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When Company Rules Go Awry: Is It Bureaucracy or BS?

A Personal Perspective: The positives and negatives of following rules.

You are about to complete a project and simply need a signature from a department head to formally sign off the work. Unfortunately, that person is out of the office, and upon inquiry, you find that procedures require that person’s, and only that person’s, signature. As a result, you miss your deadline.

Or, you complete an entire report and find out that some committee had changed the report format without informing you. As a result, you have to completely revise and restructure your report. In short, the bureaucracy got in the way.

Peter Drucker, the father of modern management warned that it only takes about 20 minutes for a bureaucracy to take hold. Drucker also said, "Bureaucracies are about rules, not results." Don't get me wrong, bureaucracies have many positive aspects. They provide guidelines and standardized procedures as well as uniformity in goods or services, and when appropriately used can lead to fair treatment. However, when small-minded people adhere strictly to the bureaucratic code, without critical analysis, without thinking about the broader implications, and neglecting the overriding mission of the company, it can kill the organization.

Here is when a bureaucracy can cause problems:

Overrides Critical Thinking

Some bureaucratic rules simply don’t make sense. In one organization, there was an HR policy that promotion and salary decisions could only take place on a specific date every six months. A valuable employee had an offer from a competitor and asked for a salary raise to match that offer. Even though leadership wanted to keep the employee, HR’s rule held firm, no counteroffer could be made, and the employee left. Critical thinking is needed to question when and how bureaucratic rules should be followed, and when exceptions need to be made.

Conflicts with the Organization’s Mission and Purpose

In a well-known clothing store that prides itself on great customer service, an established customer wanted to return a garment for a refund. Even though the salesperson had sold the garment to the customer, there was a strict “no returns without a receipt” policy. Try as she might, the salesperson could not get management to make an exception. “I lost my best customer,” said the salesperson.

When Rules Impede Progress

The rules and regulations of a bureaucracy need to enable the organization to achieve its goals. When a rule impedes progress, the rule needs to be immediately reevaluated.

How to Combat the Bureaucracy?

First, it often takes courage and persistence to battle the bureaucracy. There is a need for organizational members – leaders and employees alike – to stand up and say something if they believe that bureaucratic rules need to be rethought, changed, or suspended.

Second, bureaucracies, in their attempt to be fair and non-biased, sometimes come across as uncaring. When confronting ineffective and inefficient bureaucratic practices, however, it is important to put humanity back into the situation. Leaders need to respond to instances where bureaucratic rules have gone awry, and consider what is the best course of action for all involved, rules be damned!

Finally, the issue of fairness is important. We need to consider what's fair for all parties involved, and the broader implications of enforcing (or not) bureaucratic rules and procedures.

In short, bureaucracies are good when they work for us and our organizations, but they can easily become misaligned from the purpose and mission of the company. In other instances, people within the organization can use the bureaucracy for their own selfish purposes (to avoid work; to punish those they don't like by making them adhere to meaningless procedures). It is our job as leaders, and empowered followers, to make sure the bureaucracy is working positively for the entire organization.

More from Ronald E. Riggio Ph.D.
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