The Organization Man

“The Organization Man”, written by William H. Whyte (1957) was described as “epoch defining” ( The Organization Man studied American businesses and argued that the guiding principle of American workers had become collectivism as opposed to individualism. Its portrait of this conformist culture combined with other works, such as Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Keat’s, The Crack in the Picture Window to give us a critical picture of the 1950s office. In short, Whyte was critical of the conformist trends he observed.(And, ironically, his criticism conformed to the criticism of his contemporary social commentators.)

The Organization Man is a study of the midcentury white-collar professional and his environs. Published the same year as The Crack in the Picture Window and also a bestseller, it is considered one of the most influential books on management ever written. The Organization Man developed the first thorough description of the impact of mass organization on American society. Whyte saw that the prevailing opinion was that corporations appeared to provide a blissful answer to postwar life with the marketing of new technologies—television, affordable cars, space travel, fast food—and lifestyles, such as carefully planned suburban communities centered around the nuclear family. Whyte found this collectivist phenomenon alarming. In contrast to the thin sourcing of Keats’s book, Whyte made a careful study of Park Forest, Ill., interviewing numerous residents and analyzing how the physical layout of housing affected behavior.

The book paints the picture of the harried suburban family man, gulping coffee each morning to catch his train into the city and returning to collapse, martini in hand, into his armchair each night. Keats made his John Drone a more pitiable example of the type. Drone, a government worker, feels a “tightening, knotted cord about his temples” after moving to Rolling Knolls. He lies awake at night fretting over installment payments on the car, the TV set, the dryer. When the family trades up from the rambler to a split-level in Maryland, he takes side jobs at a liquor store and at Sears to pay the mortgage, and he leaves the house at 6:00 every morning to beat the rush downtown. Despite all his labors, there is no final reward for John Drone: the victim of chicanery, he learns at the end of the book that he is liable for the mortgage on the rambler he thought he’d sold. The Drones are left to face financial ruin.

Whyte was troubled by the belief that the “Protestant Ethic – the pursuit of individual salvation through hard work, thrift, and competitive struggle” with its emphasis on rugged individualism, which had shaped American society from its origins, had been displaced by “The Social Ethic.” The Social Ethic could be called an organization or a bureaucratic ethic: more than anything else it rationalizes the organization’s demands for fealty and gives those who offer it wholeheartedly a sense of dedication in doing so. “By Social Ethic I mean that contemporary body of thought which makes morally legitimate the pressures of society against the individual. Its major propositions are three: a belief in the group as the source of creativity; a belief in ‘belongingness’ as the ultimate need of the individual; and a belief in the application of science to achieve the belongingness.”

As Whyte critically observed, the organization man believed in the essential rightness of large groups, and in the essential wrongness of the individual. The organization man felt very strongly that people had a moral obligation to fit in. To Whyte, this represented an important negative shift in American values. Americans were not merely working differently now; they were voting, praying, dressing, buying, and loving differently, too. And, all this flowed from changes in corporate culture. The shift that Whyte discerns from Protestant Ethic to Social Ethic roughly parallels the shift from inner-directedness to other-directedness described by David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd (see above). (The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 66, p.1268.)

A key point made by Whyte was that people became convinced that organizations and groups could make better decisions than individuals, and thus serving an organization became logically preferable to advancing one’s individual creativity. Whyte felt this was counterfactual and listed a number of examples of how individual work and creativity can produce better outcomes than collectivist processes. He observed that this collectivism led to risk-averse executives who faced no consequences and could expect jobs for life as long as they made no egregious missteps.

“[Whyte] understands that the work-and-thrift ethic of success has grievously declined… that the entrepreneurial scramble to success has been largely replaced by the organizational crawl.” His view was that the bold visions of individualists had been replaced by “the modest aspirations of organization men who lower their sights to achieve a good job with adequate pay and proper pension and a nice house in a pleasant community populated with people as nearly like themselves as possible.” (The New York Times Book Review) Whyte concluded that “’He (the individual) must fight the organization. Not stupidly, or selfishly, for the defects of individual self-regard are no more to be venerated than the defects of cooperation. But fight he must, for the demands for his surrender are constant and powerful … It is wretched, dispiriting advice to hold before him the dream that ideally there need be no conflict between him and society. There always is; there always must be. Ideology cannot wish it away; the peace of mind offered by organization remains a surrender, and no less so for being offered in benevolence.” (Id.) The book’s conclusion is a call to arms on behalf of the individual.