Bureaucracy by definition is a system of administration based upon organization into bureaus, division of labor, a hierarchy of authority, etc.: designed to dispose of a large body of work in a routine way. Bureaucracies work well if the work is routine. However a limited number of tasks in today’s environment of rapid discontinuous change that are best done by systems. Bureaucracies work well in interfacing with government regulations or analyzing past performance. What makes bureaucracy go wrong? Bureaucracies go awry when leaders lose courage, lose energy or fear they not be able to arise to the challenges at hand it is easier to create barriers to protect the status quo. Hiding behind the status quo is never a means of identifying and releasing new leaders or of refining the effectiveness of an organization’s operations.
Bureaucracy becomes a means by which management insulates themselves from the fierce conversations they must have with their employees and direct reports when it takes on any of the following characteristics. Here are a few of the poor practices I have seen and suggestions for reversing these poor practices.
- Erect buffers and baffles. One VP created a web-based form to manage requests for interaction from his direct reports to avoid face to face interaction. After creating the form he hired a secretary to serve as an extra buffer. Suggestion: take time to interact with your direct reports especially in times of conflict. Insulating yourself not only frustrates direct reports it undermines trust, sets up power plays that cut efficiency and contributes to an exodus of your best talent.
- Design policies to avoid dealing with a problem employee. The director announced a new organization wide policy designed to address the misdeeds of one person the result was not enhanced efficiency – it dispirited and penalized the most productive by imposing ridiculous restrictions. Suggestion: personally debrief the problem employee offering feedback on what behavior is unacceptable and set proper limits for future behavior. Define the consequences of future violations and then stick to guidelines outlined in the feedback.
- Absorb, avoid and redirect. The president simply ignored his emails and refused to acknowledge those who attempted to talk with him about anything he deemed controversial. This behavior ignores critical communication. Suggestion: listen to the feedback of your direct reports – it provides insight into the impact of your behavior on others and insight into the situation that demands your attention.
- Launch into threatening tirades. When leaders feel threatened or challenged by creativity or differences of opinion some launch intimidation tactics meant to subdue the perceived threat. Suggestion: stop and think. What has triggered your anger? A threat? Before launching on the employee explore the theat. Use the opportunity to mentor your employees and test your own responses. After your interaction debrief with your coach to check your own leadership capacity.
- Responsibility hopscotch (also called delegation on a bungee cord). Leaders who don’t know how to mentor and name their direct reports’ capabilities may panic when they see assignments go sideways. Rather than intervene with questions and directives that name capability gaps they pull back key assignments and do it themselves. While this may serve the short-term to “save” a project or assignment it does nothing to develop the employee’s capabilities. Often it does little more than train employees that they can by-pass accountability knowing that the boss will step in and do it himself. Suggestion: ask yourself how well the pattern of “rescuing” your employees is working. Who is doing your job if you are doing their job? Is this pattern of behavior sustainable? Does it generate value? Seek out feedback from a trusted mentor or coach to expand your leadership capabilities.
- Demand performance based on assumed communication and standards. Unspoken expectations are unknown. While this makes sense when I write it I am still surprised when I watch leaders express react in anger and frustration because their employees could not intuit their preferences. There is a difference between employees practicing critical thinking and demands that they intuit personal preferences. Suggestion: explain your expectations as well as the task and ask employees to clarify what you have said to make sure that you have communicated effectively. Do not rely on written instructions alone when a significant assignment is on the line. Written instructions often contain implicit background or expectations that the reader does not have.
How do you handle a boss who exhibits this kind of behavior? If you are the boss how did you change? What was the catalyst to change?