The Training of the Organization Man

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.  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 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.  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. It  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 this primer).

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).  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:

Here is how a total of 127 men answered the two chief questions:  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!  …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,”  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: The  “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,  and go home to a fairy-tale personal life.

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 paying  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.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. Islam Hussein says

    OK, Venkat, I am coming late to the party. This time, unlike the other two times I came to your blog since you mentioned it to me, the words “organization man”, “collectivist”, and “scientism” (all appearing in just the recap) have definitely attracted my attention. I’ll need more time to go through what you wrote to have any useful comments to make. One economist that immediately comes to mind is F.A. Hayek and his work on spontaneous order, organizations, institutions and the evolution of law (read his article “Cosmos and Taxis”, for example). The man is a genius!

  2. Please finish this series! Also, please finish The Office series!

  3. I will, I promise :)

  4. Awesome! I can’t wait!

  5. Venkat,

    I would posit that one reason there is–and will continue to be–such a collectivist mindset in organizations (not just corportations) is due to personality type. Think of the Myers-Brigg’s 16 types, for example. A fairly small (don’t recall the percentage) portion fall into the risk-taking type; most are risk averse. This is human nature, and I think it is fairly culture independent, as well, although some cultures may encourage this type of behavior.

  6. This is just another vote to ask to keep continuing the series. I’m reading through the book now based on your recommendation, and your notes are a much appreciated guide for interpreting and thinking about the book in 2012.