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The Organization Man

The Organization Man

Remember the TV show, Mad Men? Its images of corporate America in the 1950s were memorable: masses of men in identical haircuts, wearing identical gray suits, clocking out at the end of the day and going home to their manicured suburban lawns and their manicured wives. The whole milieu screamed conformity. And yet this fictionalized version of staid yet dull security came from a genuine social phenomenon that flourished during the two decades following World War II.

Former Fortune magazine writer William Whyte charted this trend toward the conformist in his 1956 opus The Organization Man, one of the most successful and celebrated business books of all time. So how did Whyte delineate this character–who was he exactly? How did this text influence business in the 20th century and beyond? Let's gather some insight through this explanation.

The Organization Man Meaning

Organization man (noun) - a company man adheres to a business philosophy based on social ethics and groupthink rather than the go-it-alone individualism the United States was founded on.

The Organization Man (1956)

In 1956, safety and security seemed to have overtaken the pioneer spirit of innovation that had gripped the early days of American society, as examined in Tocqueville's Democracy in America. This rugged individualism had also previously been limned in Ayn Rand's essential text on individualism pushed to its limit: Atlas Shrugged.

The Organization Man (1956) Page from the original working manuscript of 'Democracy in America StudySmarterFig. 1 Page from the original working manuscript of 'Democracy in America

The Organization Man Summary

Almost certainly male and white, the organization man is embodied in Whyte's text by interviews with CEOs and executives at large firms, who share their thoughts on what had changed in corporate life over the last two decades. It's a veritable field guide for the seasoned CEO.

The Social Ethic

Whyte introduced the concept of the "social ethic," a philosophy that holds that organizations are better equipped to solve problems than individuals and are, therefore, better for society. This belief makes becoming part of an organization an economic and moral choice.

Whyte does not necessarily see this as a helpful change. He felt that conformity was anodyne and did not encourage any risk-taking. The Organization Man lacked tension insofar as everything he did was in a bid for safety and security. Without this sort of tension and risk and the possibility of rising competitively above the fray of corporate America, progress would be negligible.

Conflating conformity and morality in this way affected the Organization Man–and by extension, the social order–at every level, from the kinds of food eaten, cars driven, social life engaged in, and suburban homes inhabited. This cookie-cutter life was steeped in a society that was entirely geared toward the nuclear family and the sort of monolithic existence hinted at in allegorical science fiction films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

The Organization Man (1956) Invasion of the Body Snatchers Poster StudySmarterFig. 2 Invasion of the Body Snatchers Poster

Quotes from The Organization Man

When a young man says that to make a living these days you must do what somebody else wants you to do, he states it not only as a fact of life that must be accepted but as an inherently good proposition."

–William H. Whyte, The Organization Man

The Organization Man (1956) William H. Whyte StudySmarterFig. 3 William H. Whyte

Did you find this explanation helpful? If you answered yes, check out our other explanations on Gender in the 1950s!

Man exists as a unit of society. Of himself, he is isolated, meaningless; only as he collaborates with others does he become worthwhile, for by sublimating himself in the group, he helps produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts."

–William H. Whyte, The Organization Man

Thoreau once said if you see a man approach you with the obvious intent of doing you good, you should run for your life; it is hard to resist the impulse when talking with social engineers."

–William H. Whyte, The Organization Man

Importance of The Organization Man

The Organization Man became a template for the soulless dirge of modern corporate life in which the individual is wholly subsumed in favor of the corporate entity. This business philosophy experienced a drop in the 1960s due to the rise in counterculture, feminism, and the questioning of gender roles in the workplace. Then it fell again in the 1980s when businesses began to embrace entrepreneurship and innovation.

Companies like Apple stepped up to the plate and became the future wave. The likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and other Silicon Valley stalwarts began to rule the roost and champion the rugged individuality, the willingness to go it alone, and the stick-to-it-iveness of America's innovators celebrated in Tocqueville's pivotal tome Democracy in America.

These lone-wolf CEOs were proud of their individuality and independence, wearing them like badges. They were proud to be dropouts or degreeless. And they even became role models when later copied by Elon Musk and Elizabeth Holmes, both brandishing "rogue billionaire" images. Still, these creatives demanded absolute loyalty from their worker bees, so these were more like dictatorships.

The Organization Man (1956) Elon Musk StudySmarterFig. 4 Elon Musk

There was a fine line between individualism and outright hubris, which was most flagrantly crossed by Holmes, who is on trial in 2022 for fraud in touting designs to investors for a medical device that didn't yet exist. This promotion of "vaporware," or designs that don't quite work yet but are intended (and sometimes launched) for the market, is par for the course in Silicon Valley when presenting to investors. But it begs the question, how far is too far in our quest for revolution in business?

Since William Whyte seems to find flaws even in the most rudimentary science, we can conclude that his views trace a line from the Atomic Age to our current dystopia, which finds individualism itself in crisis as it eats itself, gorging on its toxic narcissism and greed that has been steeped in a diet of conspiracy theories and science denial. One wonders what Whyte would make of it.

Connections with Popular Culture?

With the advent of Reaganomics in the 1980s, the Organization Man was rendered obsolete. Randian individualism had taken hold in corporate America, and the new prototype of the successful businessman was the yuppie, or "young urban professional". The yuppie invented the ethos, in the words of Wall Street's (1987) Gordon Gekko, "Greed is Good". Yuppies were shallow, consumerist, and ambitious to the detriment of all others.

The perfect embodiment of the yuppie was author Brett Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho (1990). Ellis charts the mental deterioration of an amoral Wall Street businessman named Patrick Bateman, who is a serial killer of women. The novel skewers contemporary late capitalist mores, as cool, calm, and collected Bateman treats everyone and everything around him as a commodity. He slaughters women without remorse while surrounding himself with the blandest pop cultural ephemera. Patrick, the narrator, is unreliably schizophrenic, so it is never obvious if the murders occur, but readers appreciate the satire, making the book a huge bestseller. In 2000, American Psycho was adapted for the screen by director Mary Harron, with Christian Bale as the titular anti-hero.

William Whyte's The Organization Man

The Organization Man has had a pronounced effect on how we as a society view business and how we live. But what are some of Whyte's other works? Let's have a look.

  • The Last Landscape (1970)
  • The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980)
  • The City as Dwelling: Walking, Sitting, Shaping (1980)
  • City: Rediscovering the Center (1980)
  • The Exploding Metropolis (1993)
  • The Last Landscape (1970)
  • Time of War: Remembering Guadalcanal, a Battle Without Maps (2000).

The Organization Woman?

White men have historically held the highest number of CEO positions globally. Representation of women and other minorities has been slim since the first female Fortune 500 company CEO was appointed in 1972. The first Latino CEO wasn't named until 1982, and the first African American CEO was in 1999. Since 2000, white men have continued to occupy around 85 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions. women CEOs have gained 7 percent of the demographic, while African Americans, Latinos, and East and South Asians comprise the remaining positions.

The Organization Man (1956) Madeleine Albright,  the first woman to become U.S. Secretary of State StudySmarterFig. 5 Madeleine Albright, the first woman to become U.S. Secretary of State

The Organisational Man 1956 - Key takeaways

  • The Organization Man was a key business text by William Whyte examining two decades of post-War corporate America.
  • The book comprises interviews that Whyte conducted with CEOs of various companies on the changes they had seen over the years.
  • Whyte introduced the concept of the "social ethic", which held that organizations were better at problem-solving and decision-making than individuals. Thus joining the collective became a morally correct act.
  • A line can be traced from Whyte's embrace of individualism to today's entrepreneurs, who often champion a lone-wolf style of management that isn't always transparent but reflects a dynamism hinted at in the pioneers of Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

References

  1. Richard Zweigenhaft. Diversity Among Fortune 500 CEOs from 2000 to 2020: White Women, Hi-Tech South Asians, and Economically Privileged Multilingual Immigrants from Around the World. 2021

Frequently Asked Questions about The Organization Man

The social ethic held that organizations were better at problem-solving and decision-making than individuals. Thus joining the collective became a morally correct act.

The book was about corporate life in two-decade period following World War II. It features interviews with a number of CEOs as well as theorizing by Whyte about how corporate life has turned to conformity and security over dynamic risk and change.

This was the stereotype of the white man who gave his identity to the company he was working for in order to provide the safety and security of a suburban life.

Whyte conveys the idea that conformity and collectivism had replaced individualism and risk in the modern business world.

It means that the good of the organization takes precedence over that of the individual. Man's personal identity has become that of a constituent part of his company.

Final The Organization Man Quiz

Question

Who wrote the Organization Man?

a) E.B. White b) William H. Whyte c) Betty White

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Answer

b)

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Question

When was The Organization Man published?

a) 1956 b) 1969 c) 1982

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Answer

a)

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Question

What was the social ethic?

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Answer

It was a drive toward collectivism in companies rather than individualism.

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Question

What time period did The Organization Man focus on?

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Answer

The two decades after World War Two.

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Who did Whyte interview for his book?

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Answer

CEOs of various companies.

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What did Whyte ask his interviewees in the book?

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Answer

About changes they had seen in business over the two-decade period following World War II.

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Question

Did Whyte see the focus on collectivism in business as a good thing?

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Answer

No.

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Question

What sort of family was highly touted in the 1950s?

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Answer

The nuclear family.

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Where did a good number of families relocate to from cities in the 1950s America?

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Answer

Suburbia.

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Why did the social ethic later decline in business?

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Answer

The 60s counterculture and rise of the entrepreneur in the 1980s saw the decline of the organization man.

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