Facing Down the Beast: Understanding and Overcoming the Bureaucratic Mindset

“The greatest evil is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.” — British author C.S. Lewis, in his preface to The Screwtape Letters.

“Bureaucracy destroys initiative. There is little that bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially innovation that produces better results than the old routines.” — Frank Herbert, American author.

Facing Down the Beast:  Understanding and Overcoming the Bureaucratic Mindset by Laura Stack #producctivitySay what you will about bureaucrats—they serve an important function. If it weren’t for them, who would take care of all the details the rest of us don’t have time to deal with, and keep us on the straight and narrow both fiscally and procedurally? Administrators are in many ways unsung heroes—people trying to do their jobs the best way they can.

That said…bureaucracies do tend to become self-perpetuating, because they tend to continue to do what has made them successful in the past. They can become unyielding to the point of fossilization. Many eventually lose track of what really matters, becoming misaligned from the organization or public domain they oversee. As Laurence J. Peter one famously said, “Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.”

An educator by profession, Peter was once the world expert at defining the worst aspects of hierarchical systems—and teaching us how to buck them. A spiritual ancestor of the comic hero Dilbert, he defined himself as a “hierarchiologist” and is best known for the Peter Principle: his observation that employees in a hierarchy rise to their highest levels of incompetence, with all the real work accomplished by those who haven’t reached that point yet.

Why Bureaucracy?

Knowing the original purpose of bureaucracies goes a long way towards explaining their nature. Large organizations require non-political subject matter experts who can implement policy in an evenhanded way, without worrying about being voted out of office or downsized, as so often occurs during organizational shakeups. Ideally, a bureaucracy serves as a stable foundation for the organization, preserving critical knowledge and providing continuity from one administration to the next. This is as crucial in business as in government.

As John Alberto, Senior Vice President of Human Resources of Combe Brands, told me recently, the average reign of a Chief Marketing Officer in his industry (consumer products) is now about 18 months, with CEOs rarely serving longer than three years. It’s hard to maintain strategic alignment and goals without a core of employees that stays more or less untouched when significant change strikes.

But by its very nature, Homo bureaucratis exists to resist change. Bureaucrats strive to preserve stability and protect scarce resources, a practice that often hardens into rigid adherence to the status quo. If we don’t adhere strictly to procedure, the organization will fall into chaos.

“Profit” and “status quo” become mutually exclusive terms in the business world. When fixed procedures become more important to the organization than the ends themselves, growth ceases. Worse, because bureaucracy encourages stability, its members sometimes seek to protect their own jobs at the expense of the organization itself, especially in times of recession.

How to Cope with Bureaucrats

We can no longer afford this approach to business. It’s one thing to understand why a bureaucracy exists and perpetuates itself versus encouraging it. You must actively protect your work against it. Where you stand in the system determines how you can cope with this rust in the gears of progress. If you’ve hit the senior leadership levels, you can kick it loose, grease the moving parts, and ease things back into motion. Steve Jobs managed this with Apple when he rejoined the company as CEO in the late 1990s, after the Board that had ousted him did their level best to run the company into the ground.

For the rest of us, dealing with the bureaucracy is more of a challenge, and you must influence it where you can. Try these strategies if you can’t just get rid of the thinking standing between you and efficiency:

1. Follow the rules yet work to change the system. The change process can be painfully slow, but at some point (after you’ve stumped long and loudly enough), a leader will decide it’s time to make changes that leave you freer than you’ve been for a while. Have a new plan ready to take advantage of any changes that may come to pass, whatever their origins.

2. Do what you need to do. No one may check to make sure you’re “filling everything out in triplicate,” as long as you keep your head down and keep your nose clean. My dad used to say, “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.” Bull ahead and do what you know is right. Just do it and plead ignorance later. Seriously.

3. Use stealth. Work around the more fossilized bureaucrats who say, “That’s the way we’ve always done it around here” to get things done. Cultivate relationships elsewhere in the organization to ease your work through, build consensus for necessary changes behind the scenes, and prove that efficiency and top-notch quality control can still happen, despite a maze of rules and fixed procedures.

4. Remember, people are human beings. While you may believe some bureaucrats are humorless drones, they have friends and families, and hopes and dreams just as you do. They’re just doing their jobs, and they have good days and bad days. Approach them optimistically and politely and try to be nice, no matter how annoyed you may be. They have reasons for doing what they do.

The Bottom Line

You’ll never completely escape bureaucracies, as they are a necessary part of business functionality. There will always be a need for stability, just as there will always be those who abuse that need. But if you know why the bureaucrats exist and how they work, at least you can set some standards for how to deal with them, thereby cranking up your workflow as fast as you can—despite the grit that’s poured into the gears.