You are on page 1of 10

Revisiting The Organization Man

Men today arent joiners. Theyre disillusioned and cynical about societys organizations.
Politics? Riddled with corruption. Corporations? Run by greedy bastards. Church?
Brimming with hypocrites. Fraternal lodges? Just a bunch of old fogies. Men in
contemporary society prefer to remain aloof and apathetic, criticizing these
organizations from the outside. For many men, manliness has been equated with
rugged individuality; the man who does his own thing and associates as little as possible
with other people. So is belonging to an organization even desirable? Is it possible to
be a part of a group without killing your manliness? In this post, we take a look at
William H. Whytes classic, The Organization Manand what it can teach us about
balancing your manly individuality with membership in an organization.

The Organization Man Circa 1956

In 1956, The Organization Man was published and it quickly became a bestseller.
William H. Whyte offered a searing evaluation of the values and ethos of 1950s society.

Marked by their relative apathy to politics, philosophy, and rebellion, the so-called Silent
Generation, was coming of age and heading out into the workforce. The goal of many a
middle-class man during this time was to land a job at a plumb corporation, give his full
loyalty to the organization, move up the ladder, and enjoy a secure retirement.
Whyte was alarmed at the enthusiastic willingness of these new hires to subvert their
desires and their individuality to the corporation. He was most discouraged at the
amount of pressure, in the form of new sociological mantras, that was leading them to
do so.
Social scientists during this period proposed that man was most happy when he
belonged, and that belongingness was one of the most important characteristics of a
potential employee. This Social Ethic lauded the cooperative group over the individual.
The virtue of the 1950s was ones ability to get along with others. The role of manager,
the facilitator of cooperation, was greatly elevated and prized, while the role of leader
was demoted. For if a group had a leader, then all members viewpoints were not
equally valued. Whyte believed these ideas were fatal to individual identity and
innovation. He argued that the elevation of belongingness over genius and leadership
would impede both individual growth and satisfaction and the progress of society and
Of course the Silent Generations devotion to becoming an organization man did not
last, followed as they were by the Baby Boomers, who grew up in the time of Watergate,
Vietnam, and the turmoil of the civil rights movement. Disillusioned with the
organizations they had been reared to respect, young people actively and openly
questioned all the old pillars of society: government, religion, business, and education.
The standard of belongingness was turned on its head; a persons worth was now
based on how individualistic and independent they were from the traditional standards
of conformity. It was all about doing your own thing. The value of the individual reigned
supreme over that of the organization.
Organization Man defined a generation; the idea of the Organization Man, like that of
his contemporary, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, took on a life that transcended
the book itself. It left us the inedible image of the soulless corporate drone, the man in

the gray flannel suit, willing to subvert his individuality to pay a mortgage. But this
picture and the haze of time have obscured what Whytes real message was.
Whyte was not entirely opposed to organizations or even conformity per se. He argued
for individualism withinorganization life. The fault is not in organization, he said, but
in our worship of it. At the heart of his message was the warning that when it came to
the balance between individuality and belongingness, the pendulum had swung far too
much in the direction of the latter.
Several generations later, it now seems the pendulum has swung too far in the other
direction. Of course times have changed. Men today understand that giving their loyalty
to a corporation wont be rewarded; theyll probably be downsized during a merger and
or when their job is outsourced. But men are loathe to join any kind of organization at
all. They live increasingly private, isolated lives. They wont join as much as a bowling
league. The ideal is to be as unfettered and free as possible, without having
commitments to anyone or anything. Yet they are missing out on the benefits that
belonging to an organization offer a man.

Why belong to an organization?

Organizations get things done. You may feel satisfied with yourself sitting at home,
reading blogs, and posting rants about the state of the world on Facebook, but youre
not really changing anything. While we love the idea of completely grassroots
movements, the truth is that its organizations that get things done. If you look at the civil
rights protests of the 1960s, it may appear to be the ultimate grassroots movement, with
one rugged individual, MLK, and thousands of other individuals getting together. But
King and his followers largely worked through real organizations. Groups like the
Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference planned and orchestrated the events that
tore down the walls of racial prejudice and segregation. Even our most potent symbol of
rugged individualism-the American cowboy-is misplaced; many cowboys joined labor
organizations to protect their rights as workers on the cattle drives.

Individual effort is not without merit; indeed, one man can change history. But an
organization can multiple the impact of that effort many times over. In every time and in
every place, it is has been organizations of men, from the loosely confederated to the
firmly contracted, who have gotten the job done.
Organizations focus your energies. A lot of men today say that theyre not religious,
but they are spiritual. But if you ask them what they doing to foster their spirituality, the
answer is often nothing. The same thing goes for things like being social aware, or
into politics. Yet the energies needed to change yourself and the world need to be
channeled by some kind of vehicle. Think about electricity; without a wire to carry the
energy, you cant use it. If you have impulses to change society or yourself, joining an
organization can help focus those energies. Some kind of structure will help turn your
thoughts and desires into action. The electricity of your good intentions needs a conduit,
an outlet to use the power. Joining a church or mosque will focus the energies of your
faith; becoming a Big Brother will focus your charitable impulses; joining a political
organization will give you something tangible to do with your idealism.
Organizations motivate you. How many times do you sit at home thinking about all the
good intentions and goals you have for your life and then fail to act on them? Isolating
yourself is a surefire way to drift through life. You never have any responsibilities, of
course, but then you never grow either. Organizations provide some accountability to
your goals and a source of motivation to get better. You may think youre an awesome
runner, jogging around your neighborhood every night. But why dont you joining a
running club and have some guy around to push you to go faster and needle you when
you dont show up? Similarly, joining a service organization requires that you show up to
projects that you sign up for. If you have trouble motivating yourself to reach your goals,
join an organization which will help your progress.
Organizations force you to rub shoulders people unlike yourself. In our
increasingly isolated lives, our social circles have gotten smaller and smaller. We work
with people like us with the same level of education and we hang out with friends from
similar socio-economic backgrounds. We rarely rub shoulders with people from different
spheres of life. This is fatal to democratic society. Groups of like minded people tend to

move to more extreme versions of their initial position. Organizations provide you with
the opportunity of getting to know a wider spectrum of people. Join a fraternal
organization and befriend some old guys. Join a diverse church and get to know people
from a different side of town.
Organizations need good men. Many men stay away from joining organizations
because they are disillusioned with them. They stand on the outside and criticize
perceived corruption or hypocrisy. Yet this turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. When
good men drop out of these organizations or refuse to join them, the criticism only
becomes truer. If everyvirtuous man drops out of politics because he believes that its
corrupt, politics will only become more debase. If organizations have any chance of
changing, good men have to stay and work for change from within. Change will be slow,
but when men stay on, join in, and work for change, it will happen.

Balancing Conformity and Individuality

There are only a few times in organization life when he can wrench his
destiny into his own hands-and if he dos not fight then, he will make a
surrender that will later mock him. But when is that time? Will he know
the time when he sees it? By what standards is he to judge? He does
feel an obligation to the group, he does sense moral constraints on his
free will. If he goes against the group, is he being courageous-or just
stubborn? Helpful-or selfish? Is he, as he so often wonders, right after
all? It is in the resolution of a multitude of such dilemmas, I submit,
that the real issue of individualism lies today. ~ William Whyte, The
Organization Man
Of course, organizations should not be looked upon as an unmitigated good. A man
should join an organization which benefits him, but still allows him to hold onto his
individuality. A man must acknowledge that it is sometimes not an easy line to walk.
Whyte believed that the 1950s Social Ethic was dead wrong in its denial of the conflict
between the individual and society. This tension will always exist. Whyte believed that
every individual should face these conflicts and wisely negotiate them. Here are some
guidelines for balancing the tension between allegiance to self and loyalty to an

Never blindly join an organization. The Hare Krishnas may be friendly and offer you
free food, but dont join up until youve done your homework. Dont join things on an
emotional whim. Take your time, and choose an organization that lines up with values
and will help you become a better man.
Be indispensable. The more indispensable you are to an organization, especially a
business or corporation, the more freedom you will have to be yourself and dissent
when appropriate. If you are a cog in the wheel, and there are 100 more cogs who could
do the same job, then you are under more pressure to do exactly what you boss says. If
youre hard to replace, or you know you could be hired somewhere else very easily,
youll be freer to retain your individuality.
Prize your individuality. Whytes beef with the 1950s Social Ethic was its belief that
belongingness was the ultimate need of the individual. Dont get so caught up with
your group that you come to believe that it is always true that what is good for the group
is good for the individual. Whyte advises to give your energy to organizations, but not
too much allegiance.
Be aware of your conformity.

To be aware of ones conformity is to be aware that there is some

antithesis between oneself and the demands of the system (being
aware of ones conformity doesnt make you a conformist). This does
not itself stimulate independence, but it is a necessary condition of it.
~ The Organization Man
Strive for a healthy sense of self-awareness; regularly evaluate why youre doing what
youre doing and how okay you are with it.
Dont give up individuality now in hopes of regaining it later. Whyte spoke of men
on the bottom of the corporate ladder who chafed at the amount of kowtowing they had
to do. Yet they labored under the impression that if they put in the time and worked their
way up to the corner office, theyd have more freedom to be themselves and use their
own ideas. The truth then, as it is today, it that those higher up, while sometimes given a
bit more leeway, are still under constraints to conform to their role. Think about it: if you

have a job in which you constantly conform and act like someone else, then when you
finally get promoted, youll be put in a position suited for your alter ego, not the real you.
If an organization fundamentally violates your values, if it forces you to make
choices that compromise your conscience, then it is time to leave. True loyalty is a
manly virtue in short supply. Dont bail from an organization because of a rough patch,
or new policies with which you disagree, or your offense at a fellow member or some
behind the scenes politicking. These kinds of things happen in every organization. Stay
on and be a force for change. On the other hand, dont turn a blind eye to grievous
misdoings. If an organization fundamentally violates your values or conscience, then it is
times to make an exit.
Remember that the group is not the ultimate source of creativity. Whyte felt that the
belief that groups were the best source of innovation was a crock. Groups are inherently
non-creative, he argued, because members must strive to compromise, agree, and
come to a consensus. The ideas which result tend to reflect the lowest common
denominator between the groups members. Dont rely on an organization for your
ideas. Formulate your own thoughts and then bring them to the group for debate and
Remember that outward conformity can sometimes be a secret weapon. The
greatest catalyst for change may be the man who outwardly conforms while secretly
working for change. Whyte wrote:

And how important really, are these uniformities to the central issue of
individualism? We must not let the outward forms deceive us. If
individualism involves following ones destiny as ones own conscience
directs, it must for most of us be a realizable destiny, and a sensible
awareness of the rules of the game can be a condition of individualism
as well as a constant constraint upon it. The man who drives a Buick
Special and lives in a ranch-type house just like hundreds of other
ranch-style houses can assert himself as effectively and courageously
against his particularly society as the bohemian against his particular
society. He usually does not, it is true, but if he does, the surface
uniformities can serve quite well as protective coloration. The

organization people who are best able to control their environment

rather than be controlled by it, as well aware that they are not too
easily distinguishable from the others in his outward obeisances paid
to the good opinions of others. And that is one of the reasons they do
control. They disarm society.
When an organization does not meet our expectations and we become disillusioned
with it, the temptation is simply to leave it behind. But we probably joined that
organization in the first place because we believed in its foundational principles. Those
principles may now be obscured by policies or leaders with which we do not agree. But
by leaving, you leave behind any possibility of redeeming that organization. If all the
men with the vision of what that organization could become depart, then it will never
reach its potential. Sometimes its better to stay and outwardly conform, while
actively working for change. Others in the organization will trust you, as you seem to
be with the program, and yet really you will be subverting the status quo behind the
For example, I had a friend who worked for a small non-profit organization that
monitored human rights abuses in foreign sweatshops. He did valuable work there, but
his work had a small impact. He was offered a job to work for Nike, helping to improve
their sweatshops. While my friend was loathe to join a corporation with a such a record
of worker abuses, in many ways by conforming to be a Nike employee, he would
actually gain more influence in changing the industry as whole.
How do you know if youve conformed too much to the organization? How do you
know if youve cooperated too much or surrendered too much of yourself? Whyte
defined the following as the terms of the struggle:

To controls one destiny and not be controlled by it; to know which way
the path with fork and to make the running oneself; to have some
index of achievement that one can dispute-concrete and tangible for
all to see, not dependent on the attitudes of others. It is an
independence he will never have in full measure, but he must forever
seek it.

Conformity not Conducive to Creativity

Sharon Beder
Citation: This is article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Conformity not Conducive to
Creativity', Engineers Australia, April 1999, p. 60.
This is a final version submitted for publication.
Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.
Sharon Beder's Other Publications

In 1956 William H. Whyte wrote The Organization Man which described how people not
only worked for organisations but how they belonged to them as well. Whyte's
description of the organisation man was particularly apt for engineers, who generally
worked for large organisations at the time. However the organisation man is clearly an
anachronism today, not only because women people the organisation as well as men
but because the loyalty and conformity expected of the corporate employee is out of
place in a world where lifetime employment is a thing of the past and mindless
conformity can have devastating consequences for human welfare.
Even at the time he was writing Whyte noted the disparity between the ideal of the
individual in 20th Century American life and the reality of the collective situation in
which most Americans found themselves, where individuality was actually a handicap
and conformity the way to get promoted in one's career.
Whyte observed that young organisation men identified their own well-being with that
of the company and in those years of rapid expansion after the war, "many a young
man of average ability has been propelled upward so early&emdash;and so
pleasantly&emdash;that he can hardly be blamed if he thinks the momentum is
constant". Such men assumed that they would be with the organisation for their whole

At the executive level, Whyte described men who worked long hours but didn't feel that
it was a burden. They worked fifty or sixty hours a week, as well as after hours in workrelated entertaining, conferences, and reading. They promoted those who followed their
example. "We have, in sum, a man who is so completely involved in his work that he
cannot distinguish between work and the rest of his life&emdash;and is happy that he
As recently as the 1980s Whyte revisited the organisation man and claimed little had
changed: "The United States continues to be dominated by large organizations ...The
people who staff them are pretty much the same as those who did before." And a 1989
survey of middle-managers in 20 well-known US corporations including American
Express, Dow Chemical, General Motors, Johnson and Johnson, Mobil and Westinghouse
found that 76 percent believed they would spend the rest of their career with the
company they worked for, 80 percent said they were deeply committed to the company
because it had been good for them, and 77% worked more than 50 hours in an average
week (26 percent more than 60 hours).
However their faith was sadly misplaced. They had yet to realise that the social contract
of devoted loyalty in return for life-time employment was being destroyed by the bout
of corporate downsizing which was then already well advanced. It was not only blue
collar workers who suffered cutbacks but also "entire layers of middle managers and
whole categories of professional staff", in other words the organisation men and
women. The same process was happening in Australia.
The loss of this social contract has not prevented managers and professionals from
working harder than ever. Downsizing has left a generation of middle-managers
insecure and unsure of promotion prospects. Conformity and productivity is nowadays
largely attained through fear of layoff. For a few lucky people with skills that are in
demand, loyalty is bought with high salaries and bonuses and stock options. In a recent
Fortune magazine article on "The New Organisation Man" Nina Munk observes: "New
young workers know that loyalty is for suckers; a company can get rid of them at will."
Writing in Technology Review, Langdon Winner claims: "The quaint belief that an
organization should offer its members steady, meaningful employment and a chance to
make lasting contributions to the common good has pretty much vanished. Instead
people are judged by nearly minute-to-minute calculations of their value in the
marketplace and sent packing if someone finds their productivity inadequate."
Whyte's account produced some anxiety that managers were losing their
entrepreneurial edge and becoming unimaginative conformists. Yet conformity based on
fear rather than loyalty is hardly likely to produce a better type of manager.