Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Organization Man, 2012 Style

I had reason recently to skim William H. Whyte's The Organization Man, published in the autumn of 1956 and now considered one of the most important American sociological texts of the 20th century.

An assistant managing editor for Fortune magazine, Whyte concluded that the American corporation was purposefully and systematically eliminating individuality--and individuals were happily giving it up.  Conformity had become a central virtue in Eisenhower's America.  It was the coming of the Stepford Executives--and of particular consequence to Whyte, the Stepford Scientists who would no longer have the flexibility to free-wheel their way into true innovation.

Whyte was particularly down on the emergence of the group.  "People very rarely think in groups; they talk together, they exchange information, they adjudicate, they make compromises.  But they do not think," he concluded: "They do not create."

What they do,Whyte knew, was avoid risk, or any misstep that might cost a job or a career.  It was, if we take a trip to the dystopian side of the 1950s, the sale of one's soul for lifetime employment and a tidy lawn in the suburbs.

Whyte was especially explicit in his criticism of "personality tests" which proliferated in the 1950s.  Sixty percent of the 63 corporations he checked in 1954 used the tests to identify people most likely to fit their cog into the organizational apparatus.

In response, Whyte provided an appendix entitled "How to Cheat on Personality Tests," the goal not being to get a good score, but to answer the questions "as if you were like everybody else is supposed to be."   For a tester in doubt as to what the most conventional, pedestrian answer was on a particular question, Whyte recommended he repeat the following, a kind of mantra for the 1950s Organizational Man:
1. I loved my father and mother, but my father a little bit more.
2. I like things pretty well the way they are.
3. I never worry much about anything.
4. I don't care for books or music much.
5. I love my wife and children.
6. I don't let them get in the way of company work.
There you have it, the six-step recipe for getting and keeping your job in Baby Boom America. I don't know about you, but this made me laugh out loud, and I'm sure made Whyte smile through his grimace.

Of course, personality tests still abound.  The American Management Association reported that 39% of companies still use them.  If nothing else, few of us escape learning our Myers-Briggs personality type.
If "The Organization Man" doesn't
depress you, add this to your
reading list!

It occurred to me, though, in the hard-charging, ruggedly individualistic entrepreneurial world of 2012 (he wrote, with a smiling grimace), that the mantra might have had to evolve.  After all, how does one answer questions "as if you were like everybody else is supposed to be" in 2012?  Herewith, then, my suggestions:
1. Instead of " I loved my father and mother, but my father a little bit more," how about "I love my father and mother equally, even if they do live in different states and I don't much care for my father's new wife, or my mother spending so much time in Pilates, though my mother is much more likely to take me back if my start-up tanks."
2. "I like things pretty well the way they are" now becomes "I've had it drilled into my skull by cutting edge professors that if I'm not constantly disrupting something I cannot be happy."  (I've also been taught to use the verb 'disrupt' whenever I mean change, alter, arrange, modulate, refine, reverse, temper, organize, adjust, correct, shift, switch, tweak, or nudge.  On Saturday I'm going to disrupt my sock drawer. And pivot my girl/boyfriend.)
3. "I never worry much about anything" morphs to "I never worry much about anything except disrupting the world.  Oh, and becoming a billionaire."
4. "I don't care for books or music much" might be "I never take the headphones out of my ears.  And, book?  What's a book?"
5. "I love my wife and children."  Hmmm.  How about: "NA--I'm only 30 and completely unprepared for commitment of any kind." (Ladies may substitute "26," and men born after 1990 can add "Until I'm 38 I'll be. . . .")
6. "I don't let them get in the way of company work."  "Like I said, NA."
Whyte concluded with his advice to always be on the lookout for sneaky, new tests and adapt accordingly, adding the comforting reminder that "in all of us there is a streak of normalcy."

I conclude by saying, test or not, always be very careful what you say about your mother.

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