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Updated May 07, 2024

The Management Theory of Mary Parker Follett

Discover how Follett’s principles of “powering with” and collaborating with employees can benefit your business.

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Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
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Widely regarded as one of the most influential management experts in the early days of classical management theory, Mary Parker Follett used psychology and human relations within industrial management to revolutionize organizational behavior theory. Follett was a social worker, author, lecturer and management consultant who provided personal advice to countless individuals, including President Theodore Roosevelt.

Follett’s management theory, particularly its focus on coordination and employee engagement, remains relevant to small and midsize businesses (SMBs) today. Discover how to implement Follett’s principles in your company for organizational success.

The management theory of Mary Parker Follett

Follett, known as the “mother of modern management,” believed management was “the art of getting things done through people.” Though she never managed a for-profit enterprise, she offered valuable insight into the importance of managers and supervisors “powering with” employees, rather than “powering over” them, and collaborating with workers to solve conflicts. 

“Leadership is not defined by the exercise of power but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those led,” Follett famously said. “The most essential work of the leader is to create more leaders.”

To develop her theory of management, Follett practiced these principles of coordination:

  • Direct contact: Direct contact between employees and managers helps organizations avoid conflict and misunderstandings. Holding regular meetings and discussing assignments in person are simple ways to practice this principle. [See our top tips for more productive meetings.]
  • Early stages: Managers should learn and master coordination right away. No employee should feel less important than another; each has a significant role that complements the others.
  • Reciprocal relationship: Every worker, regardless of their level in the hierarchy, is responsible for pulling their weight and integrating with the rest of the organization. No single person should be trying less or more than another; it’s a team effort.
  • Continuous process: Managers must maintain coordination. Don’t just learn these principles and forget about them; channel them in everything you do.

Benefits of following Follett’s management theory

Follett’s management theory is still in favor today. Small businesses and employee-centric companies may find profound success by adopting certain elements of her theory for everyday practices.

Because organizations often hinge on employee satisfaction, building reciprocal leader-worker relationships boosts morale and fosters an open, collaborative environment that enables employees to anticipate and address conflict rather than avoid it. In addition, when conflicts arise, a preestablished, transparent communication system facilitates honest discussions about desires versus needs and allows a win-win situation for all parties involved. 

Follett’s management philosophy aids small businesses and employee-first business models by including successful employee engagement in a company’s overall business goals. Her principle of group power gives ownership to employees at every level of the business to promote responsibility, collaboration and communication.

Did You Know?Did you know
Follett’s background in social work informed her management theory and established frameworks used generations after her death.

Using Follett’s principles

There are three key principles in Follett’s management theory: integration, “power with” and group power. Using them will foster interpersonal relationships among leaders and employees, ultimately empowering your staff and boosting coordination.

Integration

Follett argued that workers of all levels should integrate to reach a business’s goals. If a conflict occurs, there should be a conscious effort to pull instead of push, and to work together as a team to resolve the issue. Because each member is doing their part, they’ll be more likely to be content with the result. [Follow our guide to setting better business goals.]

Follett’s approach to conflict resolution through integration often produces beneficial results for all parties. Her “push versus pull” concept illustrates the importance of meeting every side of a conflict’s underlying needs rather than its spoken desires. Identifying and addressing each group’s needs can lead to a win-win outcome.

Achieving integration involves transparent conversations with executives and employees about differences, interests, desires, needs and conflicts, and finding an agreeable solution. The integration principle works because you find actionable solutions to internal and external conflicts and discard unnecessary personal drama.

“Power with”

Follett’s “power with” philosophy provides an alternative to the coercive, traditional “power over” approach. In the latter, managers have power over employees, supervisors have power over managers, and business owners have power over supervisors, managers and employees. Because many employees prefer not to feel controlled or patronized, Follett’s “power with” principle encourages collaboration among all levels of the established hierarchy without disparaging those at a lower level. “Power with” boosts morale, may prevent absenteeism and can enrich the entire company. 

However, Follett didn’t recommend eliminating hierarchy. Rather, she emphasized that employees should not feel less valuable than their managers.

Group power

Follett made the case that leaders should value group power over personal power. Her theory suggests that true leaders create power for the group rather than keeping it for themselves. After all, organizations do not exist for one person’s benefit but rather for the entire company and customers. If this selfless mindset prevails, everyone involved will feel like they’re on the same team rather than in competition. 

>> Learn more: The influence of leadership styles

A lack of competition between leaders and workers also fosters a sense of safety and can spark increased productivity. Group power enables members of an organization to succeed together and share the excitement in triumphs and the responsibility of failure.

Follett’s principle of group power persists widely today in management as a tool for driving a more inclusive, engaged and motivated workforce. In the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns and the Great Resignation, businesses have shown a renewed commitment to providing a healthy work environment and reducing employee turnover through better coordination. [Learn how to calculate your employee turnover.]

Did You Know?Did you know
Small businesses that prioritize employee engagement and satisfaction will benefit from incorporating the principles of Follett’s management theory into their daily routines and processes.

How Follett’s theory applies to SMBs

Businesses can adopt collaboration, shared values and cohesive goal setting — essential components of Follett’s management theory — to find success. Here are just a few of the benefits companies stand to gain.

Increased employee engagement

The core, forward-thinking belief of Follett’s work — that an employee will be happier, more productive and more engaged if given the autonomy to complete their job — remains at the center of many successful work environments today. Follett’s principles motivate employees to increase their engagement and loyalty to an organization by establishing ownership and responsibility for success within each level of a hierarchy.

Types of employee engagement depend on the industry, company size and other factors, but a typical method includes empowering employees to collaborate. Establishing teams for projects, holding virtual meetings during remote work times, and designing an open floor plan with designated creativity spaces can encourage employee engagement through collaboration. 

Flexibility

Within autonomy lies flexibility. By establishing personal ownership of company goals while allowing for flexibility in reaching them, employers communicate that they trust their employees to find the most efficient and productive way to contribute to the team. Flexibility also allows for agile, creative problem-solving to find effective solutions that benefit the business in the long run.

Follett’s preference for two-way confidential conversations helps with providing flexibility in small business settings. Leaders and staffers must build mutual trust so both parties are comfortable discussing problems. This way, they can address issues before they escalate. 

FYIDid you know
Even though small businesses often lack the large and impersonal institutional structure of major corporations, fostering a culture of autonomy and flexibility in your organization remains important to help it adapt quickly to changes in your industry.

Flat hierarchy

Again, Follett didn’t believe in eliminating hierarchy. Instead, she said small businesses have an opportunity to take advantage of a “flat hierarchy,” meaning a structure with little or no middle management between employees and executives. Because small companies often operate with small teams, executives and business owners can facilitate closer relationships with their employees and “power with” them instead of “powering over” them. 

In addition, employees at small businesses often wear many hats to accomplish business goals. In this environment, executives can champion the “power with” principle by expressing gratitude for the value each employee brings to the organization as a whole.

Cross-team employee collaboration

Successful businesses champion two-way relationships between executives and employees just as much as relationships among co-workers. Buddy systems, mentor-mentee relationships and other partnership programs that encourage collaboration between staffers who don’t often work together offer several advantages for small businesses. Not only do such partnerships help each party learn about the other’s responsibilities in the organization’s shared objectives, but they can also learn different skills from each other that will bolster opposite sides of the business. 

For example, at a niche boutique, someone working on the sales floor could provide interesting insights to a co-worker who’s focused on growing web traffic to the business’s online store, and vice versa. Similarly, an employee working intake and reception in a medical testing center could offer observations to their peers who work primarily with patients after initial processing. Cross-team collaboration is another aspect of Follett’s management theory that lends itself well to organizational coordination.

Alternatives to Follett’s management theory

While Follett remains an influential figure in management theory, she is not the only authority that contemporary managers draw on when looking into the best way to organize workplaces. Here are four other management theories for your business to explore.

Weber management theory explained

Nineteenth- and 20th-century German sociologist Max Weber believed that a highly organized government bureaucracy should be the go-to model for business management. According to Weber, in an ideal bureaucracy, all employees are treated equally and judged only by their skills and expertise. Weber believed that by distributing tasks and responsibilities in a highly regimented manner according to the talent and training of employees, businesses could guarantee both efficiency and profits.

Mintzberg management theory explained

Henry Mintzberg, an author on management best practices and a professor of management studies at McGill University, differs by prioritizing the personal experience and aptitude of employees. He argues that hierarchy and structure in the workplace should change often according to the shifting needs of the organization, as well as the skills, talents and predispositions of workers. Mintzberg advocates for a management practice that simplifies and delegates tasks as much as possible, allowing individual employees to grow, develop and take on responsibilities as needed.

Kanter management theory explained

Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter advocates for change management — the process of encouraging positive change in the organization and its stakeholders. There are six key steps in Kanter’s change management theory of organization: show up, speak up, look up, team up, never give up and lift others up. Kanter argues that by continually working toward a workplace environment that is transparent, collaborative and committed to growth, organizations can bring about positive changes in employees’ mindsets and behavior, thereby fostering loyalty, enthusiasm, growth and success. 

Taylor management theory explained

The management theory of mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor  — sometimes called classical management theory or scientific management theory — emphasizes both the efficiency of processes and the positive reinforcement of employee success. Four basic principles form Taylor’s arguments:

  1. Each aspect of work should have a science to it. 
  2. Employers should use a scientific approach to select, train and develop their employees.
  3. Employees and employers must collaborate to achieve the best results.
  4. Employers should divide responsibilities among their team, trusting employees to carry out their tasks while providing the appropriate training and support.

Taylor’s writing and attitude toward workforce management are often compared to the more authoritarian approach preferred by proponents of Weber’s management theory, with Taylor being credited as moving management practice in a more democratic and collaborative direction.

Sammi Caramela contributed to this article.

author image
Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
Sean Peek co-founded and self-funded a small business that's grown to include more than a dozen dedicated team members. Over the years, he's become adept at navigating the intricacies of bootstrapping a new business, overseeing day-to-day operations, utilizing process automation to increase efficiencies and cut costs, and leading a small workforce. This journey has afforded him a profound understanding of the B2B landscape and the critical challenges business owners face as they start and grow their enterprises today. In addition to running his own business, Peek shares his firsthand experiences and vast knowledge to support fellow entrepreneurs, offering guidance on everything from business software to marketing strategies to HR management. In fact, his expertise has been featured in Entrepreneur, Inc. and Forbes and with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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