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The Management Theory of Mary Parker Follett

Sean Peek
Sean Peek
business.com Contributing Writer
Updated Sep 20, 2022

Mary Parker Follett's management theory increases coordination among leaders and workers.

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 businesses 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 on the importance of managers and supervisors “powering with” employers 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.”

Follett practiced these principles of coordination that helped develop her theory of management.

  • Direct contact: Direct contact between employees and managers helps organizations avoid conflict and misunderstandings. Holding regular meetings or discussing assignments in person is a simple way to practice this principle. [See our top tips for more productive meetings.]
  • Early stages: Managers should learn and master coordination straightaway. No employee should feel less important than the next; each has a significant role that complements 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 one 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.

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. 

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

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 pre-established transparent communication system facilitates honest discussions about desires versus needs and allows a win-win situation for all parties involved. 

Follett’s theory and management philosophy aid 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, regardless of hierarchy, to promote responsibility, collaboration and communication.

Using Follett’s principles

There are three key principles in Follett’s management theory. Using them will foster interpersonal relationships among leaders and employees that empower your staff and boost coordination.

Integration

Follett argued 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, which are often compatible, can lead to a win-win outcome.

Achieving integration involves holding 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’

Rather than establishing a strict hierarchy and delegating power to certain individuals over others, Follett believed leaders should practice co-active power. Powering with your team is better than controlling them; this way, each member feels just as valued as the next. Through Follett’s lens, this offers a way for high-level staffers and lower workers to stop trying to take control of each other and instead take control of a situation as a united front.

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. 

Follett didn’t recommend entirely eliminating a hierarchy structure, however. That organizational format is still crucial, but employees should not feel like they are less valuable to the business 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 of workers and customers. If this selfless mindset prevails, everyone involved will feel like they’re on the same team rather than in competition. [Learn more about 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. Amid 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.]

Bottom LineBottom Line: Small businesses that prioritize employee engagement and satisfaction will benefit from incorporating the principles of Follett’s management theory in 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.

Increases 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 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. 

Allows for flexibility

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

Follett’s preference for two-way confidential conversations is handy when allowing for flexibility in small business settings. Leaders and staffers must build mutual trust so either party is comfortable coming to the other with problems or conflict to find win-win solutions by anticipating, rather than avoiding, problems and pushback. 

FYIFYI: Other management theories you may want to consider for your company come from the likes of sociologist Max Weber and academic Henry Mintzberg.

Encourages a flat hierarchy structure

Again, Follett didn’t believe in doing away with hierarchy entirely. Instead, small businesses have an opportunity to take advantage of flat hierarchy structures – structures with little to no middle management between employees and executives. Because small companies often operate with smaller teams than large corporations, executives and business owners can facilitate closer relationships with their employees and “power with” them instead of “power 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.

Supports 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 the sales floor could provide interesting insights to a co-worker specifically 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.

Sammi Caramela contributed to the writing and research in this article. 

Image Credit:

stockfour / Shutterstock

Sean Peek
Sean Peek
business.com Contributing Writer
Sean Peek has written more than 100 B2B-focused articles on various subjects including business technology, marketing and business finance. In addition to researching trends, reviewing products and writing articles that help small business owners, Sean runs a content marketing agency that creates high-quality editorial content for both B2B and B2C businesses.