Mastering “the Art of Getting Things Done Through People”

Mary Parker Follet, an influential early-20th-century social commentator and writer, considered management to be “the art of getting things done through people.” While much of her work focused on education and communities, her analyses also included ways in which companies could be more productive. She essentially believed in the power of people working together while respecting the contributions of the individual — a philosophy that’s helped thousands of organizations succeed.

Mary Follet knew that to get things done, you needed to form a community. Without the community, the work would remain static. Broadening her teachings to the state of management and administration in industry and public institutions, Follet became known as a management expert, a woman “before her time.” Today, companies still look to her teachings to optimize productivity.

Here are some Follet-inspired management tips that will help you get things done through your people:

  • Opt for “power with” vs. “power over.” Follet believed that people preferred to take “power over” because it offered a quick solution. She distinguished between operating in a coercive manner (power over) versus operating in a coactive manner (power with). The latter is about developing power within people. Consider ways you can give your people power — over their work, their decisions, even their consequences.
  • Value both the individual and the group. Follet believed in the power of both the individual and the group; neither was more valuable than the other. Consider the ways individuals and groups interact in your organization, and make sure your people know that one without the other isn’t enough to succeed. Also, try to find ways to expose your employees to different functional groups within the organization. The more people know who’s doing what and how, the greater their understanding will be of where they fit into the big picture.
  • Consider community a process. Follet considered community a creative process, one that integrates many points of view without excluding or suppressing others. You can borrow from Follet’s point of view by doing your best to keep everyone’s ideas afloat. If someone’s idea is a little off base, see what you can do about helping that employee focus and reframe his or her suggestion. You can enlist the help of his coworkers in that reframing. If someone doesn’t feel as if they’re being heard, ask him or her to reiterate their concerns. Write them down while they’e talking to indicate your interest and commitment, and then do what you can to incorporate some aspect of that employee’s ideas into a project or process.
  • Consider the teacher-student relationship. Follet believed that the group’s role toward the leader was not a passive one. Instead of following a leader per se, a group can be taught to follow an “invisible leader” — a common purpose. Think of ways that you can incorporate Follet’s idea of reciprocal leadership. Like good teachers who teach kids how to learn and think, good leaders must impart the same skills to their employees if they expect them to get things done. Think about your favorite teacher and how he or she was able to motivate you to think and learn; then practice what you remember on your staff. Consider, too, the counterintuitive notion of “taking orders” from your staff, putting everyone in the position of reciprocal leadership.