- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006


“The Organization Man” turns 50 this year and is not doing too well in his middle age, according to what some people say about him. But if you read what William H. Whyte wrote about him in his famous book, which is still in print, and then compare that with what you see going on today in the sorts of organizations he frequented, you might be justified in thinking he has some life in him yet.

“The Organization Man” is one of those books that helped to both define and explain the era of the 1950s. We could be forgiven if we mix things up now and confuse “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” with “The Organization Man,” who, when not participating in “The Power Elite,” was part of “The Lonely Crowd.” As Joseph Nocera, a New York Times columnist and formerly executive editor of Fortune magazine, says in a foreword to this edition, the real subject of “The Organization Man” is 1950s values.

Fortune was where Whyte worked when he published “The Organization Man” in the fall of 1956. After that, from 1958 until his death at age 81 in 1999, he worked in the field of urbanology. But it was this bestselling book that made his name — and, indeed, gave him the financial wherewithal to pursue his later interest.

Whyte said later he got his idea for his thesis and book by observing the Yale class of 1949, which had been touted to him as one of the best and brightest ever. When he studied its graduates, however, he found they were no such thing: They didn’t want challenge or excitement; they, and graduates elsewhere, wanted the safe havens of big corporations like GE and AT&T; — hothouses, we might say, for conformity.

Everything complex gets reduced to a label, and the label for both the 1950s and Whyte’s thesis is “conformity.”

Whyte’s Organization Men blended in. They put the needs of the company (or other organizations) ahead of their own. They spent their entire working lives at one place. They didn’t simply work for the company, they belonged to it.

He deplores it all: the implicit if not explicit encouragement of mediocrity; the mistaken belief in the group as a “creative vehicle”; the inculcation of “the skills of getting along isolated from why and to what end the getting along is for”; the increasing importance placed on personnel departments. Whyte thinks that such emphases thwart leadership, among other things.

He brings in interesting exhibits from all over the map. He discusses the post-court-martial scene of “The Caine Mutiny,” for example, and is appalled by novelist Herman Wouk’s censure of the “mutineers” for opposing Capt. Queeg. What were they supposed to do? he asks. Obey Queeg (and The Organization) and let the ship go down with all hands?

He tells how companies use personality tests to screen out unconventional minds, and at the end cheekily provides an appendix on how to cheat on them. It is one of the bright sections in a text that in style tends toward a business-like, flannelled grayness. (If this is ever made into an audio book, Ben Stein should be the one to record it.)

Nowadays we think we are so much smarter, and in many ways we are. Corporate bureaucracies to us are suspect, if not entirely tamed. We recognize the value of maverick thinkers (though they can still seem a threat).

And yet, and yet. There is the man “who is so completely involved in his work that he cannot distinguish between work and the rest of his life — and is happy that he cannot.” Is he not still with us?

The endless number of endless meetings, to the extent that the “working day” seems to consist of nothing else — how different is that from the “glorification of the group?” And speaking of groups — is dependence on focus groups not simply an abandonment of individual thought and decision making to faceless others?

We praise our age for no longer seeking security in the organization. But perhaps we don’t seek it because we know it is no longer to be found. Which is making a virtue of necessity, in an age when companies “downsize” (read, get rid of) older workers who have too many benefits and too many illnesses and too-high salaries.

“The Organization Man” remains a worthwhile read today, not just for the way we were, but forplus ca change.

Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

Here are the opening sentences of “The Organization Man”:

This book is about the organization man. If the term is vague, it is because I can think of no other way to describe the people I am talking about. They are not the workers, nor are they the white-collar people in the usual, clerk sense of the word. These people only work for The Organization. The ones I am talking about belong to it as well. They are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions. Only a few are top managers or ever will be. In a system that makes such hazy terminology as “junior executive” psychologically necessary, they are of the staff as much as the line, and most are destined to live poised in a middle area that still awaits a satisfactory euphemism. But they are the dominant members of our society nonetheless. They have not joined together into a recognizable elite—our country does not stand still long enough for that—but it is from their ranks that are coming most of the first and second echelons of our leadership, and it is their values which will set the American temper.

The corporation man is the most conspicuous example, but he is only one, for the collectivization so visible in the corporation has affected almost every field of work. Blood brother to the business trainee off to join Du Pont is the seminary student who will end up in the church hierarchy, the doctor headed for the corporate clinic, the physics Ph.D. in a government laboratory, the intellectual on the foundation-sponsored team project, the engineering graduate in the huge drafting room at Lockheed, the young apprentice in a Wall Street law factory.

William H.Whyte

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