III. Mary Parker Follett's theory of power circularity and workplace democracy

Fox, (1968), O'Connor (1998a, b; 1999c) and Calas and Smircich (1996) have argued that Follett's (1898, 1918, 1919 1924, 1941) work has been largely ignored. Here, we will concentrate on an aspect of Follett's "power circularity" theories which can contribute to the contemporary work on the empowerment/emancipation debate. To begin, we first will place Follett's work in the context of the ongoing debates of her own time.

Follett was a mediating voice in the intense controversies over industrial democracy at the beginning of the 20th century. According to O'Connor (1998a, b) Follett and her close colleagues Ordway Tead, Alfred Sheffield, Henry Metcalf, and particularly H. A. Overstreet shared views of industrial democracy based on the work of John Dewey. Tead, Ordway, and Metalf (1920: 1) wrote a book Personnel Administration: Its Principles and Practices that supported the workers' council plan in industrial management. Ordway Tead (1919), a prominent industrial engineer, testified that the honest conviction of many employers who were announcing plans of employee representation, was expressed in the statement, "If I give my workers a voice in control, there will be no place for any outside organization." (3)

The scientific management approaches of Follett's day also had anti-union overtones. "The advocates of scientific management" writes Miller (1922:79) "have claimed that industrial justice can be attained best by the rule of competent managers with their staff of scientific experts." And he adds, "the scientific managers have indeed been sadly disillusioned in assuming that workers would accept the opinion of scientific experts on matters of justice." Justice included redistribution of dividends instead of excessive profiteering. Meaningful participation can educate workers on financial matters, even opening the books to convince workers that excessive profiteering does not exist, and that labor is not sweating. But such situations can be faked, where false data is provided by management experts to deceive labor representatives (Miller, 1922: 83). Our reading of Follett is that she sought to temper scientific management with her own science of the situation, one in which management and workers together cooperated to define not only productivity but situations of social justice.

Was Follett part of the non-union council movement, or did she advocate a more direct form of workers' governance and democratic industrial management of the entire firm? Follett's (1924: 20) work certainly centers on the democratic organization of industry. As she puts it "The world has long been bumbling for democracy, but has not yet grasped its essential and basic idea" (Follett 1941: 94). Her (1941: 89-90) focus was on educating workers in a "knowledge of the general business and trade policy-adjustment of supply and demand, prospective contracts, even the opening of new markets" to make democratic governance workable. O'Connor (1998a, b; 1999c) has already done extensive and excellent reviews of how Follett collaborated with disciples of John Dewey and the HR movement (1999b, c). We direct interested readers to O'Connor's work. Here, we want to point out how the democratic organization movement is being reenvisioned in the debate about empowerment and disempowerment. In this contemporary debate, we think that the issue no one is talking about is differences over the philosophy of democracy, and democracy's relationship to power. This is why it is useful to go back 75 years to look at how Follett handled it.

Dewey (1982a, b) and others advocated that the political practice of democracy and industrial autonomy be extended to the workplace, but were opposed by "democratic realists" such as Lippman (1925) and Lasswell (1930).

The democratic realists argued for a restricted concept of democracy on the premise that the populace lacked the necessary knowledge to make good decisions for the whole, and that it was too easily swayed by emotional appeals (O'Connor, 1998a: 18).

It is this restricted construct of democratic realism that is unspoken yet influential in contemporary empowerment-disempowerment debates. The Dewey-workplace reform movement in the twenties and thirties, following World War I, stressed the importance of employee participation, representation and voice (Croly, 1914; Tarbell, 1916; Plumb & Roylance, 1923; Brandeis, 1934; Tead, 1938, 1939). Yet, the employers favored limited forms of worker democracy, while guild socialists and cooperativists favored worker ownership and governance.

Tead and Metcalf (1933: 501-502), who worked closely with Follett, took a position that is being revived in today's corporate charter movement: "institutions exist not for their own sake or for the benefit of some small group which momentarily controls them. They exist to minister to the life of the entire community." The more recent corporate charter movement reasserts the claims of the founders of the Declaration of Independence, that corporate governance should be decentralized into the hands of community and employee stakeholders (Korten, 1995). While certainly not a critical or postmodern theorist, Follett had a philosophical way of not being trapped into dualities, into either-or thinking. Follett's contribution comes from her efforts to transcend dualities. Through her concepts such as "interpenetration" and "interweaving" she did a prototypical deconstructive move, which Derrida refers to as resituation.

Follett did not buy into one of the most basic dualities: capital versus labor: "You can be for labor without being against capital; you can be for the institution" (1941: 82). She also sought to reconcile other dualities such as centralization and decentralization, by exploring the meaning of collective responsibility. Instead of management versus labor control, she resituated the problematic duality as joint control. Again she applied the concept of "interpenetration." For example, Follett asserted (1941: 78) "The joint responsibility of management and labor is an interpenetrating responsibility, and is utterly different from responsibility divided into sections, management having some and labor some" (1941: 78).

Follett wrote of the science of the situation, for both management and labor to study the situation at hand, but not rely upon scientific experts (as in the case of Taylorism). Follett advocated what would today be termed "joint search" or "joint-conference" search committees to jointly research the facts and values of situations. She was the first advocate of situation-search models of leadership and cooperation. Addressing the issue of management and employee qualifications for joint-conferencing, Follett contended that this activity had to also involve interpenetration: "the willingness to search for the real values involved on both sides and the ability to bring about an interpenetration of these values" (1941: 181). We believe that this is more than just the ploy and decoy of non-union shop committees.

O'Connor's (1998b: 12) work notes that interpenetration comes from Follett's reading of Hegel (1975: 161). Follett (1941: 200) also references the work of Whitehead's philosophy of "the interplay of diverse values." "A genuine interweaving or interpenetrating by changing both sides creates new situations" (p. 200). This concept of interpenetration is central to how Follett taught management and workers to overcome dualities. "This is the problem in business administration: how can a business be so organized that workers, managers, owners feel a collective responsibility?" (p. 81). Follett saw labor-management functional structural divisions as artificial, and saw "managing itself is an interpenetrating matter, that the distinction between those who manage and those who are managed is somewhat fading" (p. 84). Similarly, Follett noted "No sharp line can be drawn between planning and executing" (p. 88), nor between business policy and department policy (p. 92). In sum, Follett resituates duality after duality.

Follett's theory of "collective creativeness" anticipates network theories of interorganizational and transorganizational cooperation. An industry as a whole could cooperate, (1941: 92-4), and she thought that economic forces could be controlled for the general good, which included an end to environmental exploitation. "Efficient management has to take the place of that exploitation of our natural resources whose day is now nearly over" (p. 122). As an idealist, she envisioned business as a public and community service. This view parallels what we reviewed above in guild socialism. This idea of industry-wide and national cooperation embeds empowerment within a firm, in a wider industry-level context of cooperative democracy.

In addition to her richly contextualized discussions of power, Follett also addresses the nature and purpose of power. She begins her essay on power by asking, "What do you want power for?" (p. 97). She did not favor accumulating power to further the struggle between capital and labor, or to fulfill the desire for power. She distinguishes between power-over and power with, or co-active power rather than coercive power (Follett, 1924: 101).


Our task is not to learn where to place power; it is how to develop power Genuine power can only be grown, it will slop from every arbitrary hand that grasps it; for genuine power is not coercive control, but coactive control. Coercive power is the curse of the universe; coactive power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul. (Follett, 1924: xii).

If managers or workers win you have power-over. In her advocacy for cooperative forms of corporate governance Follett (1941: 106) noted " we have not got rid of power-over in the cooperatives. I do not think we shall ever get rid of power-over; I do think we should try to reduce it."

Follett has what she calls a "circular" theory of power whereby managers, workers, and other stakeholders influence each other. O'Connor (1998b: 12) notes that "From Hegel, Follett (and others, including Dewey) took the concept of circularity and unity." Hegel's circularity concept suggests that " no thing or concept stands by itself but gains its meaning from its relationship to a whole web of other things and concepts" (Dallmayr, 1993: 3). This can be seen in the following excerpt from Follett (1941):

Circular behavior is the basis of integration. If your business is so organized that you can influence a co-manager while he is influencing you, so organized that a workman has an opportunity of influencing you as you have of influencing him; if there is an interactive influence going on all the time between you, power-with may be built up (p. 105).

Follett (1924: 69) also argues that facts change their values over time. She calls this "circular" as opposed to linear behavior: "We can never understand the total situation without taking into account the evolving situation. And when a situation changes we have not a new variation under the old fact, but a new fact." To Follett (19941: 105-6) analysis of the situation, and not withholding facts, reduces power-over in relationships.

In sum, Follett recontextualizes empowerment-disempowerment in a broader framework of democratic cooperative governance, not just of the firm, but its interorganizational, joint-stakeholder context within the industry and the society. We will assert that her theory of cooperative power or power-with, anticipates a way to resituate the empowerment-disempowerment duality.

Beyond the Empowerment-Disempowerment Duality. Follett transcends the empowerment-disempowerment duality in three steps. Follett's first move is to differentiate delegation from power: "I do not think that power can be delegated because I believe that genuine power is capacity" (p. 109). "Power is not a pre-existing thing which can be handed out to someone, or wrenched from someone (p. 111)." In other words, you can not empower another. The HR empowerment writers, we believe, confuse this point, too often viewing empowerment as a form of delegation. Second, Follett redefines the role of managers: "where the managers come in is that they should give workers a chance to grow capacity or power for themselves" (p. 109). This position is consistent with the critical writers who argue that true empowerment can not be bestowed by benevolent management. Intuitively if not explicitly, Follett realized that bestowing power only reinforces the dualism of powerful-powerless, thus ultimately maintaining the superior position of the powerful. (e.g. Boje & Dennehy, 1993: 204-205, Jacques, 1996). Follett's third and final step resituates the duality of either/or by offering her theory of co-active power: "the aim of every form of organization, should be not to share power, but to increase power, to seek the methods by which power can be increased in all" (1941: 182). In sum, power for Follett is a self-developing capacity (p. 110), not a zero-sum game resulting in power-with, not power-over. These three moves, to us, open up a new angle on the contemporary empowerment-disempowerment duality.

Next we would like to relate Follett's theory of power-circularity to Clegg's (1989) theory of circuits of power.


Press Left Arrow to go Back or Right Arrow to see Section IV.


This paper proceeds From Title/Abstract  through 7 steps: (1) briefly reviewing the current empowerment-disempowerment debate; (2) contextualizing Mary Parker Follett's work with a review of the democratic workplace movements of Marxist socialism, trade unionism, guilds, cooperatives, and non-union workers' councils; (3) discussing Follett's theory of co-active power circularity, with its roots in Hegel's and Dewey's philosophy; (4) summarizing Clegg's circuits of power theory; (5) combining Follett's power-as-capacity concept with Clegg's circuits of power in an assimilative reading we term "co-power," which can move us beyond today's empowerment-disempowerment duality; (6) drawing implications for organizational development and change practices regarding co-power as a way of linking micro and macro issues; and (7) offering conclusions regarding co-power as a way of increasing the effectiveness of organizational change efforts. (And References).