In 1956 William H. Whyte published a book entitled The Organization Man. Basing his findings on a large number of interviews with CEOs of major American corporations, Whyte concluded that, within the context of modern organizational structure, American “rugged individualism” had given way to a “collectivist ethic.” Economic success and individual recognition was now pursued within an institutional structure – that is, by “serving the organization.”
Whyte’s book was widely read and praised, yet his thesis was not as novel as it seemed. “Rugged individualism,” to the extent that it existed, was (and is) the exception for human behavior and not the rule. We have evolved to be group-oriented animals and not lone wolves. This means that the vast majority of us (and certainly not just Americans) live our lives according to established cultural conventions. These operate on many levels – not just national patriotism or the customs of family life.
What Whyte ran across was the sub-culture of the workplace as followed by those who set themselves upon a “career path” within a specific organization. The stereotypical examples are those, to quote Whyte, “who have left home spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life. [They adopt an ethic that] rationalizes the organization’s demand for fealty and gives those who offer it wholeheartedly a sense of dedication.”
Today, some private sector organizations have moved away from the most extreme demands of such conformity, but some other career lines have not, two examples being the military and career party politics. For insight in this we can turn to the sociologist C. Wright Mills, whose famous book The Power Elite was published the same year as Whyte’s The Organization Man.
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