Heroes of Employee Engagement: No.2 Mary Parker Follett

James Young
Heroes of Employee Engagement: No.2 Mary Parker Follett

Meet Mary Parker Follett, the “Mother of Modern Management” and a woman « far ahead of her time« . She was born in America in the 1860s, studied at Cambridge, came from a well-off Quaker family and dedicated herself to being a social worker. All in addition to being one of the founders of organisational group dynamics theory.

Follett and organisational theory

Follett came to management theory from an unusual angle. Not long after graduating, she became a social worker in one of Boston’s poorer neighbourhoods. Follett noted the damaging effect that a lack of community space had on the people around her, and set about creating social and educational groups. This was the beginning of her research into group dynamics.

Her central theory – that individuals and society shape each other – came from community centres, not the boardroom. Later, when she translated her theories to the workplace, she found the same dynamics applied: a group would be successful if allowed to define its own roles and work collaboratively.

She developed the idea of leadership through ‘power with’ not ‘power over’: in other words, the true leader focuses on collaboration, with conflict resolved through compromise. Her ideas were received positively: the woman once rejected by men-only Harvard was headhunted by President Roosevelt for business advice.

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Applying Follett’s research to employee engagement

After Follett’s death, her work was largely forgotten. However, towards the middle of the 20th-century there was a resurgence of interest in ‘soft’ organisational theory, including Elton Mayo’s Human Relations Movement, which expanded on Follett’s group dynamic theories.

Follett’s incredibly modern-seeming approach has a simple central message: employees will be more engaged, productive and happy if they’re given autonomy within their roles, treated as intelligent individuals and allowed to work cooperatively.

Understanding Follett’s theories as engagement ‘drivers’

Follett argued that a single leader model, with a typical ‘boss’ figure barking out orders, could never be truly successful in a complex organisation. Allowing groups to use their own ideas and experience not only harnesses a great intelligence resource, it also empowers employees by acknowledging their individual skills.

Working a century after Follett, how can today’s managers apply her theories of group dynamics? Try increasing opportunities for colleagues to work together by establishing project teams or open-plan offices. Allow individuals greater flexibility to achieve their appraisal targets in their own way: your goals may be fixed, but how they’re reached doesn’t have to be.

Follett is sometimes credited with coining the term ‘win-win’; encouraging employee Autonomy is certainly a win-win for both the organisation and the individual.

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