(1868-1933)[1]

 

Mary Parker Follett: A Public Scholar “Far Ahead of Her Time”

By Deborah Bassett

Who was Mary Follett?

One of the key historical figures in the field of organizational communication, Mary Parker Follett spent her life working in poor Boston neighborhoods, serving on minimum wage boards, and aiding suffrage organizations. A teacher, an author, a scholar, a feminist, and a public servant, Follett has been called a “social anthropologist”,[2] “far ahead of her time”,[3] and a “pioneer of integrative negotiations”.[4]

Sociologist Charles A. Ellwood, one of Follett’s contemporaries, wrote that Follett was “easily the foremost woman thinker along social and political lines of our time, and perhaps one of the most philosophical thinkers in the field of social theory of all time—a fact which should be highly gratifying to all advocates of the emancipation and education of women as well as to all who are seeking to further the progress of the social sciences.”[5]

Clearly, Follett was not only respected by her contemporaries for her remarkable theoretical contributions, but recognized even then for the impact and reach her ideas were sure to have in future generations of scholars. Ellwood would be gratified to know that Follett’s contributions have, indeed, endured the passage of time, and that his characterization of her as one of the most significant figures in the field has proven correct.

Considered by her contemporaries to be the “the primary architect of the Boston School center movement”[6], Follett was also a national leader in the community centers movement in America. Although, until recently, she has seldom been recognized for her enormous contributions to conflict resolution and management theory, Follett was responsible for the development of many key concepts in the field that have become part of our contemporary lexicon, e.g., seeking a “win-win” solution to conflict.[7] Her work on seeking integrated solutions has been called “one of the acts of human genius and a contribution to humanity”.[8]

Born in Boston, Mass. in 1868, Follett was one of only a handful of women during the late 1800s to attend university,[9] which she did through Harvard’s “back door” for female students, the Harvard Annex (now Radcliffe College). While studying with Harvard professors, Follett completed a thesis for a history seminar on the Speaker of the House of Representatives, combining a thorough historical analysis with interviews to provide an analysis of politics and power that is “still considered one of the most insightful and well-reasoned ever written about the U.S. Congress”.[10] Follett’s undergraduate thesis became her first published manuscript in 1896, receiving radiant reviews from critics and acknowledged as a scholarly work of the highest quality.

Choosing the Life of a Public Scholar

Although Follett clearly demonstrated success as a scholar, she did not choose to pursue a graduate degree or a scholarly life in the academy. Instead, at the age of 22, Follett began working in poor, immigrant neighborhoods outside of Boston. In doing so, she participated in a larger settlement movement whose aim was to promote positive social change through the development of community centers, which provided child care, classes and clubs to community residents.

Although Follett did not choose to pursue a life as a traditional scholar, she can be accurately considered a scholar, nonetheless, based on her status as a scholar among her contemporaries,[11] her approach to her public work and scholarship, and the lasting significance of her theoretical contributions to the field of organizational communication. Follett applied her training as a young scholar to the development of theories that she refined during her years of community work. Conversely, her public work directly informed her later scholarship. It is this reciprocal relationship of scholarship and public work that distinguishes Follett as a public scholar rather than simply a public worker.

Certainly much of Follett’s community work would be considered activism today. One of her many projects involved the founding of a debating club “in which young men” learned the skills to “debate contemporary political issues” and had the opportunity to engage in debate with each other.[12] Follett strongly believed in empowerment through civic education, by which community members could learn how to become active citizens in their own communities. She wrote: “Democracy is faith in humanity, not faith in ‘poor’ people or ‘ignorant’ people, but faith in every living soul.”[13]

Follett’s philosophy of organizational communication was based on her own lived experience working with the community centers project and serving on minimum wage boards in Massachusetts. Her approach to the community centers movement included direct and frequent interaction with the community members and was grounded in a conviction that people were best able to govern themselves once they were given the skills to do so. During a graduate seminar at Harvard in 1927, Follett told the students, “I have simply for about 25 years been watching boards and groups and have decided from that watching on these principles of interacting, unifying and emerging. . . .I am giving my experience. I am not giving philosophy out of a book.”[14]

Follett’s Published Books

            In addition to “The Speaker of the House of Representatives,” Follett wrote two more books during her lifetime, both reviewed favorably in the popular press. Follett’s second book, “The New State: Group Organization, The Solution for Popular Government”[15] (1918) addressed issues of democracy, conflict, and diversity. This book came on the heels of Follett’s experience with the Boston neighborhood project and has been described by Benjamin Barber as “an American classic of participatory democracy.”[16]

            Follett wrote her third and final book, “Creative Experience”, in 1924 after having had ample opportunity to refine her ideas on conflict resolution and small group management through her community work. The ideas Follett expounds upon in her third book have been described as “some of the best advice in the whole literature on management today.”[17]

Conflict, Diversity and Integrated Solutions

Two of Follett’s most powerful, and frequently cited, ideas are her conception of conflict as diversity and her call for the integrated solution to replace compromise as a solution. Follett defined conflict as “difference”, not a negative occurrence to be avoided, but simply the interacting of different desires:[18] 

“What people often mean by getting rid of conflict,” she wrote in “Creative Experience,” “is getting rid of diversity

. . . . We must face life as it is and understand that diversity is its most essential feature. . . .It is possible to conceive conflict as . . . a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned”.[19]

Follett recognized three approaches to resolving conflict: 1. Domination that would ensure a victory of one side at the expense of the other, 2. Compromise, in which both sides relinquished part of their original interests, and 3. Integration, in which a new, and better, solution was developed that preserved the original interests of both sides. Follett called for an integrated solution for resolving conflict, in which both parties emerged as “winners”: “We should never allow ourselves to be bullied by an ‘either-or.’ There is often the possibility of something better than either of two given alternatives.”[20]

Follett was known for her engaging and clear examples to illustrate her theories and the example she gave for the success of the integrated solution was no exception:

In the Harvard Library one day, in one of the smaller rooms, someone wanted the window open. I wanted it shut. We opened the window in the next room, where no one was sitting. This was not a compromise because there was no curtailing of desire; we both got what we really wanted. For I did not want a closed room, I simply did not want the north wind to blow directly on me; likewise the other occupant did not want that particular window open, he merely wanted more air in the room.[21]

According to Follett, seeking an integrated solution involves bringing differences “into the open”[22] and breaking up each side’s demand into smaller parts. In order to break up one’s demands, Follett suggested that “symbols” must be examined. She gave an example of a friend who wanted to go to Europe but did not have the money to do so. By examining what “going to Europe” symbolized for her friend, Follett presented a solution that did not involve actually going to Europe but still met the true needs of her friend. Thus, the “real demand, which is being obscured by miscellaneous minor claims or by ineffective presentation”[23] must be discovered in order to be resolved effectively.

Follett developed and employed her ideas throughout her life. In “The New State” she wrote, “There is no wall between my private life and my public life.”[24] She learned from her life experiences and used those experiences to develop ideas that were astoundingly simple, yet progressive in their vision and profoundly effective. She shared these ideas not only at graduate seminars and business meetings, but also with the public outside the academy through her community work and her books.

Follett’s Work Resurfaces

Follett’s ideas of integrative negotiation have enjoyed resurgence in the field of conflict resolution since the 1960s, with the publication of Walton and McKersie’s “A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiation: An Analysis of a Social Interaction System”.[25] Although the authors credited Follett, subsequent scholars in conflict resolution cited Walton and McKersie for Follett’s ideas rather than Follett herself.

In 1978 Jeffrey Eiseman drew upon Follett’s work with his work on “Reconciling Incompatible Positions”[26] and in 1981, Fisher and Ury credited Follett in “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In”[27], which became a primer in dispute resolution and may have stirred interest in Follett and her work among scholars. In the 1980s and 1990s, Follett’s work resurfaced in management books published in popular press. However, although her ideas were rediscovered, her name was, once again, not.[28]

            Perhaps the 2003 publication of the only biography of Follett to date,[29] as well as the acknowledgement of her contributions in the work of contemporary scholars, will finally grant Follett the recognition she so richly deserves.[30]

Contemporary Scholars and Follett

Gerry Philipsen, Albie Davis, and John Child are three contemporary scholars who are integrating Follett’s ideas into their own research. Each of these scholars has implemented Follett’s work in their own work as scholars and professionals.

Gerry Philipsen, Professor of Communication at the University of Washington, said that Follett’s work has influenced both his teaching and his research. “I have used her in my teaching in two ways,” he said, the first, in his class in Communication, Conflict and Cooperation,[31] where he uses Follett’s definition and theory of conflict to lay out “a basic principle that others have extended” (e.g., Jeffrey Eiseman and Norman Maier, in their respective works). The second way Philipsen uses Follett’s work in his teaching is by teaching Follett’s ideas of the constructive use of conflict and the integrated solution (as described earlier) in his classes in group discussion.

            In addition to implementing Follett’s ideas directly into his teaching, Philipsen has also found Follett’s work relevant to his research. His current research includes the history of the development of group discussion as an academic subject, in which he found Follett to be “an extremely important figure,” along with Dewey and Schoefield,[32] in the small group discussion movement.

“She [Follett] becomes important for me in the history of this academic subject,” Philipsen said, adding that he also includes her as a subject for his research on the history of group discussion.

Follett’s influence is evident in Philipsen’s original framework for predicting the likelihood of reaching an agreement; that is, that the likelihood of two parties reaching an agreement is equal to the degree of effective communication multiplied by the degree of motivation to cooperate among the parties (LA = EC x M). One of the seven factors that Philipsen includes as contributing to effective communication is dimensionalizing, a concept he says is based largely on Follett’s principle of integration. To dimensionalize, Philipsen explained, is to “express a more sharply focused evaluation along a multi-valued scale of judgment,” as can be seen for example, with the familiar Likert scale. Dimensionalizing enables someone to bring his or her true needs into focus, and by doing so, allows negotiating parties to understand each other more effectively and thus increase their likelihood of achieving resolution.

Another one of Follett’s core ideas that Philipsen integrates into his teaching and research is “the use of communication to unlock or enable the power of the group to draw from the good ideas of the many and use them for the common task.” He also plans to include Follett’s ideas about facts in his future research.[33]

            Philipsen said that although “most contemporary work on conflict is indebted to [Follett]”, it is “typically unacknowledged.” Although it is unclear why her contributions have largely been overlooked, Philipsen believes that it may be because Follett was a female scholar at a time when women’s academic contributions were neither encouraged nor acknowledged.

            Albie Davis, Director of Mediation, District Court, Trial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has written frequently on Follett. “She has taught me to wonder, ‘What are others thinking?  Where does my thinking mesh with theirs?  Where does it differ? How might we integrate the thinking of all to give birth to new ideas?’” Davis has said. [34]

            Although Davis herself did not become aware of Follett’s work until 1989, “after a decade of activity in this field”, she

considers Follett’s work indispensable to the field of conflict resolution. She described Follett’s ideas as “stimulating and

significant” and suggested that those in the field needed “to become reacquainted” with Follett’s work:

               “First of all, her ideas remain fresh and visionary—she is still ahead of her times. . . . Secondly, her ideas deserve to 
be read in full. . . . Lastly, both women and men in the profession should take pride in the fact that a woman originally 
articulated the integrative approach to negotiation.” [35] In “Follett on Facts,” Davis wrote that Follett’s “pragmatic and detailed
analysis of facts still contains lessons for today’s students of conflict resolution.”[36] 
               John Child, a management scholar, has integrated Follett’s ideas on constructive conflict into his recommendations
for management strategies. In a series of 35 case studies of IT introduction in European businesses, Child concluded that a 
participatory approach to problem-solving, as described by Follett, was necessary to achieving effective IT implementation. In 
a similar study of multi-national business ventures in China and Hungary, Child and his associates again concluded that Follett’s
approach of constructive conflict was essential to the successful integration of the foreign investors with the local companies.[37] 

“No power under the sun can put her out”

Mary Parker Follett truly was a public scholar well before her time. Follett chose a life of service to her community over the ivy walls of the academy. She used methods that were qualitative, based on interviews and direct experience, over the preferred quantitative methods of her day. Her approach to conflict embraced diversity and encouraged a holistic approach that involved all parties working together rather than groups hiring experts and working against each other in competition. Follett biographer Joan Tonn has speculated that one of the reasons for Follett’s obscurity after her death was that her ideas were simply ahead of the times in which Follett lived. In fact, many scholars (e.g., Benjamin Barber, Albie Davis, Gerry Philipsen, and John Child) characterize Follett’s work as just as relevant and forward-thinking in 2004 as it was during her lifetime. Today her work is used in many disciplines and around the world. Simply put, her work has endured.

Public scholarship has been defined as scholarship that “directly engage[s] the world beyond the academy”, assessed in part by its “impact and reach”.[38] Certainly, Follett’s work in organizational communication directly engaged the world beyond the academy both during her lifetime and in the present day. The “impact and reach” of Follett’s work is evident in her work with the community centers movement, which changed the national social landscape, and the adoption of her ideas across disciplines, in public and academic arenas around the world. Follett held a passionate conviction that women were inseparable from politics: “Woman is in politics; no power under the sun can put her out.”[39] Her life certainly upheld that conviction. Some 70 years after her death, Follett’s ideas continue to shine brightly, retaining their “clarity, force, and practical relevance”[40] for both the academy and the community at large.

 

 



[1] For a useful overview of Follett’s life and work, particularly her contributions to education, see http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-foll.htm.

[2]Albie M. Davis, “Liquid Leadership: The Wisdom of Mary Parker Follett (1868 - 1933)”, (August 1997). Available at http://sunsite.utk.edu/FINS/Mary_Parker_Follett/Fins-MPF-03.txt.

[3] Albie M. Davis, “An interview with Mary Parker Follett, Negotiation Journal, (July 1989).

[4] Albie M. Davis, “Follett on facts: Timely advice from an ADR pioneer,” Negotiation Journal, (April 1991), pp. 131-138.

[5]Quoted in Joan Tonn’s biography of Follett, Mary P. Follett, (New Haven, CT, 2003), p. 385.

[6] Joan Tonn, Mary P. Follett, (New Haven, CT, 2003), p. 204.

[7] Joan Tonn, Mary P. Follett, (New Haven, CT, 2003), p. 360.

[8] Gerry Philipsen, COM474 lecture, University of Washington, May 27, 2004.

[9] According to Joan Tonn, “In the 1880s, less than 2 percent of women aged eighteen to twenty-one enrolled in college. . .” (p. 38).

[10] Joan Tonn, Mary P. Follett, (New Haven, CT, 2003), p. 4.

[11] Follett taught seminars at Oxford University, Harvard University, and the London School of Economics, for example.

[12] Joan Tonn, Mary P. Follett, (New Haven, CT, 2003), p. 126.

[13] Joan Tonn, Mary P. Follett, (New Haven, CT, 2003), p. 144.

[14] Joan Tonn, Mary P. Follett, (New Haven, CT, 2003), p. 204-205.

[15]See  http://sunsite.utk.edu/FINS/Mary_Parker_Follett/Fins-MPF-01.html for an electronic version of The New State.

[16] Joan Tonn, Mary P. Follett, (New Haven, CT, 2003), p. 4.

[17] John Child, “Follett: Constructive conflict,” Mary Parker Follett—Prophet of management: A celebration of writings from the 1920s, (Cambridge, 1995) p. 94.

[18] This material was obtained from lectures with Dr. Gerry Philipsen, Professor of  Communication, University of Washington, Spring quarter 2004.

[19] Quoted in Mary Parker Follett, “Constructive conflict,” Mary Parker Follett—Prophet of management: A celebration of writings from the 1920s, (Cambridge, 1995), p. 86.

[20] Mary Parker Follett, “Constructive conflict,” Mary Parker Follett—Prophet of management: A celebration of writings from the 1920s, (Cambridge, 1995), p. 86.

[21] Mary Parker Follett, “Constructive conflict,” Mary Parker Follett—Prophet of management: A celebration of writings from the 1920s, (Cambridge, 1995), p. 69.

[22] Mary Parker Follett, “Constructive conflict,” Mary Parker Follett—Prophet of management: A celebration of writings from the 1920s, (Cambridge, 1995), p. 73.

[23] Mary Parker Follett, “Constructive conflict,” Mary Parker Follett—Prophet of management: A celebration of writings from the 1920s, (Cambridge, 1995), p. 79.

[24] Joan Tonn, Mary P. Follett, (New Haven, CT, 2003), p. 180.

[25] (New York, 1965).

[26]Jeffrey Eiseman, “Reconciling ‘incompatible’ positions,” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, (1978), pp. 133-150.

[27] Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to yes, (New York, 1991).

[28] Joan Tonn, Mary P. Follett, (New Haven, CT, 2003), p. 492.

[29] Joan Tonn, Mary P. Follett, (New Haven, CT, 2003).

[30] Such as John Child, who acknowledges that since discovering her work in 1967, “Follett has influenced almost every facet of my teaching and research”. “Follett: Constructive conflict,” Mary Parker Follett—Prophet of management: A celebration of writings from the 1920s, (Cambridge, 1995) p. 88.

[31]Gerry Philipsen, COM 474, University of Washington, Spring quarter 2004.

[32] Alfred D. Schoefield was the first scholar in the field of communication to write about group discussion. Incidentally, he and his wife were close friends of Follett’s.

[33] For a discussion of Follett’s ideas about facts see Albie M. Davis, “Follett on facts: Timely advice from an ADR pioneer,” Negotiation Journal, (April 1991), pp. 131-138.

[34] Albie M. Davis, “Liquid Leadership: The Wisdom of Mary Parker Follett (1868 - 1933)”, (August 1997). Available at 
http://sunsite.utk.edu/FINS/Mary_Parker_Follett/Fins-MPF-03.txt. 

[35] Albie M. Davis, “An interview with Mary Parker Follett, Negotiation Journal, (July 1989), p. 235.

[36] Albie M. Davis, “Follett on facts: Timely advice from an ADR pioneer,” Negotiation Journal, (April 1991), pp. 131-138.

[37] John Child, “Follett: Constructive conflict,” Mary Parker Follett—Prophet of management: A celebration of writings from the 1920s, (Cambridge, 1995).

[38] Ad Hoc Committee on Public Scholarship, (May 2004), “Draft statement on public scholarship,” Department of Communication, University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

[39] Joan Tonn, Mary P. Follett, (New Haven, CT, 2003), p. 179.

[40] John Child, “Follett: Constructive conflict,” Mary Parker Follett—Prophet of management: A celebration of writings from the 1920s, (Cambridge, 1995), p. 88.