Commentary Magazine


Again: Man & Organization

To the Editor:

The subject matter of The Organization Man by William H. Whyte is so important that I feel compelled to send you a few comments on Mr. Robert Lekachman’s review of Mr. Whyte’s book which appeared in your March issue.

If I understand Mr. Lekachman correctly, his principal thrust against Mr. Whyte is that Mr. Whyte suffers from a “general ambiguity of moral vision.” He makes three main points.

1. Quoting a long paragraph from Mr. Whyte on the teaching of English, Mr. Lekachman tells us that the moral to be drawn is “Read Shakespeare and learn how to write technical reports.” This seems to me a distortion of Mr. Whyte’s meaning. The context of the passage quoted is a critical evaluation of the work done by the English departments of our universities. Just preceding the quoted passage Mr. Whyte says “they [the English departments] are right to recoil from justifying English on the narrow ground of immediate utility, as better report writing and the like. But one can recoil too far” (emphasis mine). Thus Mr. Whyte’s explicit meaning is not that the study of Shakespeare, Lamb, and Swift can only, or even primarily, be justified by its eventual usefulness in business, but that the English departments are wrong in not recognizing that apart from all other values the study of literature also happens to contribute to business education. Mr. Whyte is attacking an excessive recoil from utility; and anybody who has been watching English departments spawning unreadable theses . . . for the sake of so-called pure scholarship . . . must have sympathy for Mr. Whyte’s point of view.

2. Mr. Lekachman accuses Mr. Whyte, without producing a shred of evidence, of “pride in the large splash produced” by his articles on company wives, articles characterized by Mr. Lekachman as “a triumph of ambiguity.” . . . The assumption [is] that the only readers equipped to understand Mr. Whyte’s irony are “the practicing ironists of college English departments,” that [business executives] are bound to misunderstand [it] and Mr. Whyte knew [this]. . . . I wonder whom Mr. Lekachman had in mind when he made his assessment of executive minds: John J. McCloy? Gordon Wasson?

But the questioning of Mr. Whyte’s motives is worse than gratuitous, it is demonstrably false, for Mr. Whyte closes his discussion of company wives by drawing a parallel with George Orwell’s 1984, pointing out that while the terrible world Orwell sketched would “seem far remote, a hell to our heaven,” there are “hauntingly similar” scenes in current fiction expressing collective points of view. How someone with enough moral courage and sensitivity to point to the totalitarian implications of our business society can be accused of catering to the very policies he attacks, is beyond my comprehension.

3. Finally, Mr. Lekachman reports “do not rebel, Mr. Whyte seems to say.” This [interpretation] in the face of Mr. Whyte’s explicit injunction at the end of the book to “fight the organization” (emphasis in original), seems to me . . . a twisting of the book’s central thesis. . . . Apparently Mr. Lekachman’s evidence . . . is Mr. Whyte’s advice to young men to cheat on personality tests. Should [a young man] take them seriously at the cost of not being able to make a living? Mr. Lekachman’s ethical scruples deserve a better target.

. . . The points of view of men like Robert Lekachman and C. Wright Mills (who wrote a very similar review of The Organization Man) are sterile and corrosive. . . . Lekachman and Mills . . . point to no roads of salvation. All they have is a frozen sneer at our culture. To say, as Mr. Lekachman does, that large organizations are not always more efficient than small ones is irrelevant. The kind of organization thinking attacked by Mr. Whyte flowers just as luxuriantly in organizations of four hundred people as in those of forty thousand. . . . Taking the world as it is today, we either have to assume that character, integrity, and individuality can prosper even within an organization, as Mr. Whyte suggests, or despair.

Franz M. Oppenheimer
International Bank for Reconstruction and Development
Washington, D. C.

_____________

 

Mr. Lekachman writes:

. . . The point of my criticism of Mr. Whyte’s position is that within it there are contradictions and ambiguities. He advances both the utilitarian and the anti-utilitarian view of literature’s function. He tells readers both to rebel and, by implication, to conform to most of the day-to-day aspects of their business lives. . . .

I did not mean that all executives, much less the two distinguished gentlemen named, had been deceived. I noted only that by Mr. Whyte’s account there were executives in fair numbers who were so misled. Finally, the dangers of irony are underlined by Mr. Oppenheimer’s use of my ironical phrase “the practicing ironists of college English departments.” The criticism in the sentence was impartially directed at the “ironists” and the executives . . . .

. . . There is much evidence in support of the conclusion that the sheer scale of our activities . . . [in all] walks of life has increased to the point where in many areas the small enterprise is almost anachronistic. . . . Large organization means bureaucracy which implies fixed rules and limited individual initiative. It can be plausibly argued that in recent years something new has been added to the familiar phenomena of bureaucracy. The novel element is the organization ethos which demands of the ordinary and the extraordinary employee alike something beyond forty hours weekly of efficient labor. It requires total involvement of the personality. . . . The good organization man, therefore, adjusts his opinions, his tastes, his place of residence, his very choice of a mate to the organization which nurtures him. Because the rewards of organization are substantial, because its purposes may seem humane, because organization men hire other organization men, and because, finally, the number of alternatives to organization employment steadily diminishes, the individual feels that he has no choice. He must work for the organization. He must play the role allotted to him.

With this picture of our society I do not entirely agree. There remain occupations, not alone college teaching, which are not yet dominated by organization. In them, the central relationship is between the worker and his work, not between the worker and other members of the factory group. . . .

Organization itself is no monolithic entity. Even in very large enterprises, the worst excesses of selection and manipulation are sometimes absent. My five weeks’ experience as a guest of the Swift Meat Packing Company convinced me that this huge company . . . is no slave to personality test, promotion by popularity, or group living. . . . Its emphasis is on open, undisguised competition among its employees for advancement. Not all firms resemble Swift. But neither is Swift unique.

It may even be that the best organizations realize the danger to organization itself of hiring only organization men—a point well made by Mr. Whyte. Successful organization achieved its triumphs through the bright ideas of original men—those most likely to fail the standardized tests of the conventional organization. If unoriginal men hire others in their own image, their organizations may become sluggish, inefficient, and unprofitable. . . .

Finally, since the organization ethos is a recent phenomenon, it has been tested by no major depression. . . . Is it entirely unreasonable to wonder whether organizations led only by organization men can successfully weather a depression? A depression tests ingenuity, adaptability, and the capacity to deviate from the conventional rules. These are not the qualities of the organization man.

What I have said comes to this: I believe organization thinking to be less pervasive, less successful, and less inevitable than do Mr. Oppenheimer and Mr. Whyte. Quite possibly I am wrong. Much of the evidence of organization’s role is controversial and subject to diverse interpretation. . . . If the organization and its characteristic mode of behavior are pervasive, if they are fated to achieve still more prominence, the most important problem of all remains. How should an individual act in an organization world?

. . . Two modes of behavior strike me as clear, comprehensible, and ethically tolerable, and [there is] a third which I oppose. A man may decide that the surrender of autonomy as the price of security and material reward is too high. Refusing to work for the organization, he may seek precarious rewards in the academy, the professions, or the small business. Although it is a path for independent spirits, I have confidence that they are fairly numerous and that their rewards will not be trivial.

Or, a man may esteem more highly material success and the economic and psychic security of organization employment. With open eyes, he may surrender himself to the organization, reflecting perhaps that his and the organization’s interests are similar. None of us is completely free in society, even those who refuse employment in organizations. To some extent, we select our own restraints and rewards. . . .

There is a third choice. . . . It is the pretense that the individual can enjoy the benefits of organization without paying a price in autonomy—if he dissimulates, cheats, pretends to be organization’s man and is secretly his own. The individual who identifies himself with the organization and feeds at the organization’s table behaves honorably. The individual who at his peril pursues his own independent path behaves honorably. But the man who wants it all tangles himself in ambiguity and, paradoxically, may achieve neither material reward nor spiritual ease.

Precisely because I value our culture, I believe that the organization mentality need not conquer us and that human behavior will continue various, rebellious, and unpredictable.

_____________

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