The New Engineer

Citation: This is article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Conformity not Conducive to Creativity', Engineers Australia, April 1999, p. 60.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

In 1956 William H. Whyte wrote The Organization Man which described how people not only worked for organisations but how they belonged to them as well. Whyte's description of the organisation man was particularly apt for engineers, who generally worked for large organisations at the time. However the organisation man is clearly an anachronism today, not only because women people the organisation as well as men but because the loyalty and conformity expected of the corporate employee is out of place in a world where lifetime employment is a thing of the past and mindless conformity can have devastating consequences for human welfare.

Even at the time he was writing Whyte noted the disparity between the ideal of the individual in 20th Century American life and the reality of the collective situation in which most Americans found themselves, where individuality was actually a handicap and conformity the way to get promoted in one's career.

Whyte observed that young organisation men identified their own well-being with that of the company and in those years of rapid expansion after the war, "many a young man of average ability has been propelled upward so early&emdash;and so pleasantly&emdash;that he can hardly be blamed if he thinks the momentum is constant". Such men assumed that they would be with the organisation for their whole careers.

At the executive level, Whyte described men who worked long hours but didn't feel that it was a burden. They worked fifty or sixty hours a week, as well as after hours in work-related entertaining, conferences, and reading. They promoted those who followed their example. "We have, in sum, a man who is so completely involved in his work that he cannot distinguish between work and the rest of his life&emdash;and is happy that he cannot."

As recently as the 1980s Whyte revisited the organisation man and claimed little had changed: "The United States continues to be dominated by large organizations ...The people who staff them are pretty much the same as those who did before." And a 1989 survey of middle-managers in 20 well-known US corporations including American Express, Dow Chemical, General Motors, Johnson and Johnson, Mobil and Westinghouse found that 76 percent believed they would spend the rest of their career with the company they worked for, 80 percent said they were deeply committed to the company because it had been good for them, and 77% worked more than 50 hours in an average week (26 percent more than 60 hours).

However their faith was sadly misplaced. They had yet to realise that the social contract of devoted loyalty in return for life-time employment was being destroyed by the bout of corporate downsizing which was then already well advanced. It was not only blue collar workers who suffered cutbacks but also "entire layers of middle managers and whole categories of professional staff", in other words the organisation men and women. The same process was happening in Australia.

The loss of this social contract has not prevented managers and professionals from working harder than ever. Downsizing has left a generation of middle-managers insecure and unsure of promotion prospects. Conformity and productivity is nowadays largely attained through fear of layoff. For a few lucky people with skills that are in demand, loyalty is bought with high salaries and bonuses and stock options. In a recent Fortune magazine article on "The New Organisation Man" Nina Munk observes: "New young workers know that loyalty is for suckers; a company can get rid of them at will."

Writing in Technology Review, Langdon Winner claims: "The quaint belief that an organization should offer its members steady, meaningful employment and a chance to make lasting contributions to the common good has pretty much vanished. Instead people are judged by nearly minute-to-minute calculations of their value in the marketplace and sent packing if someone finds their productivity inadequate."

Whyte's account produced some anxiety that managers were losing their entrepreneurial edge and becoming unimaginative conformists. Yet conformity based on fear rather than loyalty is hardly likely to produce a better type of manager.