The Ideology of the Organization Man

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 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 sake.

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 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 this piece).

(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 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.

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.

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 wrote it.

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 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 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

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Do you have anymore on this book and on Whyte’s theories?