Mary Parker Follett

The Law of the Situation
(extract from The Giving of Orders)




The idea that obedience to an order is the result of the sensible acceptance of the reality of a meaningful situation is one of the best ideas that came out of the study of industrial organization. This idea should be applied in all social contexts in which orders are given. What we have now instead is the disorder deriving from a pretended imposed "order" coming from the mind of an ideological master. The result is that rulers and ruled keep fighting senselessly to reciprocal exhaustion.



Behaviour patterns and obedience to orders

To some men the matter of giving orders seems a very simple affair; they expect to issue their orders and have them obeyed without question. Yet, on the other hand, the shrewd common sense of many a business executive has shown him that the issuing of orders is surrounded by many difficulties; that to demand an unquestioning obedience to orders not approved, not perhaps even understood, is bad business policy. Moreover, psychology, as well as our own observation, shows us not only that you cannot get people to do things most satisfactorily by ordering them or exhorting them; but also that even reasoning with them, even convincing them intellectually, may not be enough. Even the “consent of the governed” will not do all the work it is supposed to do, an important consideration for those who are advocating employee representation. For all our past life, our early training, our later experience, all our emotions, beliefs, prejudices, every desire that we have, have formed certain habits of mind, what the psychologists call habit-patterns, action-patterns, motor-sets.

Therefore it will do little good to get intellectual agreement; unless you change the habit-pattern of people, you have not really changed your people. Business administration, industrial organization, should build up certain habit-patterns, that is, certain mental attitudes.

So the workman has often a general disposition of antagonism to his employers which cannot be changed by argument or exhortation, but only through certain activities which will create a different disposition

If we analyse this matter a little further we shall see that we have to do three things, I am now going to use psychological language: (1) build up certain attitudes; (2) provide for the re­lease of these attitudes; (3) augment the released response as it is being carried out.


In this matter of prepared-in-advance behaviour patterns – that is, in preparing the way for the reception of orders, psychology makes a contribution when it points out that the same words often rouse in us a quite different response when heard in certain places and on certain occasions. A boy may respond differently to the same suggestion when made by his teacher and when made by his schoolmate. Moreover, he may respond differently to the same suggestion made by the teacher in the classroom and made by the teacher when they are taking a walk together. Applying this to the giving of orders, we see that the place in which orders are given, the circumstances under which they are given, may make all the difference in the world as to the response which we get.

One might say that the strength of favourable response to an order is in inverse ratio to the distance the order travels. Production efficiency is always in danger of being affected whenever the long-distance order is substituted for the face-to-face suggestion.


There is much more than we could learn from psychology about the forming of habits and the preparation for giving orders that I can even hint at now. But there is one point already spoken of by implication, that I wish to consider more explicitly – namely the manner of giving orders. Probably more industrial trouble has been caused by the manner in which orders are given than in any other way.

What happens to a man, in a man, when an order is given in a disagreeable manner by foreman, head of department, his immediate superior in store, bank or factory? The man addressed feels that his self-respect is attacked, that one of his most inner sanctuaries is invaded. He loses his temper or becomes sullen or is on the defensive; he begins thinking of his “rights” – a fatal attitude for any of us. In the language we have been using, the wrong behaviour pattern is aroused, the wrong motor-set; that is, he is now “set” to act in a way which is not going to benefit the enterprise in which he is engaged.
There is more subtle psychological point here, too; the more you are “bossed” the more your activity of thought will take place within the bossing-pattern, and your part in the pattern seems usually to be opposition to the bossing.
This complaint of the abusive language and the tyrannical treatment of the one just above the worker is an old story to us all, but there is an opposite extreme which is far too little considered. The immediate superior officer is often so close to the worker that he does not exercise the proper duties of his position. Far from taking on himself an aggressive authority, he has often evaded one of the chiefs problems of his job: how to do what is implied in the fact that he has been put in a position over other.   


Depersonalizing orders: obeying the law of the situation

Now what is our problem here? How can we avoid the two extremes: too great bossism in giving orders, and practically no orders given?  I am going to ask how you are avoiding these extremes. My solution is to depersonalize the giving of orders, to unite all concerned in a study of the situation, to discover the law of the situation and obey that. Until we do this I do not think we shall have the most successful business administration. This is what does take place, what has to take place, when there is a question between two men in positions of equal authority. The head of the sales departments does not give orders to the head of the production department, or vice versa. Each studies the market and the final decision is made as the market demands. This is, ideally, what should take place between foremen and rank and file, between any head and his subordinates. One person should not give orders to another person, but both should agree to take their orders from the situation. If orders are simply part of the situation, the question of someone giving and someone receiving does not come up. Both accept the orders given by the situation. Employers accept the orders given by the situation; employees accept the orders given by the situation. This gives, does it not, a slightly different aspect to the whole of business administration through the entire plant?

We have here, I think, one of the largest contributions of scientific management: it tends to depersonalize orders. From one point of view, one might call the essence of scientific management the attempt to find the law of the situation. With scientific management the managers are as much under orders as the workers, for both obey the law of the situation. Our job is not to get people to obey orders, but how to devise methods by which we can best discover the order integral to a particular situation. When that is found, the employee can issue it to the employer, as well as employer to employee.

I call it depersonalizing because there is not time to go any further into the matter. I think it really is a matter of repersonalizing. We, persons, have relations with each other, but we should find them in and through the whole situa­tion. We cannot have any sound relations with each other as long as we take them out of that setting which gives them their meaning and value. This divorcing of persons and the situation does a great deal of harm. I have just said that scientific management depersonalizes; the deeper philosophy of scientific management shows us personal relations within the whole setting of that thing of which they are a part.

There is much psychology, modern psychology particularly, which tends to divorce person and situation. What I am referring to is the present zest for “personality studies.” When some difficulty arises we often hear the psychologist whose specialty is personality studies say, “Study the psychology of that man.” And this is very good advice, but only if at the same time we study the entire situation. To leave out the whole situation, however, is so common a blunder in the studies of these psychologists that it constitutes a serious weakness in their work. And as those of you who are personnel directors have more to do, I suppose, with those psychologists who have taken personality for their specialty than with any others, I wish you would watch and see how often you find that this limitation detracts from the value of their conclusions.

I said above that we should substitute for the long-distance order the face-to-face suggestion. I think we can now see a more cogent reason fur this than the one then given. It is not the face-to-face suggestion that we want so much as the joint study of the problem, and such joint study can be made best by the employee and his immediate superior or employee and special expert on that question.

I have spoken of the importance of changing some of the language of business personnel relations. We considered whether the words “grievances,” “complaints,” or Ford's “trouble specialists” did not arouse the wrong behaviour-­patterns. I think “order” certainly does. If that word is not to mean any longer external authority, arbitrary authority, but the law of the situation, then we need a new word for it. It is often the order that people resent as much as the thing ordered. People do not like to be ordered even to take a holiday. I have often seen instances of this. The wish to govern one's own life is, of course, one of the most fundamental feelings in every human being. To call this “the instinct of self-assertion,” “the instinct of initiative,” does not express it wholly.

I think it is told in the life of some famous American that when he was a boy and his mother said, “Go get a pail of water,” he always replied, “I won't,” before taking up the pail and fetching the water. This is significant; he resented the command, the command of a person; but he went and got the water, not, I believe, because he had to, but because he recognized the demand of the situation. That, he knew he had to obey; that, he was willing to obey. And this kind of obedience is not opposed to the wish to govern one's self, but each is involved in the other; both are part of the same fundamental urge at the root of one's being. We have here something far more profound than “the egoistic impulse” or “the instinct of self-assertion.” We have the very essence of the human being.

This subject of orders has led us into the heart of the whole question of authority and consent. When we conceive of authority and consent as parts of an inclusive situation, does that not throw a flood of light on this question? The point of view here presented gets rid of several dilemmas which have seemed to puzzle people in dealing with consent. The feeling of being “under” someone, of “subordination,” of “servility,” of being “at the will of another,” comes out again and again in the shop stewards movement and in the testimony before the Coal Commission. One man said before the Coal Commission, “It is all right to work with anyone; what is disagreeable is to feel too distinctly that you are working under anyone.” With is a pretty good preposition, not because it connotes democracy, but because it connotes functional unity, a much more profound conception than that of democracy as usually held. The study of the situation involves the with preposition.


Obedience and liberty

We have considered the subject of symbols. It is often very apparent that an order is a symbol. The referee in the game stands watch in hand, and says, “Go.” It is an order, but order only as symbol. I may say to an employee, “Do so and so,” but I should say it only because we have both agreed, openly or tacitly, that that which I am ordering done is the best thing to be done. The order is then a symbol. And if it is a philosophical and psychological truth that we owe obedience only to a functional unity to which we are contributing, we should remember that a more accurate way of stating that would be to say that our obligation is to a unifying, to a process.

This brings us now to one of our most serious problems in this matter of orders. It is important, but we can touch on it only briefly; it is what we spoke of as the evolving situation. I am trying to show here that the order must be integral to the situation and must be recognized as such. But we saw that the situation was always developing. If the situation is never stationary, then the order should never be stationary, so to speak; how to prevent it from being so is our problem. The situation is changing while orders are being carried out, because, by and through orders being carried out. How is the order to keep up with the situation? External orders never can, only those drawn fresh from the situation.

Moreover, if taking a responsible attitude toward experience involves recognizing the evolving situation, a conscious attitude toward experience means that we note the change which the developing situation makes in ourselves; the situation does not change without changing us.

To summarize, what have we learned on the subject of the giving of orders?

That, integration being the basic law of life, orders should be the composite conclusion of those who give and those who receive them; more than this, that they should be the integration of the people concerned and the situation; more even than this, that they should be the integrations involved in the evolving situation. If you accept my three fundamental statements on this subject: (1) that the order should be the law of the situation; (2) that the situation is always evolving; (3) that orders should involve circular not linear behaviour - then we see that our old conception of orders has somewhat changed, and that there should therefore follow definite changes in business practice.



[Home] [Top]