William H. Whyte

The Organization Man

VTR Date: October 15, 1982

Author William H. Whyte updates his views on "The Organization Man."


GUEST: William H. Whyte
AIR DATE: 10/15/1982

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I started this series in 1956. One of my first programs dealt with a book and an idea that went public that year too. Let me read for a moment from its opening paragraphs. “This book is about the organization man. If the term is vague, it is because I can think of no other way to describe the people I’m talking about. They’re not the workers, nor are they the white-collar people in the usual clerk sense of the word. These people only work for the organization. The ones I’m talking about belong to it as well. They are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions. The corporation man is the most conspicuous example, but he is only one, for the collectivization so visible in the corporation has affected almost every field of work. Blood brother to the business trainee off to join DuPont is the seminary student who will end up in the church hierarchy. The doctor headed for the corporate clinic, the physics PhD in a government laboratory, the intellectual on the foundation–sponsored team project, the engineering graduate in the huge drafting room at Lockheed, the young apprentice in a Wall Street law factory. Whatever the differences in their organization ties, it is the common problems of collective work that dominate their attentions.” The book, of course, was The Organization Man. Its message for many that Americans’ historic individualism embodied in the Protestant ethic was inexhorably being supplanted by a social ethic that makes morally legitimate the pressures of society against the individual. Twenty-six years ago William H. Whyte, author of The Organization Man, was my guest on The Open Mind. He is here again today. Holly, thanks for coming back. I was going to say you forgot something when you were here last time and came back to retrieve it.

WHYTE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: You know, I noted that you wrote back in 1956, and this is the same copy that I used and underlined back then, that some people criticized you in your thesis as being previous and as not recognizing that he pendulum would swing back toward individualism. And I wonder whether you think it did or did not.

WHYTE: No, I don’t think it did. I don’t think it did. And another thing I would say from the perspective now of looking back some 26 years, what I was talking about in that book had really been taking place over many, many, many years. And I suppose one of the reasons that impelled me to it was the feeling that we really had to catch up. Look at the advertising of that particular time or even ten years before, the pictures of contemporary American life. It was a rather mythical sort of thing. And when business started extolling the virtues, they didn’t talk about buying on credit. The pictures they used were of a small boy selling lemonade in the small town, a wonderful America of the past, which has really not been true for quite some time. The trend towards the bureaucratization, or let’s, that sounds like a somewhat loaded term, but towards collective work and going, oh my gosh, it’s way back before even the 1890s.

HEFFNER: But the climate of opinion had not yet come to be.

WHYTE: The climate of opinion. That’s what I really was talking about more than anything else. It had not caught up. And I didn’t mean The Organization Man as a pejorative work. And I was rather astounded after it. After all, I’ve been an organization man myself in some very good organizations. And I don’t think one loses grace by being a member of an organization. Yet many people interpreted this thing on its own, not having read it, as an attack on modern American life. That anybody who worked for a corporation had lost his soul. And I meant no such thing.

HEFFNER: Yet Holly, I remember that you said the same thing 26 years ago, that you did not intend this to be taken as a pejorative term, “the organization man.” Yet it has been and again as I read the book, there are elements in it that would indicate to me that you would prefer the Protestant ethic to the social ethic. Is that unfair?

WHYTE: Well, let me say I would prefer…Let me put it this way. One of the elements in the Protestant ethic is a belief in individualism, and also a rather wry, somewhat sour view of the world in which ones own destiny and that of society don’t necessarily mesh. In other words, it’s sort of out to get you if you don’t watch out. One of the disarming, truly disarming things about what I call the social ethic of The Organization Man is an effort to deny this harsh reality; that really what is good for the organization is good for you. And you hear this time and time again with people saying, “You know, I didn’t plan this move that they’re having me do. I’m sure it’s for my good.” And you know, you have this idea of this part of a plan. He’s not quite sure. He’s doggone right not to be sure because it isn’t part of the plan.

HEFFNER: You mean the old Darwinian notion that went along with the Protestant ethic of dog eat dog, and those who survive the struggle for existence are the best, have gone…

WHYTE: No, no, I don’t mean that. What I’m saying that the old Protestant ethic, which is a very secular ethic really, had very…elements in it. As I say, the belief in individualism I think is fine. But most, a great deal of the rest of the Protestant ethic I thought was pretty bad. It was out of tune with the needs of its time. Now, take the heyday. I quoted from – gosh, I’ve forgotten his name – but he was a wonderful writer of the time, a businessman who gave several sermons at Yale really on the Protestant ethic. And I just copied it verbatim and ran it because I thought it was so amusing. And it is this view that, you know, the man who is rich goes out and works. God smiles on him and he puts him on the house on the top of the hill. You know, this is the pure Protestant ethic, in many ways very selfish. So I was not saying isn’t it a shame we’ve fallen from grace and we’ve fallen from the old Protestant ethic with its emphasis on selfishness and riches and stuff like that and gone to the social ethic. I would take a more tragic view of things.

HEFFNER: What do you mean a more tragic view of things?

WHYTE: Let me talk about the organization. I think it’s a condition of life that there is no perfect symmetry between what our destiny is, what is right for us as an individual, and what is necessary for the needs of society. And society or the organization, I’m using this as a rather large term, has its priest whose job it is to tell you, as the priest once did back in the 1890s, “Blessed are the poor, and blessed are the rich who are taking care of you.” In the same way, say, that if some of the guys from the human relations, whatever other particular sort of religion you want to talk about, that really it is all for the best. One of the things that I spend a lot of time on in here, and let me say what I mean by sort of a tragic view, is on personality tests, because here is where the organization has to declare itself. Because they say, “Take these tests. They’re just to help you.” Help you, my eye. They’re for the organization. They are loyalty tests. They are tests of potential loyalty. Now, they cannot tell you what the true answer is because they have to go along with the fiction that there is no true answer. They are interested in all kinds of individuals. When you look at the scoring and you see what is asked, it is compliance. It is compliance. I’m trying to think of some of the other, the dominant features. But if you go into most large corporations, they all differ. They all have somewhat different profiles. What they really are out for, “Are you a team player?” And all the most sensitive questions are on that point.

HEFFNER: Holly, you say “compliance.” Now, I hear that word very clearly, and I can’t help but believe that again to use the word “pejorative,” that you don’t embrace that notion of being compliant.

WHYTE: Oh, no, no, no.

HEFFNER: You don’t see it as something positive.

WHYTE: Oh, no. Great Scott, no!

HEFFNER: Therefore the social ethic has in this instance, and I suspect that if you were to recall the other elements that go into the psychological profiles, you would find other things that you would label as not just running counter to the Protestant ethic, but as no damned good.

WHYTE: Moral disarmament. It’s a form of moral disarmament. It morally disarms the individual and…Let me tell you one thing that I’ve always remembered which I think where I think that one must, without hating the organization, without being sort of a radical or anything like that, must always know that in the final, when that final choice comes he must make the choice himself, and it maybe against, you know, against what the group thinks is right. I think of this. It’s a terrible wrench. When I wrote this, by the way, these were rather good times. We didn’t realize it then, but we had a, everyone was quite scared and talking about the Great Depression that was going to come. We were in for one of the great post-war booms. So it’s rather easy for the organization to seem quite beneficent whenever year more and more jobs are opening up, more and more plants, and where a young man of moderate capabilities who is in an earlier era would really have to fight pretty hard, it would take a long time before he got to a certain position was going up very, very fast. It was a very heady year. And it wasn’t until later when you see the beast in the jungle, when they start laying off and when they really show how tough they can actually be.

Now the example I’m taking, take this whole business of moving. I spent a lot of time on that and I’ve talked to many people, and I’m not saying that it is wrong for the corporation to move people, and I’m very impressed with the resourcefulness of these sort of gypsies as they often call the, the nomads who live in one place or another and yet, I think, do extremely well. Nevertheless, this can be a terrible wrench for them. And one of the articles of faith is that it is all for the best. DuPont knows what it’s doing. Here I’ve been in chemistry, suddenly they’re putting it…they must have a plan. They don’t have a plan in most cases. I shouldn’t say this about DuPont. I’m not speaking of that. It’s a very fine company, by the way. But some of them, the individual feels that he has it. Now, I remember in the case of one executive who was vice president of one of our largest electric manufacturing companies. And he said, I don’t recall his exact, something like this, he said, he had just come into New York, and he said, “I’ve just been moved. I was the head of a research plant in upper New York, up New York State. I was effective.” He said, “It has been the happiest time of my life. And I don’t know whether this move is right. But I had to go along with it, or at least I had to go along with it. It’s New York and they told me all of this.” And then he said something that he was very agitated, very agitated. He said, “You know, people in this sort of game like I am have got to realize one thing. All the key decisions that are made about your destiny are made for you by other people. But once in a while you have the chance to wrench that decision.” And he was saying, “I don’t know whether I’ve muffed it or not.” Now, I’d cite him as an example of a very hard-headed person who saw. Tragic is, I think, too strong a word. But that’s what I’m trying to get at.

HEFFNER: You know, you, it makes me feel, think about that wonderful section in Dostoevsky in The Grand Inquisitor. We look for unity as one of the great givens, one of the great needs of human beings. And this unity is represented, symbolized by the corporation. And it offers us that. It tells us what to do. Now, not too many years after you wrote The Organization Man we came into a period of youthful rebellion. Our decade, let’s say.

WHYTE: Yes, yes.

HEFFNER: And I wondered then as I want back to the book and found you saying there were those who criticized you as not recognizing well enough that the pendulum would swing, you were talking about the bureaucratization of all aspects of life. You used as an example of the likelihood that the pendulum wouldn’t swing back toward the Protestant ethic and in a sense the great number of business administration majors in college…and of course you referred to the personality tests. It seems to me that they have grown to be more and more important parts…


HEFFNER: …of our lives today. No hope for the future?

WHYTE: I’m not going to prognosticate. I wasn’t sure when I was writing, I had really no idea what was going to happen. And I think if anything I have a somewhat weak end to the book because of that. No, I have no cheery words at the end, really. I’m sort of glad I left it at that, frankly. Now…

HEFFNER: What would make that a weak ending, no cheery words? Why do you say that?

WHYTE: Well, I didn’t resolve…I really didn’t resolve the thing. I had no considered opinion as to what was going to happen. As I say in retrospect, I’m very glad I didn’t attempt one because I probably would have been wrong. I don’t think things have changed very much. And I’m not saying this because to say, “Oh wasn’t I accurate at that time?” but really to underscore that what I was talking about in 1956 I could have been talking about in 1946 or 1936 with certain changes. All of the major elements of the organization society were already long in place. Some go back to the late nineteenth century.

HEFFNER: As a function of industrialization?

WHYTE: Yes. Yes. Yes. The corporation, the modern corporation, well, you know, there are many arguments on this. Some would date it to the 20s, some would go back to J.P. Morgan. But most of these things were already in place. I don’t see any great changes. And I think one of the dismaying things, if I may go back to personality testing, this is again, this is the corporation declaring itself. I think that the power of these is iniquitous. I think they are quite iniquitous, it’s a pseudo-science, is more pervasive than important. Now, I don’t worry about the effect on the organization man, because they, in a sense, are intelligence tests. Now, if you go to a company which is very a middle America company, you know what I mean, with great interests along those virtues, and you’re given a test, well, I forget which one it is now, but the test of practical values, and say which would you place first if you had a choice, you would go to a church service, go bowling…Incidentally, there’s a wonderful cultural lag in a lot of these things. Would you, or what would inspire you very much? And I remember there was one thing there. By gosh, if you said cathedral you were put way down. They were really asking, you know, “How square are you?” Now, if you’re an intelligent person you’re going to say, of course, if you had a choice it’s a football game you’d like to go to.

HEFFNER: Yes, but that’s where you got into trouble, if I remember correctly. You were saying if you’re an intelligent person you know what they’re looking for and give them what they’re looking for.

WHYTE: Cheat.


WHYTE: Doggone right. It’s not cheating. I think there’s a really, you could almost be force majeur, force majeur. I’ve had several people give me a hard time on this, you know, what are your ethics, they’ve said. And I said, well this is, in other words, you just count yourself out of organization life, and you’re going to say, “I’ll do anything else, but I will not take a personality test.” You know, you wouldn’t get any further. You have to. This is a part of the American way of life these days.

HEFFNER: And as you suggested.

WHYTE: Taking personality tests and like that. And a person of some intelligence has an idea of what they’re getting at. You can tell from half the time what sort of tests they throw at you. How gregarious are you? That’s what they want. They want a very gregarious fellow. Now, I think the one thing, and I’ve got, this is a many, many…letters from…very successful organization. They say, “You’ve helped me tremendously.”…and I think it’s a very good…and it stands up very well by the way, for what I said was don’t lie or cheat really. If you are somewhat introverted, just on the line, don’t portray yourself as tremendously gregarious; just shade it a little bit, shade it a little bit. And that s what most intelligent people would do. But I cite this, now, the reason I put in about the organization man, I mean how to take an organization man test was really not to be practical in that sense. But I thought it was the clearest, clearest expression.

HEFFNER: You know I’m a little bit puzzled about one point that you’re making and you seem to stress it. And that is that you’re saying, “Look, this didn’t start in the 50s and it didn’t start in the 40s.” Of course it didn’t. But why are you emphasizing so much that this has this drift, this drift away from the Protestant ethic toward the social ethic, toward organization, toward collectivism of this kind, has been with us so long when wouldn’t you be willing to say… we talked before the program, I was commenting on that wonderful piece that Norman Mailer did originally for Life Magazine on the organization that had to take place for us to be able to be successful in our efforts to get to the moon.


HEFFNER: And he talked about human beings as interchangeable parts. And as I read that in the 60s I was thinking of Holly Whyte in the 50s and The Organization Man. Why do you insist that, well, it hasn’t gone terribly much further when it seem so clear that it has?

WHYTE: Oh, I think it has gone further. I think it has gone further. All I’m saying there is that what, I was lucky in a way, and if the book…I think one of the reasons the book had an impact is I was saying what most people sort of had already sensed but nobody had said it out loud. Here we were, a country the dominant institutions of which are collectives of one kind or another, collectives to be sure in many respects, but this is the way the country worked. And yet we were talking in our sort of popular culture about another kind of country entirely as though the Protestant ethic reigned supreme when in fact it did not and had not for many, many decades.

HEFFNER: There must be something mind-boggling for people. I think of my college students who are still to a considerable extent brought up on that older ethic. They believe, they have been taught that Horatio Alger lives. They come into a world in reality in which he is dead as a doornail, which it just doesn’t happen that luck and pluck will get you as far as, let’s say, cheating on the personality test.

WHYTE: Yes, yes.

HEFFNER: And I almost believe and I wonder if you share this thought that the rebelliousness of the 60s was in a sense a death rattle.

WHYTE: I think so. I felt that at the time. Because so much of the rebelliousness was in things that don’t really count. Costume. It was, a lot of it was quite surface. And I ran into quite a few of these people. And so many of them ended up the most perfect bureaucrats, too. I think that the change in clothing…But what they were, their kind of rebellion, it was a cultural sort of thing. I’m not saying that’s necessarily wrong, but I didn’t think it went very deep. I didn’t think it went very deep. I can bring up one other thing which I think has gone much further than when I was writing this thing. I had one section in there which I think is true, that to a considerable degree the organization man doesn’t worry about big moral issues. He gives his proxy to the organization. It’s a “they must know what they’re doing” sort of thing. We had then a series of scandals in which the organization man did just that: he gave his proxy on moral issues and went out and connived with secret meetings, trust things, you remember the electric conspiracy. There has been one shocking incident after another on that. And you sometimes wonder, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have one of these things come to light in which it was found out that about four or five really top executives said, “No, sorry boss, we’re not going to lose our job.” Has one case like that come out? Well, I’m sure that there have been; we don’t know about them. But it’s quite distressing to see the readiness of so many very top organization people to yield completely to what is quite unethical behavior in the belief that somehow because it is sanctioned by the organization it is therefore all right.

HEFFNER: Now wait a minute, wait a minute. Holly, you’re saying in the belief that because the organization sanctions it I don’t need to blow my whistle. But isn’t it much more self-serving? I won’t blow that whistle because if I blow it I blow myself right out of all this security.

WHYTE: Oh, yes, sure. Self-serving, self-serving. Yeah. There’s a lot of self-serving. But the degree to which so many top executives have prostrated themselves in this respect I think is quite dismaying.

HEFFNER: Now, you say top executives.

WHYTE: Yes, top.

HEFFNER: In your book of course you said you’re not talking only about business, you’re talking about he organized clergy, you’re talking about organized science, you’re talking about the legal profession.


HEFFNER: You say the same thing today?

WHYTE: Yes. I think that, the corporations, the one I would choose as an example on this question of giving your proxy, I think that is more characteristic of corporate life than it is say in a large law firm or…

HEFFNER: Yeah, but a large law firm is a corporation.

WHYTE: Yes. They, I’m not, I think this is true of all these kinds of organizations. I think it happens to be a little bit more true of business corporations. Possibly because of the visibility, there have been quite a few scandals. Take the whole environmental thing. I’ve been very interested in that from another viewpoint. And it has been quite dismaying to see, well, I won’t name names or anything like that, but some of our biggest, more respected companies. And we, when I say “we” now I mean the environmentalists say, along certain rivers say, “Hey, we found out that that stuff you’re pouring out is poison. It’s getting into fish and it’s going to kill people.” Well, you would think the corporation would say, “Oh, that’s a shame. We’ll check into that. We’ll see about it.” Not a bit of it. Not a bit of it. They get their counter experts to get up, their paid lackeys to get up and say, “Now, this particular poison, really, that’s been all sort of exaggerated”. And on it goes. There has been case after case of this. Not once has there been a case where, you know…it has always taken a great deal of public pressure to get this thing changed. And it would be just wonderful sometime to see somebody within the company…now, I’m sure this has happened, we just don‘t find out about these things, say “Boss, I’m sorry. By golly, we are dumping poison in the river.” But it never gets to that. Corporations hire people who intercede, you know, intervene, so the boss never had to hear it in those terms.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re talking about responsibility.

WHYTE: Spread the culpability so that nobody feels quite culpable.

HEFFNER: But isn’t that the nature of these organized bureaucracies?


HEFFNER: There is no focal point for responsibility.

WHYTE: Precisely.

HEFFNER: “The buck stops here”, Harry Truman used to say. But it doesn’t really stop here.

WHYTE: Precisely. It doesn’t.

HEFFNER: Therefore, you can’t just say, “Well, I don’t have a crystal ball, and as I look into the future there isn’t very much I have to say.” You didn’t draw conclusions or make prophecies 26 years ago. Do you do it today if you feel that in a sense that moral focus is diminishing in our country?

WHYTE: Dick, I’m as baffled, I honestly am as baffled now as I was 26 years ago. I’m too close. You know, I don’t have the perspective. I think it’s as bad, I think these trends seem to have been deepening. But you know, you never can tell when a big cross-up is at hand. I don’t think one is at hand. I think we’ve gotten more sophisticated in talking about organizational life. And I feel a little culpability in that because a lot of people, you know, nobody here, you know, no organization man here, we’re all a bunch of individuals. And people learn to talk the good term, but…

HEFFNER: You mean you gave them a term they could reject, disavow?

WHYTE: Well, there are two responses. And here even to this day on one response is, organization people are wonderful people. I mean, who are these damn left-wingers who sort of want to spit at what made America great? But that’s an old fashioned, rather square response. The other is, yes, it’s the last thing in the world we want is organization men. We want individuals here. That’s our whole emphasis. And you read human relations training or anything to do with how you get people to do what you want them to do. It is always in terms of the growth of the individual, which is a lot of hooey. That’s not what they want. They always want the team to work. I think they’ve gotten more sophisticated. I don’t know. I see it now from a somewhat different angle. I’ve been, the last ten, 12 years I’ve been working mostly in sort of research on how center cities work and how people use the streets and stuff like that. And I’ve been very interested in the impact of corporations, which, and many, some of them have been very good indeed. And what a tremendous difference there is between corporations and between executives. The one thing that strikes me is the alienation – “alienation” is not the right word – but the separation of so many topics. And I’m thinking right now of New York City, you could say, this other city, from their world and the life of the city. So many, one of the things, you know, we had this exodus. It’s threatened to become a mass exodus of business leaving the city and going out to the suburbs. And the conventional reasons given for all of this were the crime problem, all these different things, the transportation problem, when in actual fact if you examine the life of the route to work of the executives as they came in from Greenwich here, they had the best of all sorts of worlds in a way. There’s no crime, so much. But a great and pervading fear of undesirables. I had a very interesting time. I went up to, I did a little map, by the way, of where the executives lived prior to the relocation of their company to the suburbs. It was very interesting the correlation between the bosses’ residence and where the corporation was going to go. It was about 95 percent mostly around Greenwich, Connecticut. And very interesting to see the new buildings, the new office campus that have gone up. And I think they speak, as personality tests tell you a great deal about the heart and soul of the corporations, so these do tell you about their attitudes. These are fortresses. Very good looking fortresses to be sure. Take a look the next time you’re around Stanford. They have moats around them for heaven’s sakes! Now, I’m sure that nobody planned it that way. But it’s a curious defensive mentality. It’s almost as if they were to protect themselves for all those bag ladies and the bad people in the city.

HEFFNER: Holly Whyte, obviously that’s a subject we have to get into the next time, because this is all the time we have today. But thanks so much for joining me today, William H. Whyte.

WHYTE: Thank you, Richard.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”