It’s paradoxical that quite often the things we do to try and make our organizations move faster and be more efficient end up slowing us down. How many times have you been befuddled by “bureaucracy” when trying to do what you know is or knew to be right? My guess is way too many times. My belief is that bureaucracy isn’t inherently and doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I also believe that a good leader can learn how to prevent bureaucracy from doing the opposite of what it is created to do.
The first thing to understand about bureaucracy is it’s purpose. Rules and processes (bureaucracy) are typically in place to help leaders and operational employees better focus on what is important (value added effort). At its core, bureaucracy’s purpose is to speed up decision-making, at least with regard to decisions made by the operational folks that it is intended to help. Bureaucracy is also designed to create support processes that require no forethought or after thought (simple, easy way to do routine things). That said, bureaucracy in and of itself can be a great thing. Unfortunately there are a few things that typically corrupt the systems and subsequently create the paradox I spoke to.
So How Does Bureaucracy Become Bad?
- The first corrupter is the belief or failure to recognize the need for constant evaluation and potential change in the bureaucratic systems that we create. The leader has to ensure that the bureaucracy doesn’t sit back in its comfort zone and mindlessly manage the processes within its scope. Being comfortable with “the way things are” is the death knell to having bureaucratic processes that contribute positive outcomes to the organization.
- The second corrupter is putting the wrong people in charge of managing the bureaucratic processes. All too often we find some of our most ineffective managers in charge of bureaucratic processes that are vital to operational effectiveness. What makes these process managers ineffective can range from a lack of emotional maturity and managerial skills, to emotional issues that warrant a personal need to acquire and demonstrate power (inferiority complex). This corrupter is also what leads most siloed organizations to their inherent structures.
- The third corrupter of bureaucracy is allowing the bureaucracy to forget that it is there to support the business, not the other way around. I can’t tell you how many times I have encountered organizations where I find that operational leaders have created “workarounds” because it is simply easier for them to do what they need done than it is to hold those in the bureaucracy accountable for their jobs. The reason that happens is that the bureaucracy fails to see others as the customer and be responsive to their needs (not necessarily wants) accordingly. While bureaucratic leaders don’t necessarily need to subjugate themselves, their departments or their processes to the more operationally focused areas, they do have to accept their role and recognize that their job is to help, not hinder. This means that their job is not to say “no” but is instead to help others achieve what it is they need to achieve. In other words, they have to partner with others.
Please know that I am not trying to say that bureaucratic processes are not important or less important, but instead am saying that when the bureaucracy begins working against its purpose, (to work in support of and with) and instead starts slowing things down or adding more costs, then it is the ultimately the top leader’s job to stand up and readjust accordingly. The best route however is to make sure that the three corrupters described above don’t come into play!
Remember, it’s really pretty simple, just not always easy!