Dr. Nicole Tschierske

How to Deal with Bureaucracy at Work

What comes to mind when you hear the term bureaucracy? My most educated guess is that you’re thinking about something slow and inefficient, rather than about flexibility and teamwork. No doubt, many of us have experiences of bureaucracy being something that hinders us. And if bureaucracy creates friction or even stops us from getting things done, surely it can’t help us do our best work? But what if we flip this idea on its head? What if bureaucracy could be part of designing systems and processes that are resilient and also allow for complexity? How can we best deal with bureaucracy at work? 

Does bureaucracy only impact our role at work?

Maravelias (2003) describes a concept of post-bureaucracy which involves “the whole of the individual organizational practices”. According to this, bureaucracy is non-inclusive as it describes work and performance as standardised role requirements.

The problem with this is that it ignores the fact that we are complex individuals. Our role doesn’t fully define us. In fact, people cannot as easily be “designed, modified, adapted, abandoned, or repositioned in response to the emerging technical, social and economic changes an organisation faces.” (Maravelias, 2003)

However, demand for a more human-oriented way of working has become ever so popular in recent years. All companies and teams have the desire to unite workers behind a shared mission and vision.

And company values are undoubtedly an important tool that HR departments can use to create a culture into which the workers (ideally) fit. But this now means we have to look at more than just our role at work. We have to consider the worker as a whole human being with a personality.

Workers, therefore, have to be able to “move between different and shifting roles” and are invited (in a post-bureaucratic way) to take responsibility to outline the content of their own roles. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet.

What is the role of bureaucracy at work?

The question I’d like us to answer is – what does bureaucracy actually do? According to Yüksel (2014), it “aims to depersonalize the way of getting things done”.

This, in itself, is neither good nor bad. In fact, this idea can have quite some advantages because it allows for things to become known to everyone in the organisation. In other words, it documents terms and ways of working, publicises boundaries, makes rules objective and enforceable, and allows for some predictability.

Predictability and standardisation, in turn, have benefits for both the “operational performance and technical reliability, but also for the welfare of the employees” (Yüksel, 2014).

But what if we considered our bureaucratic tools not as set in stone, but as adaptable practices that change with the requirements of the context they sit within?

The different uses of bureaucracy at work

Adler and Borys (1996) point out that we can use bureaucracy to our advantage if we pick „the right type“. By this definition, bureaucracy is seen as “formalization designed to enable employees to master their tasks” instead of “formalization designed to coerce effort and compliance.”

The level of formalisation also needs to fit the people you employ (Hirst et al, 2011).  Those who value order and procedure, for example, may thrive among routine tasks. On the other hand, they might feel overwhelmed when presented with an abundance of flexibility, ambiguity, and options. 

Non-routine tasks, however, do not benefit from formalisation. Explorative research projects or product innovations, for example, need a lot of space and flexibility for the magic to happen.

Using bureaucracy in your team

So to avoid falling on the coercive side, pay attention to any power asymmetry between you and your team. In other words, be mindful not to dominate every conversation or decision. While this might be necessary occasionally, aim to introduce reality checks in order to feed a cycle of continuous improvement that takes real life into account. It’s not just about considering a theoretical blueprint of how things should work (Adler and Borys, 1996).

But before you start thinking this means you have to rework all internal processes and procedures to reduce stress for your team, know that the rigid and constraining type of bureaucracy often coexists with the more empowering and enabling type (Frenkel et al, 1998).

In fact, by the nature of how businesses operate, on the one hand, you need standardisation to ensure you create quality products and have cost-effective and efficient operations. But at the same time, consumers want customised products, and innovation often calls for new and creative ways of working and for plenty of exceptions to be managed. This will range from machine breakdowns to shifting macroeconomic shifts, for example. So you do need to have some formalisation (or rigid bureaucracy) in place to be able to face anything you’re presented with.

Practical examples of making bureaucracy work for your team

So if formalisation is necessary, how can you make bureaucracy work for your team? For this, let’s keep the concepts of enabling formalisation and coercive formalisation as guiding principles.

When it comes to enabling formalisation, “formal procedures do not have to be designed to make the work process foolproof. They can be designed to enable employees to deal more effectively with its inevitable contingencies.” (Adler and Borys, 1996)  For example, through capturing lessons learned and sharing best practices build on the experience, the organisation gathers and stabilises new capabilities.

With regards to coercive formalisation, these procedures “are a substitute for, rather than a complement to commitment. Instead of providing committed employees with access to accumulated organizational learning and best-practice templates, coercive procedures are designed to force reluctant compliance and to extract recalcitrant effort.” (Adler and Borys, 1996)

This means that the first question you can ask yourself to reduce the hindering demand that bureaucracy puts on your team is:

  • What is this procedure/rule/process/guideline (or whatever else) for? Does it enable people? Or is it designed to keep them under control?

Adler and Borys (1996) suggest using the following four features to distinguish between the two types:

  • Repair.
  • Internal transparency.
  • Global transparency.
  • And flexibility.

Repair

Do I have the ability (and if so, is such ability encouraged) to fix things and suggest improvements?

If you fear your staff’s intention is to overthrow current ways of working instead of trusting people to genuinely want to contribute to improvement, you’ll find that your team will probably reciprocate this lack of trust. Instead, of problem-solving, they’ll welcome any machine breakdown as a break from work! Or they might use any excuse to not overcome hurdles they come across when interacting with stakeholders or other teams, for example.

So check in with yourself:

  • How easy is it for people to repair the process or the machine themselves? Is a particular procedure designed to allow people to correct errors they may have made quickly and easily?
  • What support systems are available to get help? Do the processes and procedures keep people stuck when something unexpected happens? Or do they allow your team to easily manage exceptions?

Internal transparency

Do I have insight into how things work and why they are the way they are? Asking people to simply implement work instructions rather than explaining the background and rationale behind them can feel coercive. 

On the other hand, giving someone visibility into any tasks they’ve been asked to perform and facilitating sharing of best-practice routines between workers are activities that feel enabling. Giving feedback is another great resource to help people understand their performance and expectations.

So check in with yourself:

  • How often do you ask people to do something „because you said so“? 
  • How well does your team understand why they have to do what they’ve been asked to do and what impact their work has? (See more on this in the blog about Task Significance and Meaning at Work.)

Global transparency

Do I understand the process end-to-end? This is about how well people comprehend the broader system they’re part of. This is important because a broader understanding of where our tasks fit into the whole is a prerequisite to making valuable suggestions and contributions. And these, in turn, allow us to improve processes and performance as well as break down silo-thinking.

So check in with yourself:

  • Does your team understand where their data input or intermediate work product is coming from and what happens in the upstream part of the process?
  • Do people know where the output of their work is going, who receives it, and what else happens in the downstream parts of the process?
  • If not, how can you better illustrate to your team where their work fits in the vast web of interdependent business processes?

Flexibility

And finally, can I adapt the process to fit changing circumstances? Can I customise my tool? Do we allow deviations from the procedure?

Flexibility means appropriately reacting to exceptions. For example, this could relate to skipping steps in a process if this can be done safely, making decisions on how to handle special cases, or modifying how data is displayed on your screen.

So check in with yourself:

  • How empowered are your team members to make decisions based on the available data available?
  • Are procedures so rigid that some people resort to covertly skipping steps or finding workarounds?
  • If so, how can you redesign processes to take you out of the approval loop wherever responsibly possible?

As a final word, I’d like to point out that I don’t assume that you, as a leader, know all the answers to all these questions. The idea is to involve your team. Ask for the opinion and feedback from the people who use the processes or the tools regularly. Start open conversations with them, then redesign activities accordingly, and finally test and evaluate any outcomes.

So how does bureaucracy work in your team? And what changes are you prepared to make?

Further Reading

Better Work Basics​