling, affecting, emotion, desire [and] aspiration”. In terms of “managing diversity” Mary warns us, in relation to group processes, not to see difference as a problem, to confuse difference and antagonism, but to “maintain difference within unity, conflict within integration” (p. 270). She decries the tolerance aspect of “managing diversity” and develops principles of association based on the recognition that variety is the wellspring of life. In all of this she resists the essentialist and dualist conceptions of subjectivity much in the manner of this edition. This breadth of compassionate vision and capacity for original, innovative thought, is surely remarkable in a woman who herself was not even granted the opportunity to vote until near the end her life.


This is a meticulously researched and written biography in which Joan Tonn not only manages to bring Mary Follett, as a person, to life on the page, but also vividly draws the reader into the period. We recognise that while we may have progressed technologically, in terms of “social wisdom” there is much to be learnt from past figures of such stature as Mary Follett. Hence, while daunted by the size of the book when it arrived in the mail, I soon found I could not put it down due to the richness of its imagery. I have taken the liberty of utilising the text for my own specific purpose because I have no doubt this book will be reviewed, in the traditional sense, time and time again, given its distinguished level of scholarship.

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