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May 12, 2007 2:25am

blog all dog-eared pages: organization man

The Organization Man is a classic by William Whyte that was first recommended to me by Abe almost two years ago. It took me until just recently to pop it off my Amazon stack and give it a read. It's a major critical investigation of American society in the 1950's, written from deep inside that era in 1956. Whyte covers work, education, religion, and suburbia in his sharp description of what he believes to be a problematic development: the post-war emergence and celebration of groupthink and conformity in all forms of corporate and organization life.

Half the fun of this book is Whyte's sharp prose. He has a lot of data, a good eye for observation, and a clear opinion he's not interested in holding back.

Sorry that this is kind of a long post, but it's a great read full of worthwhile passages.

Page 19, on the qualitative difference between small business and the corporation:

Out of inertia, the small business is praised as the acorn from which a great oak may grow, the shadow of one man that may lengthen into a large enterprise. Examine businesses with 50 or less employees, however, and it becomes apparent the sentimentality obscures some profound differences. ... The great majority of small business firms cannot be placed on any continuum with the corporation. For one thing, they are rarely engaged in primary industry; for the most part they are the laundries, the insurance agencies, the restaurants, the drugstores, the bottling plants, the lumber yards, the automobile dealers. They are vital, to be sure, but they essentially service an economy; they do not create new money within their area and they are dependent ultimately on the business and agriculture that does.

Page 34, on Hawthorne and economic man:

In the literature of human relation the Hawthorne experiment is customarily regarded as a discovery. In large part it was; more than any other event, it dramatized the inadequacy of the purely economic view of man.

Page 35, on social discipline:

In the Middle Ages people had been disciplined by social codes into working together. The Industrial Revolution, as Mayo described the consequences, had split society into a whole host of conflicting groups. Part of a man belonged to one group, part to another, and he was bewildered; no longer was there one group in which he could sublimate himself. The liberal philosophers, who were quite happy to see an end to feudal belongingness, interpreted this release from the group as freedom. Mayo did not see it this way. To him, the dominant urge of mankind is to belong: "Man's desire is to be continuously associated in work with his fellows," he states, "is a strong, of not the strongest, human characteristic."

Page 78, on education:

How did he get that way? His elders taught him to be that way. In this chapter I am going to take up the content of his education and argue that a large part of the U.S. educational system is preparing people badly for the organization society - precisely because it is trying so very hard to do it. My charge rests on the premise that what the organization man needs most from education is the intellectual armor of the fundamental disciplines. It is indeed an age of group action, of specialization, but this is all the more reason the organization man does not need the emphases of a training "geared for the modern man." The pressures of organization life will teach him that. But they will not teach him what the schools and colleges can - some kind of foundation, some sense of where we came from, so that he can judge where he is, and where he is going and why.

Page 150, on executive aspirations:

We have, in sum, a man who is so completely involved in his work that he cannot distinguish between work and the rest of his life - and happy that he cannot. ... No dreams of Gothic castles or liveried footmen seize his imagination. His house will never be a monument, an end in itself. It is purely functional, a place to salve the wounds and store up energy for what's ahead. And that, he knows full well, is battle.

Pages 157-158, on the loneliness of authority:

Just when a man becomes an executive is impossible to determine, and some men never know just when the moment of self-realization comes. But there seems to be a time in a man's life - sometimes 30, sometimes as late as 45 - when he feels that he has made the irrevocable self-commitment. At this point he is going to feel a loneliness he never felt before. If he had the toughness of mind to get this far he knows very well that there are going to be constant clashes between himself and his environment, and he knows that he must often face these clashes alone. His home life will be shorter and his wife less and less interested in the struggle. In the midst of the crowd at the office he will be isolated - no longer intimate with the people he has passed and not yet accepted by the elders he has joined.

Pages 194-195, on personality testing:

Few test takers can believe the flagrantly silly statement in the preamble to many tests that there are "no right or wrong answers." There wouldn't be much point in the company's giving the test if some answers weren't regarded as better than others. Telling the truth about yourself is difficult in any event. When someone is likely to reward you if you give answers favorable to yourself the problem of whether to tell the truth becomes more than insuperable; it becomes irrelevant.
"Do you daydream frequently?" In many companies a man either so honest or so stupid as to answer "yes" would be well advised to look elsewhere for employment.

Pages 196-198, on strategies for personality tests:

When in doubt about the most beneficial answer to any question, repeat to yourself: I loved my father and my mother, but my father a little bit more. I like things pretty much the way they are. I never worry much about anything. I don't care for books or music much. I love my wife and children. I don't let them get in the way of company work.
Jacques Barzun says in his Teacher in America, "I have kept track for some ten years of the effects of such tests on the upper half of each class. The best men go down one grade, and the next best go up. It is not hard to see why. The second-rate do well in school and in life because of their ability to grasp what is accepted and conventional. ... But first-rate men are rarer and equally indispensable. ... To them, a ready-made question is an obstacle. It paralyzes thought by cutting off all connections but one. ... Their minds have finer adjustments, more imagination, which the test deliberately penalizes as encumbrances."

Pages 208-209, on pure vs. applied research:

The failure to recognize the value of purposelessness is the starting point of industry's problem. To the managers and engineers who set the dominant tone in industry, purposelessness is anathema, and all their impulses incline them to highly planned, systematized development in which the problem is clearly defined. ... In pure research, however, half the trick is finding out that there is a problem - that there is something to explain. The culture dish remained sterile when it shouldn't have. The two chemicals reacted differently this time than before. Something has happened and you don't know why it happened - or if you did, what earthly use would it be? By its very nature, discovery has an accidental quality. Methodical as one can be in following up a question, the all-important question itself is likely to be a sort of chance distraction of the work at hand. At this moment you neither know what practical use the question could lead to nor should you worry the point. There will be time enough later for that; and in retrospect, it will be easy to show how well planned and systematized the discovery was all along.

Page 250, on the organization man in fiction:

But this does not mean that our fiction has become fundamentally any less materialistic. It hasn't, it's just more hypocritical about it. Today's heroes don't lust for big riches, but they are positively greedy for the good life. This yen, furthermore, is customarily interpreted as a renunciation of materialism rather than as the embrace of it that it actually is. ... After making his spurious choice between good and evil, the hero heads for the country, where, presumably, he is now to find the real meaning in life. Just what this meaning will be is hard to see; in the new egalitarianism of the market place, his precipitous flight from the bitch goddess success will enable him to live a lot more comfortably than the ulcerated colleagues left behind, and in more than one sense, it's the latter who are less materialistic. Our hero has left the battlefield where his real fight must be fought; by puttering at a country newspaper and patronizing himself into a native, he evades any conflict, and in the process manages to live reasonably high off the hog. There's no Cadillac, bu the Hillman Minx does pretty well, the chickens are stacked high in the deep freeze, and no doubt there is a hi-fi set in the table which he and his wife have converted. All this may be very sensible, but it's mighty comfortable for a hair shirt.

Page 279, on transience or purpose:

Their allegiance is more to The Organization itself than to any particular one, for it is in the development of their professional techniques, not in ideology, that they find continuity - and this, perhaps, is one more reason why managerial people have not coalesced into a ruling class. "They have not taken over the governing functions," Max Lerner has pointed out, "nor is there any sign that they want to or can. They have concentrated on the fact of their skills rather than the uses to which their skills are put. The question of the cui bono the technician regards as beyond his technical competence."

Page 282, on suburbia:

Looking at the real estate situation right after the war, a group of Chicago businessmen saw that there was a huge population of young veterans, but little available housing suitable for people with (1) children, (2) expectations of transfer, (3) a taste for good living, (4) not too much money. Why not, the group figured, build an entire new community from scratch for these people?

Page 302, on anomalies in the suburbs:

One court was thoroughly confounded by the arrival of a housewife who was an ex-burlesque stripper and, worse yet, volubly proud of the fact. She never learned, and the collision between her breezy outlook and the family mores of the court was near catastrophic. "They're just jealous because I'm theatrical folk," she told an observer, as she prepared to depart with her husband in a cloud of smoke. "All these wives think I want their husbands. What a laugh. I don't even want my own. The bitches." The court has never been quite the same since.

Page 335, on the roots of soul and the importance of initial conditions:

It is much the same question as why one city has a "soul" while another, with just as many economic advantages, does not. In most communities the causes lie far back in the past; in the new suburbia, however, the high turnover has compressed in a few years the equivalent of several generations. Almost as if we were watching stop-action photography, we can see how traditions form and mature and why one place "takes" and another doesn't. Of all the factors, the character of the original settlers seems the most important. In the early phase the impact of the strong personality, good or otherwise, is magnified.

Page 343, on the communications value of children:

With their remarkable sensitivity to social nuance, the children are a highly effective communication net, and parents sometimes use them to transmit what custom dictates elders cannot say face to face. "One newcomer gave us quite a problem in our court," says a resident in an eastern development. "The was a Ph.D., and he started to pull rank on some of the rest of us. I told my kid he could tell his kid that the other fathers around here had plenty on the ball. I guess we fathers all did the same thing; pretty soon the news trickled upwards to this guy. He isn't a bad sort; he got the hint - and there was open break of any kind."

Pages 359-360, on the downside of group activity:

Perhaps the greatest tyranny, however, applies not to the deviate but to the accepted. The group is a jealous master. It encourages participation, indeed, demands it, but it demands one kind of participation - its own kind - and the better integrated with it a member becomes the less free he is to express himself in other ways.

Page 362, on the tyranny of involvement:

Well? Fromm might as well have cited Park Forest again. One must be consistent. Park Foresters illustrate conformity; they also illustrate very much the same kind of small group activity Fromm advocates. He has damned an effect and praised a cause. More participation may well be in order, but it is not the antidote to conformity; it is inextricably related with it, and while the benefits may well outweigh the disadvantages, we cannot intensify the former and expect to eliminate the latter. There is a true dilemma here. It is not despite the success of their group that Park Foresters are troubled but partly because of it, for that much more do they feel an obligation to yield to the group. And to this problem there can be no solution.
Is there a middle way? A recognition of this dilemma is the condition of it. It is only part of the battle, but unless the individual understands that this conflict of allegiances is inevitable he is intellectually without defenses. And the more benevolent the group, the more, not the less, he needs these defenses.


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