Why “The Organization Man” Mentality is Dangerous

On Thursday, March 15, Peter Cappelli wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review website entitled “Bring Back the Organization Man.”  In this article, Mr. Cappelli – a Professor of Management at Wharton – suggested that in order for American businesses to be successful (and professionals to grow effectively) the employee-as-Organization Man should come back into vogue.

If you didn’t get a chance to read it, I encourage you to do so.  It illuminates a hypocrisy that many corporations – and even small businesses – face in America: they want to be able to switch out talent at a moment’s notice to fill skill gaps, but then they report that they have a skill shortage.  They worry about not having specialized skills they need, yet stall on offering real professional development due to budget concerns or a fear that employees will take those skills elsewhere.

So Cappelli posits that it might be time to bring back The Organization Man.

The Organization Man refers to the employee who gets in on the ground floor of an organization and spends his entire career climbing the ladder (or not), dedicating decades of his life to the service of one firm. The term was coined in the post-war years and reached its pinnacle of meaning in the late 1950s and 1960s. For many of us, our grandfathers and perhaps even our fathers were Organization Men – they were Kodak Men, GM Men, or – in my case – a Delta Man.

The Organization Man is a symbol of loyalty, steadiness, determination, and service. 40 years ago, being labeled an Organization Man was a badge of pride and honor.  It also said something about the company you worked for and the wholesome values they stood for. Perhaps the best explanation I ever read of the implications of The Organization Man era was in Daniel Pink’s book Free Agent Nation.  Pink writes, “Whether you were a manager, a housewife, a journalist, or a student, if you understood the Organization Man – his constellation of values, his form of employment, his place in the broader society – you understood almost everything you needed to know about work in America at that time.”

But at Pink notes, starting in the 1980s the Organization Man fell out of vogue first with companies and then with the individuals themselves.  It became less beneficial for workers to dedicate themselves to a company who could so easily cast them aside. The major companies that were beehives for OMs (Met Life, Kodak, etc) started to reduce their workforce and outsource their labor needs.  Then there were a few recessions.  Then there was our recession.

We all know that companies had to make some innovative business decisions to stay afloat over the last few years, from utilizing contract talent primarily to outsourcing to leaning on technologies.  But what we need to understand is that those innovative strategies for survival have spilled out of Pandora’s box and will never be put back in. Once you’ve found a computer program to do something you used to hire a full-time person to handle, you won’t scrap the program and rehire the person.  Once you’ve had success with a contractor-based business model, you won’t take on the cost of restocking a full-time staff.

And this is exactly why I feel suggesting that we give the Organization Man a cultural renaissance is dangerous.  For it asks employees to commit to something that our businesses just can’t commit back: loyalty.

Teaching professionals to think and believe in their companies like OMs is teaching them to fail in this and subsequent economies.  What we need to be teaching professionals – and ourselves – is how to do great work, give our best, and be loyal…but also how to be prepared for change.

Do I think that corporations are just waiting to use, abuse, and then throw away unsuspecting professionals when they need something else? No.  I believe in the general goodness of the American business model.  But I do believe that businesses make choices based on what they need to do to survive and thrive…whether that is cut costs, revamp product lines, or start fresh with talent…and professionals – for their own sake – should be prepared to do the same.

Being an Organization Man (or woman) in today’s world is unrealistic. As professionals, we need to be our own men and women and identify as such.  Loyalty, hard work, and quality of product are not determined by how committed you are to an organization, but how committed you are to being a valuable contributor in this world.  Wrapping your professional identity up with one organization is a recipe for a vocational identity crisis – and believe me, over the last several years I’ve interviewed plenty of people who learned that lesson the hard way.

So Mr. Cappelli, I appreciate your article and the interesting questions and points it raises.  I agree with you that companies should invest in professional development and grow talent internally – that is an important piece of continuing to advance American business that pays dividends for companies and professionals alike (not to mention is a key element in talent retention).  But speaking from the vantage point of the professionals, not the companies, I do not agree that we should bring back the Organization Man Mentality as I don’t think it’s a promise that businesses can keep in this ever-evolving economy.

I know that there are exceptions to my commentary – people who have been, and will continue to be, with their organization for the long haul.  And to those people I say, “good for you.”  But for may of us – particularly those just entering the workforce – I feel it’s dangerous to set the Organization Man as a professional goal.  Our goal should instead be to develop ourselves as individual professionals, take responsibility for our own career paths, do great work, and be prepared – and perhaps even excited – for change.

What do you think? How do you feel about the return of the Organization Man?

Here’s to your Uncommon Life,

Written by Nacie Carson

Nacie Carson is a the author of The Finch Effect (Jossey-Bass), founder of The Life Uncommon, and CEO of Working Life Media, LLC.

Comments

  1. says

    “Our goal should instead be to develop ourselves as individual professionals, take responsibility for our own career paths, do great work, and be prepared – and perhaps even excited – for change.”

    I agree wholeheartedly Nacie for a couple of reasons. 1. I, like you, do not see the Organization Man model as sustainable in today’s workforce. Generation X and Y doesn’t have that innate desire to find a job, stick to it for 40 years, get the watch and go home to sit on the porch and watch the grass grow. The economy questions this model for sure, but even greater is the “un loyal” workforce of today’s business world.

    2. I’m a contractor/consultant – I love that model for the freedom it allows. Organization Man scares the hell out of me!

    Great stuff here Nacie!

  2. says

    So much to comment on here that I hardly know where to start. OMs can be a great thing or can lead to complacency and tunnel vision. I think the days of doing as little as you can and getting by are gone. People who try to become a linchpin (as Seth Godin would say), maybe have some chance for continuous employment. I like what Michele Woodward and Pamela Slim propose, which is that we are all self-employed whether we get paid from corporate or our own business. We are responsible for our training, finding mentors, staying relevant, and adding value. I don’t think all of these changes in the world of work are bad. And I think we are still establishing what the new normal will be. It is an exciting time.

  3. says

    Nacie,

    I agree with your point wholeheartedly! The happy days of Polaroid are gone.

    Very few people are safe in an economy like this. Look at the US Postal Service – one of the biggest icons of stability and loyalty, and now they have to cut more 35,000 employees. I imagine that many of these employees spent most of their working lives as USPS men and women. They assumed (like many of us) that a post office job is probably one of the safest. Sure, it might be boring as all hell slinging LL Bean catalogues 40 hours a week, but the pay is ok, and the pension is fat. Now these folks have to quickly evolve or perish.

    I worked for several software companies before starting my own business. When the economy started it’s downturn in 2007, I saw my friends get let go. I realized soon enough that the bottom dollar always comes before people. It’s not that people suck (some do), it’s just that the purpose of any business is to make money. There is no column in the P&L for people’s families. And this is even more so with public companies.

    Now that I have my own business, I feel so much more secure – and we’re still in a recession! The new economy is being built with people like Frank and I.

    Awesome blog post!

    John

  4. says

    Nacie,

    Very nice job on highlighting a trend in our society and that is things these days are disposable. In “streamlining” , being efficient , and cutting costs , the days of growing and moving on up within one company are become rare. I am glad i left the Pyramid Scheme of a job(Just over Broke :) ) on my own free will in 2008 and using the talents i gained from the workplace in building relationships, enhancing myself and what i can offer to help my clients, team members, and partners, has made me stronger and able to have success in these hard economic times. For those that are in companies now, just always have a plan b , because you will never know when companies streamline or just shut down and move out of the country.

  5. says

    The book by L L White is really good.

    The business decisions made I don’t think were innovative at all – sacking people isn’t particularly creative or novel. There was a group of companies that confronted with recession decided to grow market share – the co-ops in Mondragon – don’t expect to read about them in the business press though. Ricardo Semmler also says that they try to find new jobs for people in his company (not widely reported either for some reason, but it is in his book, the second one I think.).

    I think there is probably an opportunity for professional associations or employment agents to add job matching (in the case of the associations) or professional development (in the case of job search agencies). People could then becomes the organisations wo/men.

    There are probably opportunities for industry wo/men, so to speak, in the emerging industries – renewables, sustainability; rather than particular companies in the industries (a new industry will always be volatile, companies will do spectacularly well and badly and sometimes it will be the same company.).

    I think it is clear that company culture has changed since the days of the organisation wo/man. When the stock market is dominated by futures trades it is simply a different world. I think ‘casino capitalism’ captures this difference. In this world risk is entirely different to what it was for the company wo/man.

    Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character has written of the moral dangers of this new kind of working. It’s available on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/The-Corrosion-Character-Consequences-Capitalism/dp/0393319873/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1332389745&sr=8-1

    Some of this was anticipated by Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence and so on). Charles Handy (The Empty Raincoat and so on) says that every self-employed person needs an agent. I think this is right, but so far no interest from anyone who would like to be my agent!

    I find this topic quite stimulating. I think at the moment we are mostly going off personal networks. Whether these will evolve to more formal arrangements as the www becomes more normal and settled (eg Brendon Burchard initiating the Experts Industry Association – my own inclination is that this is the wrong way to go) will be very interesting to see.

  6. says

    It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect employees to be Organization Men and Organization Women. Until and unless I get a signed contract that says I will never, ever be laid off or downsized just so some grey-suited executive can meet his bonus, I will never give any loyalty to any company that isn’t one I own.

    If I want insecurity and fear that I won’t have a job, I can do it by starting my own company (which I did 3 years ago). I don’t need a soulless organization to do that for me.

    Thanks for the great blog post. You gave me something to write about today!

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