Conflict Resolution – a definition of Mary Follett


By: – G.S.Oinam
“Many people tell me what I ought to do and just how I ought to do it, but few have made me want to do something….”   – Mary Parker Follett, the New State (p. 230)

Mary Parker Follett’s words, written some seven decades ago, seize our attention today as though she was speaking with us personally about our most contemporary concerns.  Sometimes they dangle tantalizingly ahead, pointing toward a yet-to-be experienced tomorrow.  “Who was Follett?” first-time readers ask, “and why have I not heard of her earlier?”  The natural inclination is to find a professional tag to hang upon her.  “Was she a management consultant?  A political scientist?  A historian?  A philosopher?” and so forth.  She was each of these, and more.  She avoided all such labels, however, and out of respect for the universal nature of her thinking, we must as well. Yet, credit to this woman generously was not given by male dominated world.

In 1925, Mary Parker Follett, an American intellectual, social worker, management consultant and pioneer of organizational theory/behaviour, presented a paper entitled “Constructive Conflict”— that conflict, as a natural and inevitable part of life, does not necessarily have to lead to deleterious outcomes. Rather, if approached with the right analytical and imaginative tools a conflict can present an opportunity for positive or constructive development (hence the title of paper). Ms Follett’s definition of conflict as difference is a bit too parsimonious – difference, in itself, does not make a conflict – but this is unimportant as it doesn’t detract from her main insights. According to Ms Follett, there are three ways to respond to conflict— Dominance, Compromise and Integration. Dominance means victory of one side over the other. This works in the short term, but is unproductive in the long run (to make her point Follett presciently alludes to the results of “The War” (WWI). Compromise means each party having to give up something for the sake of a meaningful reduction of friction. Far form ideal, compromise often leaves parties unsatisfied – having given up something of value. Finally, integration, the option championed by Follett, means creatively incorporating the parties’ fundamental desires/interests into the solution.

Integration in this context means the creation of a novel solution that penalizes no one and that becomes the only sure base for progress toward an ideal democracy. If integration is to be achieved, various forms of coordination must be introduced as fundamental principles of organization: (1) direct contact between the responsible people who have to carry out policies, rather than hierarchical control; (2) early contact between these responsible people, so that policy may be created by them, rather than later meetings that can only try to resolve differences between policies already evolved by isolated groups; (3) the reciprocal relating of all factors in a situation, that is, equal attention to all the variables in the social system.

Coordination in these various forms is a continuing process, since in any complex social environment there exist many points of creativity, and established policies can never be executed as designed but must constantly be reformed in consonance with basic goals.

Follett did not appreciate the role of institutional structures, bureaucracy, or force. She firmly rejected Durkheim’s proposition that social facts may be conceived of as “things,” and her approach to the concept of the state was unsophisticated. She never mentioned the existence of legitimate power or the prevalence of legitimized and idealized peace that has its source in bloody conquest.

Ms Follett writes…….One advantage of integration over compromise I have not yet mentioned. If we get only compromise, the conflict will come up again and again in some other form, for in compromise we give up part of our desire, and because we shall not be content to rest there, sometime we shall try to get the whole of our desire. Watch industrial controversy, watch international controversy, and see how often this occurs. Only integration really stabilizes. But the stabilization I do not mean anything stationary. Nothing ever stays put. I mean only that that particular conflict is settled and the next occurs on a higher level.

The psychiatrist tells his patient that he cannot help him unless he is honest in wanting his conflict to end. The “uncovering” who every book on psychology has rubbed into us from some years now as a process of the utmost importance for solving the conflicts, which the individual has within himself, is equally important for the relations between groups, classes, races, and nations. In business, the employer, in dealing either with his associates or his employees, has to get underneath all the camouflage, has to find the real demand as against the demand put forward, distinguish declared motive from real motive, alleged cause from real cause, and to remember that sometimes the underlying motive is deliberately concealed and that sometimes it exists unconsciously. The first rule, then, for obtaining integration is to put your cards on the table, face the real issue, uncover the conflict, bring the whole thing into the open….

This type of “uncovering”, in the context of conflict and productive negotiations, explained by Ms Follett often leads to a “revaluation” of one’s desires and interests. Another way of saying this is that uncovering leads people to move from position to interest-based thinking and negotiation. So if the first step is to illuminate the conflicted parties’ desires, the second and related step for Follett is to break up the demands of each party into its constituent parts. Breaking up wholes means paying special attention to the language used in the conflict. What is behind the words – is a desire to go to Europe, for example, really a desire to go to Paris or Barcelona or is it a reflection of a deep need to experience life anew and meet different people? If psychology, she writes:  there another way to fulfill this need? Once the whole is broken up it needs to be reconstructed anew – with a focus on the essential. One is reminded her of social psychologist Morton Deutsch’s Crude Law of Social Relations: “The characteristic processes and effects elicited by a given type of social relationship also tend to elicit that type of social relationship.”

Returning to the obstacles in the way of win-win outcomes, Follett explains that integrative bargaining entails intelligence (quick to learning) and imagination (something that is short supply in general, even more so during times of conflict). Second, our way of life has habituated us to take pleasure in domination. Finding an integrative solution pales in comparison to the excitement generated by fighting with and (trying to) dominate another. (This would have been an interesting place for Follett to give her critique a feminist flavor, but alas she did not). A third obstacle is that integrative analysis is usually confined to the world of theory. Fourth, Follett points to the way in which we communicate with one another. In conflict there is a strong tendency to attribute blame to the other. And finally, Follett thinks this is perhaps the greatest obstacle to integration, misguided education and lack of training.

She argued that democracy would work better if individuals organized themselves into neighborhood groups. She believed that community centers had an important place in democracy, as the place where people would meet, socialize, and discuss important topics of concern to them. As people from different cultural or social backgrounds met face-to-face, they would get to know each other. Follett believed that diversity was the key ingredient of successful community and democracy.

The individual is created by the social process and is daily nourished by that process. There is no such thing as a self-made man. What we possess as individuals is what is stored up from society, is the subsoil of social life…. Individuality is the capacity for union. The measure of individuality is the depth and breadth of true relation. I am an individual not as far as I am apart from, but as far as I am a part of other men. ( Follett 1918 p.62).

Follett thus encouraged people to participate in group and community activities and be active as citizens. She believed that through community activities people learn about democracy. In The New State she wrote, “No one can give us democracy, we must learn democracy.”

Furthermore, the training for the new democracy must be from the cradle – through nursery, school and play, and on and on through every activity of our life. Citizenship is not to be learned in good government classes or current events courses or lessons in civics. It is to be acquired only through those modes of living and acting which shall teach us how to grow the social consciousness. This should be the object of all day school education, of all night school education, of all our supervised recreation, of all our family life, of our club life, of our civic life. (Follett 1918 p.363) In the ideal democracy, therefore, integration of the individual personality and the society is so complete that no conflict, either psychological or social, is conceivable. “Democracy does not register various opinions; it is an attempt to create unity” (1918, p. 209).

The training for democracy can never cease while we exercise democracy. We older ones need it exactly as much as the younger ones. That education is a continuous process is a truism. It does not end with graduation day; it does not end when ‘life’ begins. Life and education must never be separated. We must have more life in our universities, more education in our life… We need education all the time and we all need education. (1918: 369)

Neighborhood education was, thus, one of the key areas for social intervention, and the group a central vehicle. Her own experience in Roxbury and elsewhere had taught her that it was possible for workers to become involved in local groups and networks and to enhance their capacity for action and for improving the quality of life of their members. Group process could be learned and developed by practice. As Konopka (1958; 29) again notes, she ‘realized the dual aspect of the group, that it was a union of individuals but it also presented an individual in a larger union’. She argued that progressives and reformers had been wrong in not using the group process. 

Group organization, she argued, not only helps society in general, but also helps individuals to improve their lives. Groups provide enhanced power in society to voice individual opinion and improve the quality of life of group members.

She believed that her insights from her work on community organizing could be applied to management of organizations. She suggested that through direct interaction with each other to achieve their common goals, the members of an organization could fulfill    themselves through the process of the organization’s development. Follett developed the circular theory of power. She recognized the holistic nature of community and advanced the idea of “reciprocal relationships” in understanding the dynamic aspects of the individual in relationship to others.

In her Creative Experience (1924) she wrote “Power begins with the organization of reflex arcs. Then these are organized into a system – more power. Then the organization of these systems comprises the organism—more power. On the level of personality one gains more and more control over me as one unites various tendencies. In social relations power is a centripetal self-developing. Power is the legitimate, the inevitable, outcome of the life-process. We can always test the validity of power by asking whether it is integral to the process of outside the process.”

Ms Follett distinguished between “power-over” and “power-with” (coercive vs. co-active power). She suggested that organizations function on the principle of “power-with” rather than “power-over.” For her, “power-with is what democracy should mean in politics or industry” (Follett 1924 p.187). She advocated the principle of integration and “power sharing.” Her ideas on negotiation, conflict resolution, power, and employee participation were influential in the development of organizational studies.

In this way Mary Parker Follett was able to advocate the fostering of a ‘self-governing principle’ that would facilitate ‘the growth of individuals and of the groups to which they belonged’. By directly interacting with one another to achieve their common goals, the members of a group ‘fulfilled themselves through the process of the group’s development’.   

What is the central problem of social relations? It is the question of power… But our task is not to learn where to place power; it is how to develop power. We frequently hear nowadays of ‘transferring power as the panacea for all our ills. Genuine power can only be grown; it will slip from every arbitrary hand that grasps it; for genuine power is not coercive control, but coactive control. Coercive power is the curse of the universe; coactive power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul. (Follett, 1924: xii-xiii).

Boje and Rosile (2001) argue that she was ‘the first advocate of situation-search models of leadership and cooperation’. This was not to some surface activity: ‘the willingness to search for the real values involved on both sides and the ability to bring about an interpenetration of these values’ (Follett 1941: 181).

Her conception of the integrative dynamic of the social process led her to rethink the nature of power and leadership. She emphasized the critical importance of exercising power-with rather than power-over. Leaders needed to be collaborative participants in the creative exchange of ideas among organizational or community members. The rigidity of traditional hierarchical lines of authority needed to be erased to allow full scope to the creative interaction that led to progress.

Citizen-based community groups needed to be the foundation of a true democracy, organizing in regional and national groups to provide direction to government. She believed that the current political system used the idea of consent of the people as a means to limit the citizen role to voting and exclude the public from real influence in government decisions. She rejected schemes which postulate a dualism between the individual and society, as well as most other forms of causal interaction between these two entities, in favour of the notion of integration

She writes—The skillful leader…does not rely on personal force; he controls his group not by dominating but by expressing it. He stimulates what is best in us; he unifies and concentrates what we feel only gropingly and shatteringly, but he never gets away from the current of which we and he are both an integral part. He is a leader who gives form to the inchoate energy in every man. The person who influences me most is not he who does great deeds but he who makes me feel I can do great deeds…Who ever has struck fire out of me, aroused me to action which I should not otherwise have taken, he has been my leader.

That was Marry Follett way—engaging all she met in an exploration of ideas, always grounded in experience, but never tied to the old, always instead seeking to create the new.  She believed, “Experience may be hard, but we claim its gifts because they are real, even though our feet bleed on its stones” (Follett, 1924, p. 302).

On presaging President Kennedy’s famous inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” Follett concluded that “The question which the state must always be trying to answer is how it can do more for its members at the same time that it is stimulating them to do more for themselves.” Midstream she corrects herself, adding, “No, more than this, its doing more for them must take the form of their doing more for themselves” (p. 237).

The key concepts that underpin Follett’s philosophy are:
· interrelatedness – ‘coactive’ as opposed to coercive
· power with an emphasis on ‘power-with’ rather than ‘power-over’ people; where the ‘situation’ will dictate the action that needs to be taken
· a community-based approach with the idea that natural leaders are born within the group
· the leader guides and in turn is guided by the group
· teaching is carried out by leading
· a skillful leader influences by stimulating others
· the idea of fluid leadership where leaders and followers are in a relationship and the role of leader flows to where it is needed – informal leadership is in the workplace.

Somebody strongly recommended Ms Follett’s philosophy and I believe her idea of conflict resolution by integration- may take time in Manipur but one of the finest and ever lasting one. Presently, in the state, dominating type of protest is followed by compromise (negotiation) to settle the conflict.

And, since conflict is inevitable part of our life, society and country- political leaders we called protectors of people in democracy, in case of India- must experience and resolve conflicts in time. A good politician is the person who is able to resolve conflicts by integrative relationship. Civil societies become active when political parties, elected representatives and state assembly does not work properly. Government messages dysfunctional and it has become a conflict message (speak one thing, do one thing and think another thing).


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