How Bureaucracy Sabotages Corporate Success and What You Can do to Avoid It
The most deleterious inhibitor of consistent achievement by an organization is an entrenched bureaucratic culture. Like a creeping malaise that builds and strengthens over time, bureaucratic management, with its insincere, insecure, incompetent and incoherent actions, creates an unhealthy and unhappy work environment that consistently destroys corporate value and disrespects the worth of the individual.
It is unfortunate – but true – that bureaucracy starts small but once it has tainted the culture of an organization, it begins to erode and decline into the depths of failure. There is little likelihood it will stop until the very soul and success of the company has been destroyed.
The ruinous results permeate every fabric of the business. Bureaucracy suffocates innovation, challenge and change, but perhaps surprisingly, that is its purpose. Whereas the entrepreneurial culture is designed to seek out and challenge the future, the bureaucracy is meant to preserve and protect the past. And, it does so with a malignant vengeance.
In the Beginning . . .
When a company has achieved success, it is natural to want to preserve that success. But the problem is that success, like fame, can be fleeting. The fallacy of bureaucracy is its belief that the environment in which success was achieved can be bottled and frozen in time. But, of course, that is not the case. Success is maintained by responding to constantly shifting conditions and facing new challenges. That’s where bureaucracy loses it way. Its objective is to maintain the status quo, a feat akin to stopping the march of time.
For a young organization, the desire to achieve success is so all encompassing that when it is achieved, the desire to protect it is difficult to resist and this may unwittingly plant the seeds of bureaucracy. Once they are sown, they grow like a smothering buckthorn, producing results that are the opposite of what was intended. Protecting the past imperils the future.
The ability to maintain the success of an organization is more challenging than achieving success in the first place, but it is possible. To do so, the leaders of an organization must take a different approach to the future. To do this the leaders must re-define the definition of “success.” The mentality of the leaders must be that the real objective of the organization is constant and consistent achievement. Success should not be viewed as the objective, but simply the score card for what has been achieved.
Focusing on constant achievement forces the organization to be responsive to change and, in fact, seek it out. There is no room for bureaucracy in such an organization because it is designed to preserve what has been already been achieved, not support new milestones yet to be accomplished. Seeking constant and consistent achievement recognizes that if you are not making history, you are history.
The Entrepreneurial Culture is Everything
It has always been my belief that the success of an organization is ultimately determined by the type of culture and environment in which employees work. Companies that remain vibrant over time create a culture that stimulates, recognizes and rewards employee effort and permeates the entire organization. But here’s the sticky wicket: the culture of an organization is itself, defined and determined by the beliefs and actions of executives at the top of the organization. Success is from the bottom up, but culture is established from the top down.
If the objective of management is to preserve success achieved, this often means an environment that is negative and resistant to any change. Employees working in such an organization often become downtrodden and unmotivated.
As Daniel Boorstin wrote in his book The Discoverers (Random House, 1983) “The great obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the ocean was not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.” Bureaucratic managers who create and preside over a negative corporate culture fail to discover the value of a positive entrepreneurial culture, because of the illusion that what they are doing is the way it should be done.
Examine any company with a negative corporate culture and you will find a bureaucratic management style based on systems and procedures, not performance and progress. The difference between a healthy work environment and a bureaucratic one comes down to the “mindset” of those charged with managing the company. The bureaucratic manager has a “fixed mindset,” believing there is only one way to achieve results. Their aim is to make any alternative or creative thinking as unrequited as an Orwellian “thoughtcrime.”
Bureaucratic managers feel safe and secure with system and procedure. They believe it is easier to preserve success by following a rigid system or set procedure than it is to deal with the vicissitudes of seeking performance and progress. They may be right, but history shows that a fixed mindset in business as to the way things are and should be is a sure path to decline and failure. It was Leon Tolstoy who said (1856), “The people who bind themselves to systems are those who are unable to encompass the whole truth and try to catch it by the tail; a system is like the tail of truth, but truth is like a lizard; it leaves its tail in your fingers and runs away knowing full well that it will grow a new one in a twinkling.”
And the Moral of the Story …
When the success of an organization is defined by what has been accomplished, instead of what can be accomplished, the door is open for bureaucracy to take hold. The only way to defend against bureaucracy and its crippling impact on the performance of an organization is to re-define success.
Success should not be viewed as a place in time or a fixed target, that once achieved is to be defended to the death. Success should be defined as a constant and consistent effort to achieve. Success must be something to build on, not rest on. If such is the attitude and approach of leaders then a culture of achievement will be built and maintained. Bureaucracy will be banished and ultimate and lasting success achieved.