Join Gary Hamel for an in-depth discussion in this video The bureaucracy problem, part of Gary Hamel on Busting Bureaucracy.
- There is a New Yorker cartoon that shows an office worker slumped against the wall, he's clutching his chest. Concerned colleagues are crowding around. "Really, I'm fine," he says. "It was just a fleeting sense of purpose, "I'm sure it will pass." Punchy cartoons like this one are both witty and costing. They illuminate the dark corners of human experience, like the fact that work so often feels soulless. A recent Gallup survey revealed that only a third of US employees are fully engaged in their work.
That means that two out of three of us are not involved and enthusiastic about and committed to our work in the workplace, to use Gallup's phrasing. When I first saw that data, I thought, well, that makes sense, there's a lot of work out there that isn't very engaging. Think about it. Every day you see people doing jobs you are glad you don't have to do. You're grateful for their efforts, but far from envious. But work isn't the problem. Turns out 85% of us enjoy our work. The problem is how we're managed.
In another large-scale survey, only 25% of those polled thought their managers were actually eager to hear their opinions. And only one in five thought their boss was willing to share power. It's not work that sucks, it's management. Now, when I say management, I don't have in mind any particular individual or even that class of individuals we call managers. The problem isn't the odd tyrant or clueless bumbler. Most managers are decent and competent people.
The problem is with the technology of management, the systems, processes, tools, methods, that we use to mobilize and organize human beings to productive ends. We have a name for this technology. It's called bureaucracy. And though that word seems archaic, like horsepower, bureaucracy is still very much with us. In fact, it's pretty much inescapable. And if you doubt that, let me ask you some questions about your organization, and it might be helpful if you grabbed a pencil, a piece of paper, so you can record your answers.
Each question is simple, just yes or no. Do you feel there are too many rules and policies in your organization, too much red tape? Do those rules and policies often get in the way of doing the right thing for customers? Do you feel overmanaged, as if you're not really trusted? Are there internal processes, like budgeting and the annual performance review, that seem to absorb more time and effort than they're worth? Does it seem unnecessarily difficult to start something new, to get a bit of seed funding and carve out some time to experiment with a new service, product, or work practice? Does it feel like speaking up, challenging your manager, or questioning a decision, could be a career-limiting move? Are you or your teammates sometimes reluctant to take risks for fear of being punished for failure? Do internal staff functions, like HR and finance, seem more focused on enforcing their rules than facilitating your success, more meddlesome than generally helpful? Does it often feel as if employees are treated more like resources than human beings? That profits come first, and people come second? Do you feel there are too many layers in your organization? Too many managers who spend their time managing other managers? Do leaders seem more inclined to protect their decision-making prerogatives than to empower those around them? And does it often seem as if it's the best politicians who get promoted rather than the best leaders? So that's a dozen questions.
Look at your answers. How many times did you answer yes? More than once or twice? Five or six times, more than 10 times? The more yeses, the more bureaucratic your organization is, and the more bureaucratic, the less human it is, and the less human, the less capable it is. Now, I don't believe anyone should have to work in an organization that's a soulless energy suck. And I don't believe any organization that's bureaucratic at its core, that's hierarchical and rule-encrusted, is likely to long survive the gale-force winds of creative destruction that are now blowing through the global economy.
You may feel powerless to combat the forces of bureaucracy in your organization, to repeal the stupid rules, to push for more empowerment, turf out ineffective leaders, flatten the hierarchy, put customers first, and create a workplace that's truly humane, equitable, collegial, and inspiring. But you're not powerless. You don't have to sit back and take it. You don't have to keep your head down. You can do more than whine, you can help your organization bust bureaucracy, and I'm gonna tell you how.
The how isn't all that complicated, it's not like building a particle accelerator or an autonomous car or even learning Photoshop. But it does take hard work. It takes courage and tenacity, guts and grit. So you have to believe that the upside is worth it. Imagine working in an organization that is fully human and fully fit for the future. An organization where everyone has the opportunity to grow and thrive, where work is more avocation than vocation, where leaders are truly accountable to the led, where power trickles up, not down, where you feel everyone's working together on something noble.
Imagine working in an organization that rushes out to meet the future, that never takes refuge in denial, that's restlessly innovative, relentlessly optimistic, and changes before it has to. That's our goal. But getting there is gonna be up to you. You can be Dilbert, or you can do something. Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself. As Archimedes said, give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I can move the world. If you're gonna be a management renegade, you need to be standing on a solid foundation of facts and discernment.
So let me start there with some foundational premises, then we'll get to the lever.
- Focus your frustration
- Enroll a posse of change agents
- Build an irresistible case for change
- Learn from organizations that have conquered bureaucracy
- "Hack" the management systems in your organization
With these insights any employee can become a bureaucracy buster.