Leadership for Life – Bureaucracy

By on August 1, 2013
Leadership for Life - Bureaucracy

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Leaders preside over groups and teams that are mandated to conduct certain processes, do certain jobs, make certain things happen. One of the functions of leadership is to bridge the gaps between different parts of the organization so that the goals and desired outcomes come about smoothly and effectively.

When people forget that their teams are designed to bring about organizational outcomes, and they focus only on what’s good for their team, the organization suffers from “silo-ism” or bureaucracy. Don’t hold me to this, but I think it was Peter Drucker who defined bureaucracy as an environment in which people work to preserve or enhance their own jobs, rather than to advance the goals of the organization.

To that end, bureaucrats keep secrets from others as a way of enhancing their own power. Bureaucrats thrive in an environment where many layers of authority adhere to a strict set of rules and operate within a strict chain of command. That way, no one can be disciplined for anything, since they are following the rules and obeying orders. Thus, a bureaucracy can thrive for years – even generations – without any useful outcomes for the organization as a whole or for the customers, clients, or other stakeholders for whom the organization was created in the first place.

Various government agencies at all levels are the poster children for bureaucratic methods, and are used as the illustrative examples of how organizations should not operate. But government doesn’t have a monopoly on bureaucracy. Private companies, non-profit organizations, and academic institutions can all operate as bureaucracies, and the rest of us suffer the consequences.

When thriving organizations grow beyond certain thresholds, they risk becoming bureaucracies. Some leaders mistakenly believe that when you get beyond a certain size, you can’t keep making exceptions to rules or treat people as individuals. Such organizations install standardized systems and create rule books to cover all possible situations, and if someone doesn’t fall into the “script,” there’s nothing that can be done for them. We know that in real life, almost everyone is an exception to some rule, and that accounts for the decline in the effectiveness of organizations of all kinds, from Congress to call centers.

Effective leaders make sure that communication flows openly and smoothly in their organizations. They mediate conflicts between groups or departments. They set the example for openness and honesty. They fight against the creation and maintenance of silos. Effective leaders know that all rules have exceptions, and the best among them create ways of dealing with those exceptions successfully and in a way that satisfies the needs of whatever stakeholders are involved in the situation.

When you look at the great leaders of the past – you fill in the names – almost anyone you cite will be an anti-bureaucrat. Got bureaucracy? Got silos? We can help you make them go away. Call me at 314-539-5329.

About Barry Schapiro

Barry is the Workforce Solutions Group Practice Leader for Leadership and Professional Development. His experience includes delivery and management of business training in a variety of industries, with specialties in leadership, team development, generational diversity, and customer service. Twitter

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