Quotes from Mary Parker Follet (1868-1933)

« As conflict –difference-is here in this world, as we cannot avoid it, we should, I think, use it to work for us. » […]

In the 1930s and 1940s, this was unintelligible. Politically those decades were dominated by men and creed that knew the proper use of conflict was to conquer. […] we know that Mary Parker Follett was not only right but superbly relevant, and her relevance persists today. […] She was the prophet of management. Management and society in general should welcome her return.

Peter Drucker in Mary P. Follett, Prophet of management.

(P. Graham, 1995)

Excerpts on Managing Differences Constructively

At the outset I should like to ask you to agree for the moment to think of conflict as neither good nor bad; to consider it without ethical pre-judgment; to think of it not as warfare, but as the appearance of difference, difference of opinions, of interests. For that is what conflict means- difference. We shall not consider merely the differences between employer and employee, but those between managers, between the directors at the Board meetings, or whatever difference appears. 

As conflict –difference-is here in this world, as we cannot avoid it, we should, I think, use it. Instead of condemning it, we should set it to work for us .Why not? What does the mechanical engineer do with friction? Of course his chief job is to eliminate friction, but it is true that he also capitalizes on friction. The transmission of power by belts depends on friction between the belt and the pulley. The friction between the driving wheel of the locomotive and the track is necessary to haul the train. All polishing is done by friction. The music of the violin we get from friction. We left the savage state when we discovered fire by friction. So in business too, we have to know when to try to eliminate friction and when to try to capitalize on it, when to see what work we can make it do. That is what I wish to consider here, whether we can set conflict to work and make it do something for us.

(Dynamic Administration. 1941.  p.31)

What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of the utmost importance that these should not be considered the same. We may wish to abolish conflict, but we cannot get rid of diversity. We must face life as it is and understand that diversity is its most essential feature[…].Fear of difference is dread of life itself. It is possible to conceive conflict as not necessarily a wasteful outbreak of incompatibilities, but a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned.

(Creative  Experience, p.300)

There are two kinds of differences, the difference which disrupts and the difference which may, if properly handled, more firmly unite. It is not because unity in the sense of peace is our primary object-you can get peace at any moment if your sledge hammer is big enough-but because we are seeking an integrative unity as the foundation of business development.

(Dynamic Administration, 1941)

Methods of dealing with conflict: Domination, compromise, integration

There are three main ways of dealing with conflict: domination, compromise and integration. Domination, obviously, is a victory of one side over the other. This is the easiest way of dealing with conflict, the easiest for the moment but not usually successful in the long run, as we can see from what has happened since the War.

The second way of dealing with conflict, that of compromise, we understand well, for it is the way we settle most of our controversies;  each side gives up a little in order to have peace, or, to speak more accurately, in order that the activity which has been interrupted by the conflict may go on. Compromise is the basis of trade union tactics. In collective bargaining, the trade unionist asks for more than he expects to get, allows for what is going to be lopped off in the conference. Thus we often do not know what he really thinks he should have, and this ignorance is a great barrier to dealing with conflict fruitfully. […] 

But I certainly ought not to imply that compromise is peculiarly a trade union method. It is the accepted, the approved, way of ending controversy. Yet no one really wants to compromise, because that means a giving up of something. Is there then any other method of ending conflict?

There is a way beginning now to be recognized at least, and even occasionally followed : when two desires are integrated, that means that a solution has been found in which both desires have found a place, that neither side has had to sacrifice anything.

Let us take some very simple illustration. In the Harvard Library one day, in one of the smaller rooms, someone wanted the window open, I wanted it shut. We opened the window in the next room, where no one was sitting. This was not a compromise because there was no curtailing of desire; we both got what we really wanted. For I did not want a closed room, I simply did not want the north wind to blow directly on me; likewise the other occupant did not want that particular window open, he merely wanted more air in the room.

Integration involves invention, and the clever thing is to recognize this, and not let one’s thinking stay within the boundaries of two alternatives which are mutually exclusive.

Integration process: Open, break-up, create

If, then, we do not think that differing necessarily means fighting, even when two desires both claim right of way, if we think that integration is more profitable than conquering or compromising, the first step toward this consummation is to bring the differences into the open. We cannot hope to integrate our differences unless we know what they are.

The first rule, then, for obtaining integration is to put your cards on the table, face the real issue, uncover conflict, bring the whole thing into the open. One of the most important reasons for bringing the desires of each side to a place where they can be clearly examined and value is that evaluation often leads to revaluation.

 The first step is to uncover the real conflict, the next is to take the demands of both sides and break them into their constituent parts.  You will notice that to break up a problem into its various parts involves the examination of symbols, involves, that is, the careful scrutiny of the language used to see what it really means.

A friend of mine wanted to go to Europe, but also she did not want to spend the money it would cost. Was there any integration? Yes, she found one. In order to understand it, let us use the method I am advocating; let us ask, what did « going to Europe » symbolize to her?

In order to do that, we have to break up this whole, « going to Europe. » What does « going to Europe » stand for to different people? A sea voyage, seeing beautiful places, meeting new people, a rest or change from daily duties, and a dozen other things.

Now, this woman had taught for a few years after leaving college and then had gone away and led a somewhat secluded life for a good many of years.  « Going to Europe » was to her the symbol, not of snow mountains, or cathedrals, or pictures, but of meeting people-that was what she wanted.

When she was asked to teach in a summer school of young men and women where she would meet a rather interesting staff of teachers and a rather interesting group of students, she immediately accepted. This was her integration. This was not a substitution for her wish, it was her real wish fulfilled. The end result of conflict management-indeed, the only way to resolve a conflict- is not «victory”, not “compromise”. It is through integration of interests. (Dynamic Administration, 1941)

Integration: A collective creation

The creative power of the individual appears not when one ‘wish’ dominates others, but when all ‘wishes’ unite in a working whole. For community is a creative process. It is creative because it is a process of integrating.

The most familiar example of integrating as the social process is when two or three people meet to decide on some course of action, and separate with a purpose, a will, which was not possessed by anyone when he came to the meeting but is the result of the interweaving of all. In this true social process there takes place neither absorption nor compromise.

(Community as a Process. 1919)

To create a genuine group idea, every man must contribute what is in him to contribute. The individual is not to facilitate agreement by courteously waiving his own point of view. That is just a way of shirking. Nor may I say, ‘Others are able to plan this better than I’. Such attitude is the result either of laziness or of a misconception. I must not subordinate myself, I must affirm myself and give my full positive value to that meeting.

The business man has probably the opportunity today of making one of the largest contributions to society that has ever been made, a demonstration of the possibility of collective creativeness. In the League of Nations, in the cooperatives, above all in business administration, we see an appreciation emerging, not in words but in deeds, of what collective creativeness might mean to the world.  

The world has long been fumbling for democracy, but has not yet grasped its essential and basic idea. Business and industrial organization is, I believe, on the verge of making large contributions to something far more important than democracy in its more superficial meaning: the development of integrative unity.

(Mary P. Follett: Creating Democracy, Transforming Management, 2003)