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10 Ways You're So Not Organization Man

Fifty-two years ago, William Whyte, a Fortune magazine editor, wrote a book called “The Organization Man.” The term entered our vocabulary to imply conformity – someone who, according to Bartleby.com’s definition of popular expressions, subordinates his personal goals and wishes to the demands of the corporation or a similar large organization for which he works.

Depicting the impact of mass organization on American society, Whyte’s book became one of the most important sociological and business commentaries of the postwar years. The idea that institutions such as corporations could take care of everything from nutrition to mobility to secure and rewarding employment was both compelling and disturbing.

What a difference a few decades make. Here are 10 ways in which today’s business professional is so not “organization man”:

  1. She’s a woman. Whyte had a male view of the organization framework. It included no women managers, no women running small businesses, and certainly no women as business leaders.

  2. He’s a small-business owner. In 1956, Whyte conceded that the small business was “vital, to be sure, but essentially they service an economy; they do not create new money within their area and they are dependent ultimately on the business and agriculture that does.” Yet three years previously, the U.S. Small Business Administration had been created to “aid, counsel, assist and protect the interests of small business concerns, to preserve free competitive enterprise and to maintain and strengthen the overall economy of our nation.” Today, there is widespread recognition of the jobs created and sustained by small business.

  3. He’s an entrepreneur. Whyte would no doubt have had good conversations with Bill Gates or Michael Dell or Virgin founder Richard Branson. The conversations with legendary female company-builders would have been even more interesting. (Maybe Whyte never met Coco Chanel or Estee Lauder.) 

  4. She’s a networker. Almost everyone who has an active Facebook or MySpace account has a wide community of contacts to counsel, empathize, and otherwise provide support for the next steps in a career.

  5. He keeps his resume up to date at all times. The Organization Man didn’t need a resume because he was secure in the knowledge that his employer would look after him throughout his working life.

  6. He emphasizes career trajectory over employer loyalty. Today’s career professionals may gauge an employer by how well the organization can support their career objectives, but if the organization fails to do so, they will start looking elsewhere.

  7. She speaks up. Whyte pointed out the irony of authority-questioning Americans who did not question The Organization. Today’s career professionals don’t hesitate to offer their views on how things should be done. And they quickly vote with their feet if they feel they are not heard.

  8. He asks forgiveness as much as he asks for permission. There is growing acceptance of a generation of “intrapreneurs” who make positive change inside their work environments. They act like entrepreneurs, pursuing a vision of what should be, scavenging for and acquiring resources and funding, and deploying those resources successfully in the service of, for instance, a new product or new process.

  9. She has multiple employers – and multiple jobs. There is ample coverage of and celebration of the virtues of changing employers and of having several different jobs over the course of a working life. Hedge-fund trader becomes fitness guru? No problem.

  10.  When he stays, he stays on his terms. Contrary to the current notion that everyone is constantly changing jobs, there are in fact plenty of professionals who have been with the same employer for decades. The difference from Organization Man days? He stays on the implicit condition that the employer provides him with appropriate remuneration, interesting work, good working conditions, and continuous opportunity for development.

It’s important to point out that William Whyte was simply a commentator on the Organization Man phenomenon, not a proponent of it. He pointed out that the focus on making the organization “work” meant that society came close deifying the organization. But Whyte held up a view of change: “We are not hapless beings caught in the grip of forces we can do little about, and wholesale damnations of our society only lend a further mystique to organization. Organization has been made by man; it can be changed by man.”

And man has been doing so for much of the last few decades.