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  Power and Authority: The Original Vision of Mary Parker Follet 

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Power and authority are two key concepts in management, yet they cause great confusion. Usually, people focus simply o­nly o­n the division of power or o­n how to achieve power.

Yet, this is a limited view, say Domènec Melé, Professor and Director of the Department of Business Ethics at IESE Business School, and Josep Rosanas, Professor of Accounting and Control at IESE. In the paper, "Power, Freedom and Authority in Management: Mary Parker Follet's 'Power-With'," they go back in time to rediscover the innovative vision of Mary Parker Follet (1868-1933) o­n the subjects of power and authority.

Known as 'a prophet of management,' Follet wrote about business in the early 20th century, but her ideas are as relevant today as they were then. Professors Melé and Rosanas believe that Follet's views can help modern managers better understand the notions of power and authority and how they should be used in business.

Follet was a contemporary of Frederick W. Taylor, who was considered to be the 'father' of management theory and of the 'Scientific Movement.' While Follet embraced some of Taylor's concepts, her ideas o­n power and authority differed greatly. Taylor viewed power as "the boss knows better than anybody else" and should scientifically analyze what his subordinates do and give them orders. O­n the contrary, Follet focused o­n the science of getting people to cooperate. She believed that genuine power is not 'power-over' but 'power-with.'

In the world of business, managers, unions and workers alike constantly strive for power over o­ne another. Workers resist management having power over them and employers resist the efforts of unions to invert the situation. In Follet's view, power-over is an inadequate goal, for two reasons. The first is moral, with a legal distinction. The prepositions 'over' and 'with' are used to mark a distinction in law. Follet gave the following example: You have rights over a slave; you have rights with a servant. The second reason that power-over does not work is that people simply do not want to be led or patronized.

As an alternative, Follet proposed 'power-with.' By jointly developing power with workers, managers set the stage for a fair fight. She wrote, "That is always our problem, not how to get control of people, but how all together we can get control of a situation."

While power-over is coercion, power-with is coactive. Sharing control provides personal enrichment for everyone and boosts morale. Wrote Follet, "It is all right to work with someone, what is disagreeable is to feel distinctly that you work under someone? Executives as well as workers object to being under anyone."

The meaning of "jointly developing power" can be further illustrated by her concept of "circular response" or "circular behavior." Imagine the following example (which Follet herself gave): In a game of tennis, A serves. The way B returns the ball depends partly o­n the way it was served to him. A's next play will depend o­n his own original serve plus the return by B, and so o­n. In social relations, there are lineal responses as well as circular o­nes. In the business environment, employees respond to their employers and to the relationship between them. In other words, according to Follet, "a reaction is always a reaction to a relation."

To eliminate power-over, Follet recommended using integration to solve conflicts. She also maintained that managers should look for the authority - or "law" - of a situation and a union of interests. When a person feels overpowered by another, he or she seeks freedom. Cooperation and what Follet calls "functional utility" will make these feelings vanish. "We are seeking an integrative unity as the foundation of business development," she wrote.

On the subject of authority, Follet pointed out that ownership, or just having a certain position does not give a top manager authority. Real authority, which people obey, comes from function and experience. The challenge of good management is giving authority to those who have real responsibility for their function. She summarized her thoughts this way: "The o­ne who gives an order should try to bring those ordered into the situation."

Mary Parker Follet's management writings shed light o­n the concepts of power and authority, even today. Power, she said, is something that managers should jointly develop with their colleagues in the workplace.

This article is based on:  Power, freedom and authority in management: Mary Parket Follett's "power-with"
Publisher:  Reason in Practice Limited
Year:  2003
Language:  English
Note:   This article was published in the journal "Philosophy of Management", Vol. 3, No 2, 2003, pages 35-46.