Insights from Mary Parker Follett into developing trust

follettpic2Mary Parker Follett was an incredible woman.  She was interested in organisational behaviour and theory, a management guru for a world hardly prepared for her insights in the early twentieth century, nor indeed today.  She did not propose beguiling simple solutions, instead she was keen to describe the flux of social interaction in ways that are useful. I’m going to offer three quotations.  The challenge is this: if they resonate with your experience of working in organisations what are the implications for how we might think about trust?

  • The individual is not a unit, but a centre of forces … and consequently society is not a collection of units, but a complex of radiating and converging, crossing and re-crossing energies. Society is a dynamic process rather than a crowd or a collection of already developed individuals. (Follett, M, 1918)
  • In social situations you cannot compare what you bring and what you find because these have already influenced each other. Not to understand this is the onlooker fallacy: you cannot see experience without being a part of it. (Follett, M, 1924)
  • The leader must understand the situation, must see it as a whole, he must see the interrelation of all the parts. He must do more than this. He must see the evolving situation, the developing situation. His wisdom, his judgment, is used, not on a situation that is stationary, but on one that is changing all the time. The ablest administrators do not merely draw logical conclusions from the array of facts of the past which their expert assistants bring to them, they have a vision of the future. (Follett, M, 2013)

This is my interpretation, yours may differ:  I strongly identify with her comments that we are part of the action, there is no standing aside.  And as we interact we are changing those around us as we in turn are being changed in both predictable and unpredictable ways as we develop new relationships. I ask myself, how do I think about trust before I meet someone for the first time or work with them in another capacity?  I have an imagined idea, perhaps shaped by what I’ve heard, their reputation or that of the organisation.  I might be mindful of the expectations of those around me, or what might be at stake.  Perhaps I might remember the conversations about trust itself or what I have read in terms of models and approaches to trust.  All of this is in the mix as I wait to meet them. When I meet them the subtle process of trust begins its work.  Intuition and the rational me intermingle as we both navigate and develop understanding of each other, staying mindful of what I want to achieve and those around us that have an interest in any progress we might make.  In the conversations I notice how our interactions are developing, perhaps a few trust-enabling gestures which I can respond to.  The conversation ends, a relationship has started, there is much to build upon. Mary Parker Follett challenges us to think about what organisations are (or should we instead think of the activity of organising?) and how we can be aware of the interconnections that we are all part of.  All vital as we develop trusting relationships.  As with other aspects of organizational life, there are no beguilingly simple solutions.

Rob Warwick

Follett, M P (1918) The New State: Group Organization, the Solution of Popular Government. Literary Licensing LLC.

Follett, M P (1924) Creative experience Volume 3 of Organization behaviour. Reprint. Рипол Классик.

Follett, M P (2013) Freedom and Co-ordination, Lectures in Business Organization, Vol 15. London and New York: Routledge.

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Rob Warwick

My experience lies in the various aspects of organisational change, particularly working with groups and individuals to understand the impact of change and the opportunities it offers. Areas of knowledge include: the formulation and implementation of Government policy; corporate strategy and planning; management control within organisational change; and public sector compliance. A common thread through much of my work is making sense of ambiguity and conflict. This includes the impact of newly introduced legislation and government policy, mergers between organisations, or their parts; and, the workings of multi-disciplinary groups. These experiences were a major influence on my doctorate on healthcare policymaking and the unpredictable and paradoxical impact it has on frontline staff practice. Areas explored in my thesis included the often unexamined implications of a scientific systems based approach to change and the impact this has on people. My thesis includes practical actions to improve policymaking.

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