Dr. Nicole Tschierske

Revitalising Bureaucracy: A New Approach to Organisational Efficiency

When we think of bureaucracy, inefficiency often comes to mind. Can bureaucracy, often viewed as a hindrance, be transformed into a system that fosters resilience and complexity? Explore a fresh perspective on bureaucracy and how it can benefit your workplace.

Christian Maravelias introduces the concept of post-bureaucracy, encompassing all individual organisational practices. Unlike traditional bureaucracy that standardises roles and depersonalises work, a post-bureaucratic approach recognises the complexity of individuals beyond their roles.

In today’s world, companies aim to unite their workforce under a shared mission and vision. While company values play a significant role in creating a conducive culture, it’s essential to consider employees as whole individuals, not just their roles.

In a post-bureaucratic setting, employees should transition between different roles and have the responsibility to define their roles. This makes it all the more difficult to have a narrow-minded approach to standardisation and formalisation – which is what bureaucracy conventionally does: It depersonalises how work is done. This isn’t inherently good or bad. Depersonalization standardises processes, sets clear boundaries, and ensures objectivity and predictability. These, in turn, benefit operational performance, technical reliability, and employee well-being. Unless we’re overdoing it and bureaucracy becomes restricting and confining.

Instead of viewing bureaucratic tools as rigid and unchangeable, we can consider them as adaptable practices that evolve with contextual needs. Paul Adler and Bryan Borys propose that by selecting the right type of bureaucracy, organizations can leverage formalisation to empower employees rather than coerce compliance.

The level of formalisation should align with employee preferences. Some thrive in routine tasks, while others seek flexibility and ambiguity, making non-routine tasks more appealing. To prevent a coercive bureaucracy, be conscious of power imbalances and avoid dominating every decision.

However, it’s important to recognise that both rigid and empowering bureaucracies often coexist. While standardisation is necessary for efficiency and cost-effectiveness, customers demand customised products and innovation necessitates creativity. In such a complex environment, some formalisation is required to address various scenarios, from machine breakdowns to shifting economic landscapes.

To make bureaucracy work for your team, embrace the concepts of enabling formalisation and coercive formalisation. Enabling formalisation doesn’t aim to make processes foolproof but enables employees to handle contingencies efficiently. Sharing best practices and lessons learned can contribute to organizational growth and stability.

On the other hand, coercive formalisation forces reluctant compliance and extracts recalcitrant effort, acting as a substitute rather than a complement to commitment.

To reduce the hindrance of bureaucracy on your team, ask a fundamental question: Does the procedure, rule, process, or guideline enable or control your team? By understanding the purpose and impact of bureaucratic elements, you can revitalise bureaucracy into a tool that fosters flexibility and productivity in the workplace.

(This article is based on a chapter in Better Work: A Leader’s Guide to Creating Happier, Healthier, and More Productive Workplaces.)

Further Reading

Better Work Basics​