Inspiring Women of History

Rest breaks, profit sharing, believability weighted decision making, and even ergonomics can trace their roots back to two women. Neither of whom have the recognition they deserve in modern management theory. Lillian Gilbreth and Mary Parker Follett. Here’s the fast version of their stories.

Lillian Gilbreth held a PhD in psychology and worked in management consulting. She was the first person that directly applied principles of psychology to the work place. Her work included implementing rest breaks at work to give people time to recharge and protect them from serious injury by minimizing fatigue. She took the carrot vs stick motivation ideas into the workplace and came up with profit sharing. Bonus structures for non-managers didn’t exist until she pointed out that positive reinforcement (carrots) works better than negative reinforcement (sticks). In her book, The Psychology of Management, she breaks down the importance of KPIs, different approaches to management, and began to explore the human side of work.

By exploring the human side of work, Lillian unintentionally became the founder of modern day ergonomics and human centered design. She established standards for counter top heights, light switch heights and work stations. Standing desks and adjustable chairs can trace their roots back to Lillian as well. By keeping the person at the center of her problem solving, Lillian made significant contributions that are taken for granted at this point.

Not too far away was Mary Parker Follett. A social worker turned management consultant. Her time in social worked led to a keen attention to how people interact in different social settings. She noted that a person’s identity is porous, affected by society around them, which, in turn, is affected by the identities of the people within it. E.g. one behaves differently at work vs the bar. This observation was the small event that has made work place culture one of the most important factors in business success. Follett also believed deeply in relying on the authority of expertise. The idea being that leaders shouldn’t make decisions because they are a leader, rather the person with the most domain expertise should make the call.

Both of these women have done more for the modern work place than most people know. Next time you have a rest break, take a moment to read their Wikis and say thanks.

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