William Whyte's The Organization Man

1956 Journalist William Whyte publishes his best-selling study of corporate culture.

William Whyte, a Princeton graduate and an ex-Marine who fought in World War II, arrived at Fortune magazine in 1946. It was a time of economic prosperity. Companies such as General Electric, IBM, and Kodak were growing rapidly and enjoying unprecedented earnings. But Whyte wasn’t a balance sheet eyeballer. He was Fortune’s resident sociologist. He wanted to explore the interior lives of the men (and they were almost entirely men) who toiled at these sprawling companies and look at how they were being shaped by the corporate culture dominating so much of American life. Whyte’s research for the magazine provided the raw material for The Organization Man, his bestseller published in 1956. A critique of society as much as business culture, the book diagnosed groupthink—a term Whyte coined—in the suburbs as well as the boardroom, and became one of the century’s most influential pieces of commentary.

Reading the book today, it feels dated and ponderous, but it’s haunting, too. Whyte granted his subjects anonymity, and they offered him their secrets. He found chief executives so consumed with work that they couldn’t sleep without a few highballs. He talked to lower-level executives who climbed the ladder, mistakenly believing they would find peace at the top. He visited the suburbs springing up around the country and spoke to the wives who were playing their roles as hostesses and, often, as neglected partners. Whyte also dropped in on colleges, where he described the next generation of men being indoctrinated into a way of corporate thinking that stressed conformity over individualism.

The Organization Man is an angry book, but Whyte was no anticapitalist. He wanted to save the corporation, not destroy it. He believed the Organization Man needed to be a maverick rather than a drone. The book ends with a primer on how to game the personality tests that companies were foolishly using back then to weed out the sort of free thinkers needed in the office. Whyte insisted that it wouldn’t be hard for individualists to fool the test givers. “In all of us,” he assured his readers, “there is a streak of normalcy.”

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