The Organization Man

The Organization Man



The Pequod Review:

Despite its age, The Organization Man is an intelligent sociological study that has retained much of its value. William Whyte's primary focus is on the bureaucratic culture of the modern large-scale organization, and specifically its employees:

...the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life... who lower their sights to achieve a good job with adequate pay and proper pension and a nice house in a pleasant community populated with people as nearly like themselves as possible.

Whyte's book is wide-ranging. In some of the most perceptive sections, Whyte shows how the values of organizational culture have spread to other institutions, and even to family life and the educational system:

As for the wives of Organization Men, most wives agreed with the corporation; they too felt that the good wife is the wife who adjusts graciously to the system, curbs open intellectualism or the desire to be alone.


The union between the world of organization and the college has been so cemented that today’s seniors can see a continuity between the college and the life thereafter that we never did. Come graduation, they do not go outside to a hostile world; they transfer.

And here is one of the better examples of the creep of bureaucratic red-tape:

We pick out the one tangible part of the application—the experimental design—how the man plans to work out his project. We are asking more and more questions. Aware of this, applicants elaborate their designs in more and more detail. A vicious cycle has set in. In making application for a grant before World War II, a few lines or at most a paragraph or two sufficed for the experimental design; now it may extend over six to eight single-spaced typewritten pages. And even then committee members may come back to ask for more details. Under these circumstances, passing the buck has come to be practiced very widely. Projects are passed from committee to committee—to my knowledge, in one instance six committees—largely because at no place along the line did anyone believe that he had adequate information to come to a firm decision.

He also has a refreshingly clear-headed view of what small businesses are really like:

The small business is praised as the acorn from which a great oak may grow, the shadow of one man that may lengthen into a large enterprise. Examine businesses with fifty or less employees, however, and it becomes apparent the sentimentality obscures some profound differences. You will find some entrepreneurs in the classic sense—men who develop new products, new appetites, or new systems of distribution—and some of these enterprises may mature into self-perpetuating institutions. But very few. The great majority of small business firms cannot be placed on any continuum with the corporation. For one thing, they are rarely engaged in primary industry; for the most part they are the laundries, the insurance agencies, the restaurants, the drugstores, the bottling plants, the lumber yards, the automobile dealers. They are 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.

Whyte is a highly intelligent observer of human behavior, and The Organization Man is a perceptive book on not just organizations, but also human nature, the work ethic, and the tensions of the individual versus society. Recommended.