5: The Law of the Situation – Mary Parker Follett

Mary Parker Follett

Mary Parker Follett (September 3, 1868 – December 18, 1933) was an American social worker, management consultant, and philosopher who did trailblazing work in the fields of organizational theory and organizational behavior. This episode is a review of one of Follett’s lectures, The Giving of Orders, contained in a collection of Follett’s lectures and writings that was assembled by Lyndall Urwick at the end of her life in an effort to preserve her ideas for others. Follett believed that exploring “the science of the situation” involved both management and workers studying the situation together. In many ways, Follett was ahead of her time in emphasizing the need for systems thinking (understanding “the whole situation”) and espousing the belief that workers should have a much more prominent role in functions that had traditionally been considered the province of management such as planning and execution of work.

Follett identified the importance of cross-organizational processes within hierarchical organizations, which was an important development supporting matrix-style organizations such as DuPont in the 1920s. She advocated non-coercive power-sharing in the workplace based on the use of her concept of “power with” rather than “power over.” Follett coined the term “win-win” in conflict resolution. She believed organizations would benefit from embracing conflict as a means of achieving diversity and integrated solutions rather than merely compromising.

Follett viewed organizations as networks of groups rather than as hierarchical structures, and paid special attention to the influence of human relations within the group. In the text for the podcast, The Giving of Orders, Follett revealed her pragmatist approach to management through taking a responsible attitude toward experience, depersonalizing orders through identifying and obeying the “law of the situation,” and balancing supervision with worker autonomy.

Follett disagreed with interpretations of scientific management that reduced managers to giving orders and charging workers to comply with those orders. In her view, “the essence of scientific management the attempt to find the law of the situation” (p. 33). A manager’s job was “not how to get people to obey orders, but how to devise methods by which we can best discover the order integral to a particular situation” (p. 33). Follett was an early advocate of systems thinking, advising leaders and works to “study the entire situation.” She believed that “the joint study of the problem [prepares] the attitude for integration” of diverse perspectives on situations encountered. Follett believed that workers were just as capable as managers of determining the law of the situation through the “authority of expertise.” It is the situation that determines what needs to be done, not managers alone because of their positions within the organizational hierarchy.

Join us as we discuss Follett’s alternative take on the scientific management practices discussed in Episodes 1 and 2.

You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Also read an exclusive TAOP essay, “A Letter About Mary Parker Follett,” by Albie Davis.
Read with us:

Follett, Mary Parker. “The giving of orders.” Scientific foundations of business administration (1926), 29-37.  Available through the Mary Parker Follett Network (scroll to page 10 of the hyperlinked document).

To Learn More: 

Davis, A.M. (2015) When Webb met Follett: Negotiation Theory and the Race to the Moon, Negotiation Journal, 31(3), 267-283.