Unwinding the Red Tape: Four Peaceful Ways to Offset Bureaucratic Inefficiency

“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the point where the quo has lost its status.” – Laurence J. Peter, business writer and inventor of The Peter Principle.

Has the United States become an ADHD culture?

Some people think so, since everything changes so rapidly and most of us bounce right along with it. We do so partly because our technology changes so fast we have no choice but to change along with it. For example: Even though just about everyone who wants a smartphone has one, Apple or Samsung can usually entice you to spend $1,000 every other year for a new i-Phone or Galaxy. You don’t really have a choice; decent electronics quickly become obsolete. Not that our new toys aren’t worth it. A single smartphone is millions of times faster than all the computers used for NASA’s Apollo program put together and does far more—and they’re only getting more powerful.

No; rapid change hasn’t made us an ADHD culture. It’s made us flexible, innovative, technologically proficient, and quicker of mind and action. That’s why it’s so frustrating to work with someone who is painfully slow. Most bureaucracies, for example. Originally intended to simplify processes, eliminate waste, and cover all the bases, they often do the exact opposite. They seem deliberately designed to slow us down, an anathema in today’s fast-paced world. As we sprint forward, bureaucracy drags us back.

Some bureaucrats (though not all, or even most) are so devoted to their process that they kill all forward momentum, costing American businesses billions of dollars each year. Sure, we need to do something to thin our bureaucracies to reasonable levels. But while the tide of opinion has recently evolved toward “Bureaucracy Must Die” (the actual title of a November 2014 article in the Harvard Business Review), it may prove most effective to kill it with kindness. Thus:

  1. Try to see things their way and play nice. Bureaucrats are people too. While some enjoy wielding their power in petty ways, most are just trying to do their jobs. Flat-out telling them their way is wrong won’t win you many friends. They’re just trying to follow the rules, dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s. Alternately, they may have misinterpreted the rules; or, they may see themselves as islands of stability in a chaotic world. Rules and process exist for a reason but greasing the rails with niceness may still get you there faster.

  2. Make their lives easier. Help them help you. When you bring someone a problem, show that person you followed directions as best as you could before you ran aground. Prove you’ve filled out the relevant forms and point out how you’ve tried to get around your problem. This gives people a better idea of what they can do to help you. They’ll also be more likely to want to help you, because by the time you show up, they’ll be sick and tired of people who don’t even try to follow the directions or ask the same question a million times.

  3. Don’t take your anger out on rule followers. Bureaucrats aren’t meant to be professional bottlenecks, and most don’t see themselves as such. But people treat them that way and fume at them daily, to the point where many are predisposed to say “No!” before you even say a word. Therefore, civility and a few dozen chocolate chip cookies will help your case—and neither count as bribes, right? But seriously: professionalism and politeness work wonders with most bureaucrats.

  4. Be reasonable. Rather than give in to your frustration, try to help bureaucrats understand your side of the issue and gently let them know how they’re slowing you down. Show them there are exceptions to any situation, especially if you’re working under direct orders to get something done ASAP. Even if they can’t help you speed the process, they may be able to point out another path you haven’t thought of. If not, at least you tried. Get up and move on.

Patience is a Virtue, but…

Prepare yourself to go over or around your favorite bureaucrats if necessary, but only if you must. Even nice people will hold a grudge against you for something like that, especially if their superiors dinged them afterward. If they’re already upset and you have to work with them again, you’ll need to dig yourself out of an even deeper hole than usual (you might try cookies and brownies in such a case). Rather than bull through or slash the red tape, unravel it first. You might find it works well enough to get you to your destination.


About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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