Breaking up with the system: It’s not you… It’s bureaucracy

By Carolina Rosado Aiza.
Originally written for the course: Management: Principles and Practices of EBS 


When we think of bureaucracy we are instantly reminisced of long queues that culminate in unpleasant and unproductive chats with surly people who couldn’t care less about our enquiry, who will probably give us a document to fill out and to deliver to another sour looking person who will keep that chain in movement. If you’ve worked in any kind of organisation you’ve probably faced another aspect of bureaucracy as well: the endless processes to get things done, the eternal chains of approval emails, the long waits for “green-lighting” new initiatives, and the never-ending feeling of life being slowly flushed down an interminable chain of command that does nothing but hinder enthusiasm, productivity, and-that ever short resource of life- time.

This can be especially frustrating for young people who work in creative branches of organisations. When we stop to think about it, it’s not hard to see why people feel at conflict with a system that was founded and developed long ago with utilitarian philosophies, placing the worth of things and people on how they maximise utility, and seeing the individual as a small part in an ever-moving machine that should always be supervised in a scientific (dry) and precise (inflexible) way, as explained by Clegg, Kornberger and Pitsis (Pp 440-447. 2016).


Wait… Bureau-what?

Bureaucracy is a system for organising and managing companies that was born out of necessity. Its roots lie in the early colonial plantations and it peaked following the industrial revolution and well into the Second World War. If we take into account the post-war world in which bureaucracy saw the height of it’s methods (early to mid 20th century) we can understand why bureaucracy’s ingrained principles made it the dominant form of organization in the world. Its focus on efficiency and the dry objective analysis and conception of business and organization made it the perfect tool to direct big and small enterprises equally, and it is a system still in use.

I used to work for the magazine/sporadic-issue department of a media corporation. This department was a middle point in content since it still had a journalistic focus, but we responded to the need for sales, which meant we had to work delivering trustworthy content but had to be approved by the marketing department. To keep things in functioning order between the two departments there were several processes we had to face when doing a project. And as Martí & Fernández write, “Routinization and the division of labour also favour the construction of distance between the actions and the final outcomes” (Pg. 1202. 2013).

This is the way we can recognise we’re in a bureaucratic process, when there’s a layered hierarchy, when there’s well defined and rigid processes for getting things done, and when people are detached of decisions and responsibilities that are beyond their station. Clegg et al, explain how throughout the history of bureaucracy there have been theorists like Fayol who emphasise on the importance of surveillance and structure, and other authors like Mayo who sought to humanise the process. Yet bureaucracy, much like capitalism, turns out to be a flawed method to organise corporations and societies.


The dirty little details

In my experience bureaucracy only hinders what could have been simple, even in seemingly complex situations like working across departments (in this case editorial and marketing). The lack of inherent integration between the departments and the status of the marketing team as supervisors (or in their minds, superiors) of the editorial team caused the bureaucratic system to act against an already packed schedule for both teams.

The hierarchy and disinterest between departments caused for a lot of friction, as well as plenty of miscommunication between levels, which is reminiscent of Merton’s (1940) critique on the effects of bureaucracy; in which he explains that, when faced when the rigid structures and control of action and relationships within a bureaucratic organisation, alternative and unmanaged means of communication will emerge.

Both teams worked in several projects and were located in different parts of town, therefore communication had to be done via email. There were seldom meetings to discuss or mediate who the target audience for each conjunct project was; meetings were for editorial to be informed who might be buying commercial space (ads) in each issue. There was an imposition yet a lack of interest or follow-up and this disinterest was palpable and consistent through the process.

According to Weber’s ideal bureaucracy, as told by Merton (1940), a clear distinction of tasks, authority, and hierarchy are important; but in our situation the “rules” kept changing. Sometimes design would be ours to devise, in other instances it would be provided by the marketing team; sometimes there would be a person in charge of revision, at other times revision was foregone altogether.

Most of the elements for each printed issue needed authorisation, yet this authorisation came from different people, with different corrections at different times. Communication was mostly done via email for “efficiency” yet this caused different (and often contradictory) chains of emails, in which questions and changes were communicated. This caused the opposite effect, as indications had to be rectified via phone with the head of the department to avoid mistakes. Given the little active involvement of the marketing team on the process, these revisions were seen as a hindrance, an inconvenience, sometimes resulting in true problems of time and conflicts with printing hours

Bureaucracy, a system dictated by mindless efficiency where the individual is only worth in so far as he or she is an asset, a perfectly functioning machine in which every cog is expected to perform to perfection eliminates the individual and raises the corporation up to a god-like level. We can surely see how this the idea of perfect (or extreme) bureaucracy like the one illustrated in George Orwell’s 1984 would conflict with today’s creative working places, and with today’s autonomous and inherently vocal youth.


Well, that escalated quickly…

It’s clear to see a contradiction. A pure bureaucracy as proposed by Weber (1991) is supposed to take the responsibility and decisions away from the workers, leaving these “higher” concerns to management. Yet in modern working places teams are faced with having to make decisions on the go, and (in my experience) making themselves responsible for the outcomes of a faulty process while having to run everything through a system that is only concerned with final results.

In this case, everything would have been simpler if there had been more involvement and less required revisions between departments. In the insistence of control we were lost in the processes of making sure every email notification and every authorisation was in place. The stress over this conflictive and bureaucratic relationship reached levels where at times the editorial team would decide to take “the bullet” and go ahead with a last minute decision in the late hours of the night, instead of waiting for someone to authorise a change.

It is even evident that business will benefit of diminishing the red tape and taking some of these needless bureaucratic processes to alleviate the pressure upon the workers of today’s corporations. While bureaucracy might prove effective in a more straightforward environment such as factory work, it is evidently insufficient in changing environments that require creative thought and changing challenges.

As explained by Merton in “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality” (Pg. 517. 1940) Bureucracy demands impersonal relationships and discourages independence and creativity. But are we not making an effort to change the way companies work? Aren’t businesses concerned with being above the grade? This isn’t news, and journals and websites such as The Business Insider have warned about burning employees out, advising companies to reduce the infamous red tape since, “One of the most frustrating walls an employee encounters is requiring permission to do their job, time and time again” (Business Insider, 2016). Other recommendations include the increase of non-financial benefits, and for employers to trust that they have hired the best people possible and that they will perform accordingly. In today’s fast paced world, where it is paramount not to remain static, we see in bureaucracy a rigid and inefficient method of management. There is clearly a shift to be made.


So if not bureaucracy… Then what?

Bureaucracy is flawed but it shouldn’t be dismissed in its entirety. Writers like Chris Grey warn us against the effects of this in organisations. He cites the example of the public school system in the UK, which has been trying to free itself from bureaucracy in its programmes. He writes, “if you strip away controls it does not make malpractice inevitable, but it increases the likelihood that it will occur” (Grey 2016). As is often seen, the steps for control are there for a reason.

“The problem with bureaucracy” as a method of management, as Grey explains (Pg. 31. 2013), is that we can’t just give up on organising, and bureaucracy has proven effective to a certain extent. What is important is for the parties involved in bureaucratic systems, is to realise the imperfections of the system itself. Flexibility, and a consciousness of others might help us go a long way in creating better organisations, even considering more humanistic approaches to management and power, such as those proposed by Mary Parker Follet and discussed by Clegg, et al (Pg. 465. 2016), where power, duty and responsibility are distributed proportionately to form a more comprehensive form of management. If Bureaucracy “sucks” but getting rid of it isn’t any better, then we should strive to analyse the particulars of our position and look for a different or hybrid method that will benefit both the company and it’s employees.


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