Unformatted text preview: Organization Man
William Whyte's classic, read in multiple parts
An in-depth review summary of the classic by William Whyte, with my 21st century
The Organization Man by William Whyte: Introduction
The Ideology of the Organization Man
The Training of the Organization Man The Organization Man by William Whyte: Introduction
By: Venkat on November 18, 2008 William Whyte's 1956 classic, The Organization Man is far too embedded culturally to be
'reviewed' today, even as a classic. The book can only be read within its context, and
reconstructed for 2008. It is also much too dense and nuanced to dispose off in a single
post, like I do most books. So I am going to start my first-ever multi-part series devoted to a
single book; the book that began the study of worker archetypes, 52 years ago. If you want
to follow along, make sure you buy the 2002 reissue edition, with a great foreword by
Fortune Magazine executive editor, Joseph Nocera. Since I have to do a bit of setup, in this
first part, I'll only get as far as Chapter 1. In future parts, I'll try to do 3-4 chapters at once.
Let's start by reviewing the cultural impact of the original. The best-known artifact of course,
is Apple's famous 1984 commercial (YouTube video here), which owes as much to Whyte as
to Orwell for its arresting imagery. Page 1/12 The Origins and Cultural Impact of 'Organization Man' Whyte's critical portrait of post World War II corporate America, and the suburban lifestyle it created, is next only to Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in influencing how we think about work. In many ways, it is in fact an updated
version of Weber's arguments, against what Whyte saw as a culture that had drifted much too far from the individualist, competitive and Darwinian ethos to which Weber attributed the growth of the West. Any book which creates an iconic cultural image will necessarily itself be reduced to caricature. In Whyte's case, his nuanced (if unsympathetic portrait) of his subject ended up reduced to a strawman collectivist figure, as in the 1984 Apple commercial. Some have
assumed, without reading the book, that it is a case against organizations and for nonconformity. This was explicitly not Whyte's intent. As he says: This book is not a plea for nonconformity. Such pleas have an occasional therapeutic value, but as an abstraction, nonconformity is an empty goal, and rebellion against prevailing opinion merely because it is prevailing should no more be praised than
acquiescence to it. Indeed, it is often a mask for cowardice, and few are more pathetic than those who flaunt outer differences to expiate their inner surrender. ...there will be no strictures in this book against "Mass Man"... nor will there be any strictures against
ranch wagons, or television sets, or gray flannel suits... the man who drives a Buick Special and lives in a ranch-type house just like hundreds of other ranch-type houses can assert himself as effectively and courageously against his particular society as the Page 2/12 bohemian against his particular society...the fault is not in organization, in short; it is in our worship of it. It is in our vain quest for a utopian equilibrium...it is in the soft-minded denial that there is a conflict between the individual and society. We'll consider Whyte's ideas in their original sophisticated forms, but you will need to make a conscious effort to think deeper than the default simplistic imagery associated with the phrase 'Organization Man'. The book rings very true and very current, which
makes sense, since if we are right about cloudworker economics, we are seeing a partial return to a form of work that is a century old. A form of work whose loss Whyte was bemoaning, since he wrote about its antithetical form, the corporation, in its heyday. But
before we dive into the first 3 chapters, here are some examples of how The Organization Man managed to frame the discourses around work for 50 years: The 1984 Apple commercial I already mentioned
The image of suburbia in The Stepford Wives
Malvina Reynolds famous 1962 song Little Boxes on the Hillside, which was also used as the theme song for the Showtime suburbia drama, Weeds.
And of course, all the literature about work since TOM. Peter Capelli's Talent On Demand is a a good example of TOM-informed analysis, as is all of Dan Pink's work.
The notion of empty suit to describe a useless, faceless warm body
The surreal Coen brothers' movie, The Hudsucker Proxy The list goes on (do post other examples you know of in the comments). Whyte himself tired of Organization Man related work after about eight years and spent the rest of his life as an urbanologist, exploring the culture of cities. Some day I may blog about that. But let's dive into the text itself. Chapter 1: Introduction Whyte begins the book with an open declaration that while his project is a journalistic in nature, his own views are strongly unsympathetic towards the culture he is about to dissect. The setup begins with a compact definition. Whyte is setting up talk about a specific social ethic: By social ethic I mean that contemporary body of thought which makes morally legitimate the pressures of society against the individual. Its major propositions are three: a belief in the group as the source of creativity; a belief in "belongingness" as the ultimate need of the individual; and a belief in the application of science to achieve that belongingness. The specific ethic Whyte saw around him was a dreary sort of Utopian anti-individual collectivism. An ethic that represented lifelong and lifeless pre-adulthood and dependence on infantalizing nanny institutions (he calls suburbia the "dormitory" of the organization man). He saw the ethic as pervasive across the Western world, and most prominent in America (us non-Westerners can testify that it has been equally prevalent outside the West: my Dad was a classic Organization Man at Tata Steel between 1959-1993). Whyte saw it as stultifying the creativity of all professions, not just corporate middle managers. To this ethos he attributed the bureaucratization of innovative potential and the professionalization of academe. The organization man pre-adult culture of the 50s was at the other end of the spectrum, relative to the self-reliant adult culture Max Weber admired. Clearly, even then, Whyte anticipated the critique that he might be attacking a strawman. The chapter cogently argues that the trend might well be very long-term, and that dependence on a counter-trend might be misplaced. In this, I believe Whyte was more right than we like to admit. In the preface, Nocera seems to take it for granted that the Organization Man ethos died in the early eighties; that companies today actually prize individualism and individual renegade creativity. But in corporate America, the picture hasn't actually changed as much. There is lip-service to the value of mavericks, and the role of talent over training. But the organization man is still alive and well, and in the majority, even if the corporation is no longer playing Nanny. Two other pieces of Chapter 1 are worth highlighting. First, the commentary on the unique aspects of the American experience. Like Francis Fukuyama did more recently, Whyte points out a fundamental irony about American self-perceptions that was first observed by de Tocqueville: One hundred years ago [now 152] De Tocqueville was noting that though our special genius -- and failing -- lay in cooperative action, we talked more than others of personal independence and freedom. We kept on, and as late as the twenties, when big organization was long since a fact, affirmed the old faith as if nothing had really changed at all. This observation that Americans do not like to admit their collectivist spirit is not new. What is perhaps unfamiliar to people is the weird idea that large American corporations, those bastions of capitalism, might internally be the last bastions of communism. Corporate socialist cultures might outlast the governments of China and Cuba. And we are not talking labor unions here. We are talking about the culturally communist ethos of the managerial class. Something people usually refer to by means of euphemisms like "a consensus-driven culture." I had never thought of this until a reader, tubelite, pointed it out in a comment to one of my earlier posts, and then it seemed obvious. Whyte dissects this schizophrenia particularly eloquently: Collectivism? He abhors it, and when he makes his ritualistic attack on Welfare Statism, it is in terms of a Protestant Ethic undefiled by change -- the sacredness of property, the enervating effect of security, the virtues of thrift, of hard work and independence... He is not being hypocritical, only compulsive. He honestly wants to believe he follows the tenets he extols, Let me conclude this opening post with an extract from the opening paragraph, one of the most difficult that I have read. The part in red I found particularly tough. They are not workers, nor are they the white collar people...in the usual sense of the word. These people only work for The Organization. The ones I am talking about belong to it as well. They are the ones of our middle class who left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions.... In a system that makes such hazy terminology as "junior executive" psychologically necessary, they are of the staff as well as much as the line, and most are destined to live poised in a middle area that still awaits a satisfactory euphemism. This is a very subtle form of the common critique that bureaucratized organizations end up codifying meaningless process over substantive content. The line gets at the essential idea that the organization man, ultimately, is a ghostly, shadowy half-worker. This is Bartleby the Scrivener institutionalized as the norm. And that's the setup. Next time, we'll look at a few more chapters, covering Whyte's analysis of the fall of the Protestant Ethic, the rise of 'Scientism' and the values of Belongingness and Togetherness. The Ideology of the Organization Man
By: Venkat on November 23, 2008 Recap: Last time I introduced William Whyte's 1956 classic, The Organization Man
within a modern context, and we got as far as Chapter 1. We saw that Whyte set Page 3/12 himself the project of describing, carefully if unsympathetically, the collectivist,
anti-individualist 'social ethic' that provided the foundations for modern corporations.
In this post, I will cover Chapters 2-5 (Part 1 of the 7-part, 29-chapter book).
Here's a short version of the argument in Part 1, titled the Ideology of the Organization
Man. Intellectual culture and practical concerns conspired, between 1940-1960, to create a
pseudo-scientific socialist culture within the capitalist corporation. What began as an
instrument to co-opt unionism ultimately swallowed middle management, and the
organization man was born. Where the previous century, 1840-1940 had been dominated by
colorful figures from the top and bottom -- robber barons and fiery unionists -- post WW II
American culture was defined and dominated by the middle layers. Whyte argues that this
layer managed to suck the soul out of leadership and grassroots passion alike. Like the
labor union culture, and unlike the robber-baron culture, it was group-oriented. Unlike the
labor unions though, it was not primarily about unity against oppression or about worker
rights. It was primarily about a corporate deification of the values of community:
belongingness and togetherness. A belief in cooperation and consensus for their own
Let's do the longer version, and as we do so, keep this deja vu question in mind: are 'social'
media falling victim to the same collectivist dangers today? Chapter 2: The Decline of the Protestant Ethic
Whyte is out to describe the life and times of the Organization Man, not discover its root
causes, so the effort he devotes to this is at best a quick broad-strokes study. He concludes
that the social ethic arose as a reactionary response to the protestant ethic of Max Weber.
The protestant ethic, as understood here, was the mature form: the highly competitive,
Darwinian, radical individualism of the robber baron era of capitalist building.
Whyte attributes its decline to two forces: the accumulated entropy of its internal
contradictions, and the rise of opposed intellectual and pragmatic cultures that provided an
alternative (ultimately worse, in Whyte's analysis). On the 'internal contradictions' front, the
ethic became a victim of its own success. It helped organize an unruly and lawless America
into a mass suburban culture driven by the logic of large consumer markets. Protestant-ethic
values fueled the growth of the America as an industrial-scale producer. The ideals, such as
thrift and self-denial, that drove corporate growth, were not exactly helpful in catalyzing a
culture of mass consumption. Whyte quotes a contemporary market researcher:
Helping in this task is what a good part of "motivation research" is all about. Ernest Dichter,
says, "we are now confronted with the problem of permitting the average American to feel
moral even when he...is spending, even when he is not saving, even when he is taking two
vacations a year and buying a second or third car. One of the basic problems of this
prosperity, then, is to give people the sanction and justification to enjoy it and to demonstrate
that the hedonistic approach to his life is a moral, not an immoral one.
The Organization Man culture was exactly this consumption-legitimizing culture, and though
ostensibly built on its own set of collectivist rather than material values, its effect on the
economy was to legitimize consumption, through Organization Man narratives such as The
Good (Suburban) Life, which we'll meet later. Curiously enough, it managed to
Page 4/12 simultaneously stigmatize entrepreneurship for pure profit and wealth as greed. It was moral
to want two cars, but not to want a million dollars.
The second force was an intellectual counter-reaction to the individualism encouraged by
the Protestant Ethic. In a way, this too, was an effect of success: by domesticating Wild
West America, the Protestant Ethic created a culture that needed more structure.
Philosophers such as William James (1842-1910), John Dewey (1859-1952) and Thorstein
Veblen (1857-1929) critiqued the protestant ethic, and erected the counter-arguments that
could legitimize the new, more organized, suburban American culture.
Note though that it is not the careful opinions of these philosophers that Whyte thinks
matters, but the crude and bastardized forms in which they diffused through the culture.
In all this, there is curiously little discussion of the specific historical/contingent causes that
might have been contributors (two World Wars and one Great Depression). Overall though, I
suspect Whyte's analysis would be strengthened, rather than weakened, by adding history.
This chapter had me wondering: was Whyte merely a nostalgic classicist, pining for a
romanticized Golden Age of capitalism? Reading further, you realize that wasn't the case.
Whyte genuinely felt that the individualist values of the protestant ethic were sounder than
those of the collectivist social ethic that replaced it. Full disclosure: so do I.
Chapter 3: Scientism
Philosophers and a diffuse sense of collectivism alone would not have created the
Organization Man. The force that made the collectivist social ethic real was what Whyte calls
Scientism. The culture of Scientism drew in part from grand social engineering models, such
as the General Systems Theory of Ludwig Von Bettanfly, the System Dynamics of Forrester,
and the Cybernetics of Wiener (I peripherally referred to the history of social engineering in
(A personal comment is in order here. As a guy with a PhD in systems and control
theory myself, I've had a love-hate relationship with this body of literature. Nowadays,
I have finally settled into being a skeptic.)
Among the sillier effects of wooly-headed borrowing from science that Whyte notes is the
then-current tendency to turn the mathematical notion of equilibrium into a cultural axiom,
and derive from it a justification for collectivism in terms of 'social equilibrium.' Here's
Whyte's summary critique of Scientism:
The scientific basis can be stated very simply. It is now coming to be widely believed that
science has proved the group superior to the individual. Science has not, but that is another
matter. Mistaken or not, the popularized version of the science of the group is a social force
in its own right...
...Part of the trouble lies in our new-found ability to measure more precisely, the idea that the
successes of natural science were in large measure to the objectiveness of the phenomena
studied eludes social engineers. Median income level of a hundred selected families in an
urban industrial universe correlates .76 with population density-not .78 or .61 but 76, and
that's a fact. The next step beckons: having measured this it seems that there is nothing that
can't be measured. We are purged of bias and somehow by the sheer accumulation of such
bias-free findings, we will pave the basis of a theoretical formula that describes all. Just like
Page 5/12 physics....
This should sound familiar: Whyte is describing a version of Orwell's 1984 (Whyte and
Orwell were born only 15 years apart). After describing (with barely-concealed disgust) the
sorts of 'scientifically legitimized' collectivist organizational roles that were beginning to
emerge in the 50s ("peace planner," "group therapist," "integrative leader," "social
diagnostician"), Whyte comments explicitly on the ideas of his literary contemporary.
As in other such suggested projects the scientific elite is not supposed to give orders. There
runs through all of them a clear notion that questions of policy can be made somewhat
nonpartisan the application of science...[In] the 1984 of Big Brother one would at least know
the enemy was-a bunch of bad men who wanted power because they liked power. But in the
other kind of 1984 one would be disarmed for not knowing who the enemy was, and when
the day of reckoning came the people on the other side of the table wouldn't be Big Brother's
bad henchmen; they would be a mild-looking group of therapists who, like the Grand
Inquisitor, would be doing what they did to help you.
This critique of Scientism would sound dated, except that it isn't. Change a few terms and
you get modern statements of Scientism, to which Whyte's remarks would equally appply.
Consider this bit from The End of Theory, by Chris Anderson of Wired,
Speaking at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference this past March, Peter Norvig,
Google's research director, offered an update to George Box's maxim: "All models are
wrong, and increasingly you can succeed without them."
This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every
other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from
linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people
do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with
unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.
Norvig (and by citation, Anderson) are, quite simply, wrong. I love the original George Box
quote (all models are wrong, some models are useful). Norvig dangerously reduces the idea
of scientific model to "first principles, theoretical model." The "massive amounts of data and
applied mathematics" just substitutes the the hidden assumptions of statistical,
multiple-regression modeling and data-mining for the more explicit ones of first-principles
I don't have room here to go into this in detail, but the takeaway is this: this is one piece of
Whyte's analysis that is still current. Consider, for instance, the recent book, The Dream
Manager (a Nanny Corporation parable about a company that institutes a "dream manager"
position to help employees reach their dreams). Does that come from a very different place
than the idea of a "peace planner?" If System Dynamics led to a deification of equilibrium,
today, bastardized versions of complexity theory similarly deify an obscure notion of
disequilibrium. All of behavioral economics and wisdom-of-crowds thinking can, without
adequate care, end up with the same problems.
The moral and doctrinal values that accompanied Scientism were belongingness and
togetherness, each of which gets its own chapter.
Page 6/12 Chapter 4: Belongingness
The social ethic of the Organization Man relied on ideas from something called the Social
Relations school, founded by sociologist Elton Mayo at Harvard in the fifties, a school of
thought that was concerned with the rootlessness of the industrial worker, and the problem
of reconciling the [assumed] worker's need for belongingness with "the conflicting
allegiances of the complex world he now finds himself in." Somewhere in this intellectual
program, an unquestioned idea crept in, that a single subsuming affiliation (to the Nanny
Corporation), was the solution.
The argument is developed along three fronts. First, there is Mayo's own work, on the social
systems within industrial environments, in particular through an extremely smart set of
experiments at Western Electric in Illinois. Mayo and his colleagues were out to improve
productivity in the classic Taylorist fashion, and found an unusual phenomenon: every
experiment they could think up, ranging from improved lighting to changing schedules,
resulted in improvements in both the test and control groups. They finally concluded that it
was the fact that they were selected for the study, which made the test subjects feel like
they belonged, that resulted in the morale improvements.
Similar conclusions were drawn on two other fronts, Lloyd Warner, studying the New
England town of Newburyport, attributed the dynamics of the community in relation to the
local company (a shoe factory), to the need for belongingness. Elsewhere, Frank
Tannenbaum drew similar inferences from his study of labor unions.
From these studies, an entire ideology was constructed, that redefined management around
the idea of belongingness to the corporation, not just at work, but at home, and in the
community. While the insights may have come from studies of industrial workers, unions and
their communities, ultimately, the effect of the management ideology was on middle
management, as they turned the presumed lessons of the over-extrapolated science on
themselves. The most devastating effect this had was on leadership.
At times it almost seems that human relations is a revolutionary tool the organization man is
to use against the bosses. Listen to an unreconstructed boss give a speech castigating
unreconstructed bosses for not being more enlightened about human relations, and you get
the feeling the speech is a subtle form of revenge on the part of the harried underling who
Whyte's critique of both the underlying science and the widespread impact on management
theology, is extremely sharp, he lampoons the vague and over-complicated sociological
analysis (which relied, in part, on the idea of cultural memory of Middle Age fiefdoms,
assumed as older models of effective belongingness):
Someday someone is going to create a stir by proposing a radical tool for the study of
people. It will be called the Face-Value Technique. It be based on the premise that people
often do what they do for the reasons they think they do. The use of this technique world
lead to many pitfalls, for it is undeniably true people do not always act logically or say what
they mean. But wonder if it would produce findings any more unscientific than opposite
course [of complicated socio-historical analysis].
Whyte's main point is that an abstract, practically metaphysical, value like belongingness
cannot be demonstrated through experiment. It can only be assumed as a value extant in
Page 7/12 the culture (if one is doing a contingent, situational analysis), or taken as an axiom if one is
constructing a theology. In the case of the Human Relations school, Whyte notes that much
of the work assumed that belongingness per se, was a good thing, in the sense of a
twentieth century version of allegiance to a Middle Ages fiefdom. The chapter concludes with
a beautiful quote from Clark Kerr (a renowned Berkeley chancellor):
Clark Kerr Chancellor of the University of California, at Berkeley, has put it well: the danger
is not that loyalties are divided today but that they be undivided tomorrow. . I would urge
each Individual to avoid total involvement in any organization; to seek to whatever extent
within his power to limit each group to the minimum control necessary for performance of
essential functions; to struggle against the effort to absorb; to lend his energies to many
organizations and to give himself completely to none...
Chapter 5: Togetherness
If the value of belongingness dictated the Organization Man's overall attitude of
engagement with the corporation and the suburban community, togetherness defined his
approach to work itself, in the context of his own work-group. Togetherness as a value is at
the root of much-lampooned Organization Man pathologies, such as groupthink and the
elevation of consensus-seeking over truth-seeking. I never realized the caricatures used to
be so true to reality. Consider this discussion of actual group dynamics training:
[The] search for better group techniques is something of a crusade against authoritarianism,
a crusade for more freedom, for more recognition of the man in the
middle...Anti-authoritarianism is becoming anti-leadership. In group doctrine the strong
personality is viewed with overwhelming suspicion. The cooperative are those who take a
stance directly over keel; the man with ideas-in translation, prejudices-leans to side or,
worse yet, heads for the rudder. P1ainly, he is a threat. Skim through current group
handbooks, conference leaders tool kits, and the like and you find what sounds very much
like a call to arms by the mediocre against their enemies...
... [for instance] the Bureau of Naval Personnel handbook... among the bad people we meet
is the Aggressor. The conference leader's remedy: Place Donald Duck at your left (the blind
spot). Fail to hear his objections, or if you do, misunderstand them...[the] object is to get him
to feel that he belongs...if he still persists in running wild, let the group do what they are
probably by now quite hot to i.e., cut the lug down. They generally do it by asking Little
Brother Terrible to clarify his position, to clarify his clarification...These defensive gambits
against the leader are only a stopgap measure. What some group advocates have in mind
is, quite literally, to eliminate the leader altogether.
Zeroing in on the effect on innovative thinking in particular, Whyte notes:
The most misguided attempt at false collectivization is the current attempt to see the group
as a creative vehicle. Can it be? People very rarely think in groups; they talk together, they
exchange information, they adjudicate, they make compromises. But they do think; they do
not create...[The] fixture of organization life [,] the meeting self-consciously dedicated to
creating ideas...is a fraud. Much of such high-pressure creation-cooking with gas, creating
out loud, spitballing, and so forth-is all very provocative, but if it is stimulating, it is stimulating
much like alcohol. After the glow of such a session has worn off, the residue of ideas usually
turns out to be a refreshed common denominator everybody is relieved to agree upon-and if
Page 8/12 there is a new idea, you usually find that it came from a capital of ideas already thought
out-by an individual-and perhaps held in escrow until moment for its introduction. Somehow,
individual initiative must enter into the group...[We] must remember that if every member
simply wants do what the group wants to do, then the group is not going to do anything.
This particular pathology is probably on its way to being corrected, by the more sophisticated
arguments in books like The Wisdom of the Crowds, that warn against group
brainstorming. Let's close with Whyte's passionate cry in support of individualism:
[The democratic culture of organization life] makes it all the harder for the individual to
Justify to himself a departure from its norm. It would be a mistake to confuse individualism
with antagonism, but the burdens of free thought are already steep enough that we should
not saddle ourselves with a guilty conscience as well. The hunch that wasn't followed up.
The controversial point that didn't get debated. The idea that was suppressed. Were these
acts of group co-operation or individual surrender?
I haven't seen a better characterization of assumed consensus anywhere. But let me
emphasize once more, Whyte isn't against legitimate study of group dynamics, free from
agendas that assume the group is superior rather than proving it (which can at best be
situational models of proof).
The value of togetherness still rules today, in the guise of diversity ethics.
Next time, we'll look at Part II, The Training of the Organization Man The Training of the Organization Man
By: Venkat on February 17, 2009 Recap: In the first two parts of this series, I introduced William Whyte's 1956 classic,
The Organization Man within a modern context, and covered the governing ideology
that led to the rise of this worker archetype. Last time we learned how the collectivist
corporate values -- togetherness and belongingness -- bolstered by a culture of
'scientism,' created the main pathologies of Organiztion Man culture, such as blind
conformity, unjustified belief in 'team' creativity, an anti-leadership culture, and
extreme risk aversion.
In this post, I'll cover Part II, The Training of Organization Man (Chapters 6-10). The
theme in this section is Whyte's big worry: that through a pathological pair of complementary
dysfunctions in universities and businesses, perfect-storm conditions were emerging
(remember, this is the 50s) that would lead to a takeover of the business world by
Organization Men.Â Were Whyte's fears justified? Did the Organization Man truly die with
Apple's 1984 ad, or has he merely taken on a new and more subtle guise? Let's find out. The Cold War in Business America
It was the 1950s, the world of the Truman doctrine and fears of Nuclear Armageddon. In the
5 chapters that make up Part II, Whyte's rhetoric has the ominous quality of the times. The Page 9/12 overarching fear is clear -- that the soulless, collectivist and conformist Organization Man
would take over and destroy the capitalist vitality and creative-destruction that Whyte so
admired.Â He is clearly chronicling what he saw as a hidden Cold War for the soul of
corporate America. Ideologically, there is no question: I am unreservedly on Whyte's side.
Knowing what we all do about the history of American business between 1956 and 2009
however, I was torn between two interpretations of the last half-century. On the face of it, the
book's tone seems alarmist. It certainly seems like Apple metaphorically killed the
Organization Man with its 1984 ad, and that we've been seeing the slow dawn of a glorious
era of maverick nonconformism since then (emerging at the rate that organization men are
retiring). On the other hand, you also get the eerie sense that Whyte was right to be scared.
That perhaps the Organization Man culture has won so comprehensively, and co-opted the
Boomer rebellion so completely, that we cannot even see it. Which is it? I'll give you the Cliff
Notes version of Part II before I share my conclusion.
Much of Part II reads like a polemic against higher education. In Whyte's view, the post-war
education system was guilty of abandoning its unique mission of
education-as-soul-liberation, and cravenly reducing itself to the status of a production line for
the interchangeable, but specialized parts demanded by corporate America. Unlike his
contemporary, C. P. Snow, who argued in his famous 1959 lecture, The Two Cultures, that
the great divide in higher education was between the humanities and the sciences, Whyte
saw a deeper divide between fundamental and applied knowledge. Much of Part II is
devoted to agonizing over how the focus on applied knowledge, primarily in the form of
vocational, engineering and business undergraduate programs, was hollowing out both the
humanities and the basic sciences. Whyte makes a convincing argument that this culture
produced a generation of technicians (a particularly eloquent bit compares the impoverished
experience of learning "business English" to the mind-expanding beauty of the real thing).
Remember that the flip side of this view was the more traditional rosy-eyed view of the GI
Bill and the Space Race. So Whyte was clearly a contrarian in his own time.
Equally, Whyte argues, corporate America abandoned the Darwinian training models that
had proved so successful during the early part of the century. ItÂ turned its training function
into a production line for staff bureaucrats. This function displaced the trial-by-fire process of
turning out hard-headed line managers (if you are unfamiliar with the line/staff distinction, try
Chapter 6: A Generation of Bureaucrats Chapter 6 covers the attitudes towards work on the part of graduating seniors in the 1949. This, remember, was the generation that grew up through World War II and witnessed the struggles of the Great Depression in childhood (much like what school kids today
are experiencing, a world of post 9/11 worldwide terror and a depression).Â This was a generation both risk-averse and in a mood to enjoy, appreciate and be grateful for the victories hard-won by their parents, and ever aware that World War III could kill them
next week. The Beat poets were very much a sideshow. Here is a sample of the sort of attitude Whyte found, which seems very contemporary today, in 2009. When I talked to students in 1949, on almost every campus I heard one recurring theme: adventure was all very well, but it was smarter to make a compromise in order to get a depression-proof sanctuary, "I don't think A T &T is very exciting," one senior put
it, "but that's the company I'd like to join. If a depression comes there will always be an A T & T." When seniors check such ostensibly line occupations as sales, they still exhibit the staff bias. For they don't actually want to sell. What they mean by sales is the kind of work in which they will be technical specialists helping the customers or, better yet,
masterminding the work of those who do the helping. 'They want to be sales engineers, distribution specialists, merchandising experts -- the men who back up the men in the field...A distinction is in order. While the fundamental bias is for staff work, it is not
necessarily for a staff job. If the choice is offered them, a considerable number of students will vote for "general managerial" work, and many who choose personnel or public relations do so with the idea that it is the best pathway to the top jobs. The big point here is that young workers were shying away not only from small businesses and entrepreneurship, but also from real line-of-fire work and real risks of failure in big companies. They were buying into the myth of a balanced, well-rounded life. In the
booming growth era they were graduating into, companies, themselves befuddled by the settling fog of the social ethic, were offering them this life. And universities of course, were preparing them for it. There is a surreal quality to the inter-institutional social
transaction being described. This is captured in a scary pair of statistics that demonstrate the slow draining of entrepreneurial spirit that seems to have been going on: Page 10/12 Here is how a total of 127 men answered the two chief questions:Â on the question of whether research scientists should be predominantly the team player type, 56 per cent of the men headed for a big corporation said yes, versus 46 per cent of the
small-business men. On the question of whether the key executive should be basically an "administrator" or a "bold leader," 54 per cent of the big-corporation voted for the administrators versus only 45 per cent of the small-business men. This was the raw material being turned out by universities. Chapter 6 begs the question, what did the universities-as-people-factories themselves look like in this era? Chapter 7 provides the answer. Chapter 7: The Practical Curriculum In Chapter 7, we see evidence of the true culture war in academia Whyte posits: not between the sciences and the humanities, but between the fundamental and the applied. Between the production of process technicians and the production of critical thinkers with expanded minds. One sort of evidence comes from the curriculum: besides "business English," other intellectually anemic offerings of the time included Personality Development, Mental Hygeine and Psychology Applied to Life and Work. If the women of the era were being trapped into the gilded, apparently modern cage that Betty Friedan called theThe Feminine Mystique, the men of the era, headed to male-dominated workplaces, were equally being lured into gutless and spineless lives of make-work. A particularly poignant bit that captures the essence of the chapter is this lament from the Daily Pennsylvanian (January 14, 1955) about the destructive effect of the Wharton business school on the University of Pennsylvania: "...[the] first and most important destructive influence at Pennsylvania of the atmosphere important for the nourishment of the humanities is the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce. Justly famed for the excellent business training which it offers, and for which it grants an academic degree, the Wharton School by the sheer force of its reputation and undergraduate appeal has given to undergraduate social and extracurricular life an atmosphere which, while it is seldom anti-intellectual, is usually nonintellectual...." Even if he followed the specialty he studied at the business school, employers can find him lacking; he didn't learn what business can't teach him because he was too busy learning what business could teach him, and teach him better. To return to my pessimistic forecast. Look ahead to 1985. Those will control a good part of the educational plant will be products themselves of the most stringently anti-intellectual training in country. Admittedly for me, some of the criticism, of engineering in particular, stung. But I had to admit that the argument is sound. To the extent that I believe I've invented my intellectual identity, it has been through introspection about engineering through non-engineering lenses. The picture we get is of the university of the 50s forgetting its unique mission as a social institution, and cravenly turning itself into an assembly line for what industry demands (a condition that, to a large extent, is still prevalent 60 years later). Ironically, Whyte concludes, the harder they try to create industry-ready graduates, the more spectacularly they fail. That the scheme didn't immediately fall apart was due to the presence of a complementary pathology in the business world. I should note a bit of deja vu here: during the IT boom in India in the 90s, the Chief Minister of the IT-heavyweight state of Andhra Pradesh made a remark that seemed like an echo of the social ethic of Whyte's 1950s America. He called for an abandonment of liberal arts and humanities as "useless" and urged Indian higher education to produce even more software engineers. Sadly, that seems to be happening. But moving on, let's look at the other institutional culprit: the corporation. Chapter 8 In Chapter 8, we get a view of the pathology in the business world that created the stable co-dependent relationship between academia and the business world. But where the picture of the 50s university is that of an institution in wholesale sell-out mode, in this chapter, we get a view of the corporation as an institution in the grip of a severe internal tension between the Darwinian, Protestant Ethic values of the leadership (executives who were themselves the product of pre-Organization-Man times) and the social ethic of the Organization Man: Lately, leaders of U.S. businesses have been complaining that there are nowhere near enough generalists. "Give us the well-rounded man," business leaders are saying to the colleges, "the man steeped in fundamentals; we will give him the specialized knowledge he needs." Convention after convention they make this plea -- and their recruiters go right on doing what they've been doing: demanding more specialists. This does not spring from bad faith, The top man may be perfectly sincere in asking for the man with a broad view. He might even be a liberal arts man himself. Somewhere along the line, however, this gets translated and retranslated by the organization people, so that by the time the company gets down to cases, the specifications for its officer candidates are something quite different...[as] many people who have sat in on business-academic meetings recognize, it is often the businessmen who seem the philosophers...many of the same academics who privately throw up their hands at the horror of our materialistic culture act like so many self-abasing hucksters when it comes to pleasing grant-givers...the academic man should never discover himself beholden to business. Between the academic and the business world there must be some conflict of interests, a running fire of criticism is a cross that business can well afford to put up with. A dominant force in American society, and prime guardian of orthodox thought, business must stir unease from others, or we would have an unhealthy imbalance of power... Reading this chapter, I was reminded of Richard Dawkins' discussion of eusocial insect species like ants and bees in his classic, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins describes clever experiments by evolutionary biologists that show that the "queen" in ant colonies is not really a queen. If you analyze the genetics of what is going on, you realize the queen's daughters, the once who raise the young, are favoring their DNA rather than their mother's. You get the sense that the leader of Whyte's Organization Man corporation was a die-hard but powerless Darwinian trapped by smiling, apparently compliant Organization Men in middle management who ignored the content of what the leader had to say, and merely cloned themselves. A scary thought. Chapter 9: The Pipe Line Chapter 9 ties together the thesis into a portrait of the whole sorry human-resource supply chain. The image we get is of that of the school-of-hard-knocks training model of the Darwinian corporation getting replaced by an infantilizing, safe-fail extension of the university. This extension is demanded by the in-demand employee himself, as the price of signing on in an era of labor scarcity: What he wants is a continuation. He is used to formal training and he is wary of stepping out into the arena without a good deal more. This is one of the reasons he does not incline to the smaller firm; it may offer opportunity but it offers it too soon. By contrast, businesses' reassuringly institutionalized schools -- sometimes complete with classrooms, dormitories, and graduating classes -- is an ideal next step. The extended college-hood is one where competition is minimized and cooperation and consensus maximized. He contrasts this model with his own training in an earlier era, as a salesman for the Vicks company, which at the time (in the 30s) had a training program that essentially amounted to being tossed into the deep end with a sink-or-swim challenge, required to cover a non-prime sales territory, doing real, consequential work: I quote some entries from my own daily report forms: they use "dry" creek beds for roads in this country. "Dry" Ha! Ha!Â ...Sorry about making only four calls today, but I had to go over to Ervine to pick up a drop shipment of 3/4 tins and my clutch broke down. . . . Everybody's on WPA in this county. Met only one dealer who sold more than a couple dozen VR a year. Ah, well, it's all in the game . . . Bostitched my left thunb to a barn [while putting up advertising] this morning and couldn't pick up my first call until lunch. . . . The local brick plant here is shut down and nobod is buying anything. . . . Five, count 'em, five absent dealers in a row. . , . Sorry about the $2o.8s but the clutch broke down again. . . ? But beneath the excuses, clearly real character molding was going on. He recounts an interaction with a grizzled veteran, who articulates the laws of the jungle with advice so unsentimental, it is practically poetic: "Fella,"Â he told me, "you will never sell anybody anything until you learn one simple thing. The man [the dealer] on the other side of the counter is the enemy."... It was a gladiators' school we were in. Selling may be no less competitive now, but in the Vick program, strife was honored far more openly than today's climate would permit. Combat was the ideal-combat with the dealer, combat with the "chiseling competitors," combat with each other. There was some talk about "the team" but it was highly abstract. That then, is the culture that was losing ground in the 40s and 50s and creating the conditions where the Organization Man seemed poised to take over. We get this bleak overall vision in the final chapter in Part II Chapter 10: TheÂ "Well Rounded" Man So anti-competitive collectivism and a safe training culture displaced the boot-camp culture Whyte himself endured. The objective of the process was to create a particular creature, the "well-rounded" man. The scare quotes tell the story. Rather than the leader's idea and demand for intellectually well-rounded men, the bureaucrats were creating passionless and socially well-rounded men. The personality they aimed to create was as spherical as the functional specialization they acquired in college was pointed. Docile collaborators who could be relied upon to never care too much,Â and go home to a fairy-tale personal life. Page 11/12 The chapter starts by remphasizing the interesting dissonance between the motivations of senior executives and personnel (HR) managers in a fresh way. To get through management verbiage payingÂ lip service to individualism, Whyte conducted a mail survey that forced a set of personnel managers and company presidents to choose the qualities for leadership: "Presidents voted 50 per cent in favor of the administrator, personnel men: 70 per cent ...We had expected that the type of industry the executive was in and size of the company would have a great deal to do with the way he answered... No matter how we tried to correlate the answers, by type of company, age, etc., no pattern manifested itself; the choice, evidently, was primarily a reflection of the executive's own personal outlook... [In] the wording of their letters the personnel men showed an inclination to the administrator even stronger than the vote indicated. Presidents who favored the administrator generally noted that the individualist had his place too; personnel men quite often not only failed to make such a qualification but went on to infer that the individualist should be carefully segregated out of harm's way if he could be tolerated at all. The rationalization for the administrator preference is summarized in the form of a doctrine that Whyte attributes to the Organization Man bureaucracy: Because the rough-and-tumble days are over Because unorthodoxy can be dangerous to the Organization Because unorthodoxy IS dangerous to the Organization Ideas come from the group, not the individual Creative leadership is a staff function The last point is particularly important for the arguments to come. Whyte articulates this principle as follows: Organizations need new ideas from time to time. But the leader is not the man for this; he hires staff people to think up the ideas. While the captive screwball thinks about the major problems of the corporation, the leader -- a sort of nonpartisan mediator -- will be able to attend to the techniques of solving the problem rather than the problem itself. His job is not to look ahead himself but to check the excesses of the kind of people who do look ahead. He does not unbalance himself by enthusiasm for a particular plan... When you read this chapter alongside a good historically-oriented treatment of modern human resource management, such as Peter Capelli's Talent on Demand, you get a deep sense of just how big and comprehensive the culture of "extended university" like training was. This was the era that gave birth to extended training through rotational assignments, pure learning assignments (such as "shadowing" a superior), and 360 degree feedback. All mechanisms designed to keep individualism, risk-taking and passion in check, and adding a "well-rounded" managerial-skills layer on top of the functional specialization provided by universities. The Quick Take A quick movie recommendation: if you've been following this series, you really ought to watch Revolutionary Road with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The story captures the Organization Man era with scary accuracy. But what are we to make of this gloomy analysis and the dire prediction. Was Whyte being alarmist or prescient? This is a complex part of the book with a lot of interesting detail that is very tough to interpret because of its distance in time. Still, I began to make up my mind in broad terms: despite Apple's 1984 ad and the new legitimization of individualism, the war is far from over. The Organization Man culture, the social ethic, and the religion of collectivism are all very much alive, now in the guise of process improvement, diversity programs and the co-option of social media in the service of collectivism (social media by themselves are an agnostic force; whether you use them to create herds of sheep or networks of combative individualists depends on your ideology). An easy conflation of the genuine values of collaboration with conformism still rules. Layoffs have emerged as a legitimate tool to manage Darwinian forces. A lot of entrepreneurial energy has been safely diverted to start-up sideshows. These real changes that have happened since the 1950s have allowed larger mainstream companies to retain strong collectivist cultures internally, since the visible consequences of Darwin-compliant managerial actions are safely eliminated from the body of the corporation. Perhaps this is a good thing. Perhaps large organizations need widespread suspension of disbelief. Maybe Fortune 500 companies need to believe in job security. But something about this explanation makes me sad. It is like saying "perhaps Intelligent Design is a good idea because religious people are statistically more likely to be happy." Perhaps I have too much Nietzsche in me, but the ability to choose truth over happiness, consequences be damned, has always seemed to me the quintessential human virtue. Looking around, the evidence in 2009 is mixed. Millenials entering the workforce, while highly individualist and entrepreneurial in some ways, do show worrying signs of unthinking collectivism as well. I seem to meet as many 22 year olds blind reaffirming their faith in "collaboration" and demanding the Nanny Corporation, as I do the hungry, entrepreneurial sort who stays up nights coding up the next killer Twitter app. Some days, I think of Millenials as wild packs of coordinated hunting dogs. Other days, I think of them as sheep. So overall, the jury is still out, but signs are emerging that a decisive outcome is near at hand. In the next post in this series, we will tackle the next two parts of the book, on the neuroses and testing of the Organization Man. On a side note, it is interesting reading and blogging about a dense book simultaneously. I wonder if my final wrap-up post will conflict with my in-progress views. Page 12/12 ...
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- Fall '08