Bureaucracy Is a Fact of Organizational Life–But That Doesn’t Have to Stop You

This post is more about managerial tasks than leadership, but even the most senior leaders must, at times, engage in managerial processes.

One reality we often face as managers is bureaucracy. Historically, bureaucracies were governmental, but we now apply the term to any institution or organization where a group or groups of people are brought together to work collectively, generally on administrative tasks. Interestingly, the word itself comes from the French (bureau), which means desk, and the Greek (kratos), which means political power, so we can see how the etymology of the word informs our contemporary definition!

Although bureaucracies are not inherently “bad” by nature, they are not necessarily amenable to innovation, quick decision making, and individual initiative—and that’s where we as managers sometimes find ourselves “banging our heads” against metaphorical walls, processes, rules and regulations, etc. What to do?

The fact is that in some cases, “bureaucracy” actually is so constricting that organizations truly suffer. They fail to achieve desired outcomes, not because of poor plans or inadequate resources or underpowered personnel, but because the restrictions imposed by bureaucracy actually seriously stifle performance. In those cases, particularly when the reality is deeply institutionalized, there is little a manager can do (think of the DMV). Fortunately, at least outside of governmental settings, bureaucracy is usually more negotiable and navigable. Although it can be maddeningly frustrating, there are usually ways to be successful despite perceived restrictions.

First, we must distinguish between a hard and fast “rule” and an expected way of doing something. Often, we have more flexibility or autonomy than we realize or that we are led to believe. Sometimes the solution is as simple as asking whether or not something is truly required or not, to the point of requesting documentation—or even trying an alternate path first to see if it works. Bureaucracies are famous for rules and regulations that are more lore and legend than policy. As an example, despite being the CEO of a large organization with 3,500 employees, I found myself regularly unable to use my company credit card because my account was used for many company expenses and it sometimes exceeded the spending limit before the monthly bill was paid. The “rule” was that we only paid the bill once a month! When I did a little research I discovered that, although it was always done that way, no one could actually provide a reason, let alone a policy, why a bill could not be paid more often. I communicated with the manager of accounts payable, who then gave our AP clerks “permission” to pay a credit card bill when it was close to the limit, rather than only on a prescribed day each month. Problem solved.

Second, back to the etymology of the word, bureaucracies can be so frustrating because they confer “political power” on individuals who do not actually have positional authority. Bureaucracies tend to have “gatekeepers,” who use processes or protocols rather than position, to exercise control. It is therefore very important to know who the gatekeepers are and what is important to them. With this knowledge it is often possible to “grease the tracks” ahead of time and avoid delays and frustration. Gatekeepers are people too and having the kind of relationships with them that provides “inside” information as to what motivates them, can be critical for getting the most favorable treatment from them.

Third, sometimes we perceive processes or procedures as “bureaucratic” even when they actually provide opportunities for improved communication, buy-in from colleagues, and even additional feedback that can result in better decision making. While following a set procedure or process inevitably takes more time than just “doing something,” these hassles also often provide an opportunity to discuss a plan or contract or new hire with others before executing on it. Sometimes, we discover that although it takes a little longer, having to explain our plan or get a review of a contract finds mistakes or faulty thinking that we would otherwise have missed.

Lastly, and this is more attitudinal than operational, those who take a defeatist attitude toward bureaucracies generally get defeated. As we’ve discussed, some bureaucracies are, in fact, thoroughly overbearing and irrational—choking off innovation, motivation, and ultimately performance. In those cases, there are genuine limits to what can be accomplished. However, in most cases, there are approaches we can take that, while potentially time-consuming and even frustrating, will provide productive results.

In short, only the most flat and entrepreneurial or decentralized organizations are devoid of bureaucratic tendencies (and those structures can have downsides such as very thin resourcing and higher risk profiles). Therefore, we must learn to be competent at navigating “the system” in the same way we build other managerial competencies. If the system requires contract reviews or spending approvals or other “gatekeeping” functions, then we must be as expert at managing and shepherding those tasks as we are at conducting performance evaluations or budgeting or managing to metrics.

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