Winning the Battle of the Bulging Bureaucracy

The real threat from bureaucracy is an environment that places process and procedure above performance.

Like an infestation of mold spores in a home, the infection of bureaucracy into the very sinew of an organization starts so subtly that, at first, it is barely noticed. But unless identified and checked, mold can contaminate a home until it is uninhabitable. Likewise, bureaucracy left unchecked can pollute the vitality an organization until it becomes too paralyzed by process and procedure to act effectively.

Bureaucracy is a natural byproduct of growth. Growth creates the need for varying degrees of rules designed to standardize employee behavior and company procedures. The well-intended objective of these rules is to prevent chaos and to help coordinate the forces of many different departments together into one, unified, dynamic whole.

This is all well and good, but there is a downside. And how leaders respond to bureaucracy in an organization reveals a lot about their core philosophy and style.

How Leaders Typically Respond to Spreading Bureaucracy

The typical leader may express frustration with bureaucracy, but, more often than not, they wrap themselves in the security blanket of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy becomes the preferred tool of the lazy leader to control and stifle others; it also serves as a convenient excuse if objectives fail. The strong leader, on the other hand, recognizes the need for structure and order, but chafes under the limitations that bureaucracy places on innovation and creativity.

As rules for process and procedure proliferate within an organization, following these rules often becomes the objective, rather than a path to achieving a desired end result. When this happens, it begins to dampen the spirit and effectiveness of the organization. When it reaches the point whereby employees obey these rules simply because they are rules – without ever asking why they exist – they often evolve into a dam of endless damn delay that can stem the flow of ideas and actions in the organization. This creates a barrier and an air of frustration for the creative, entrepreneurial types who are the very ones inclined to take the actions that would make the organization better.

Becoming a Better Leader

The challenge for those who seek to become effective leaders is to figure out how to prevent chaos and scattered effort within an organization, while avoiding the implementation of a straightjacket, by-the-rules-only system that suffocates the needed vitality of innovation and progress.

The secret to success in this effort is to develop what has been called “rules of engagement,” as opposed to the traditional stark, rigid “rules of performance.” In simple terms, a “rule of engagement” is a broad-based guideline that establishes what the organization seeks to achieve. While “rules of performance” are a narrow band of actions designed to delineate how the objective is to be achieved. A rule of engagement defines what the organization is about, but it does not set the rules as to how the organization goes about its business.

Operating under a rules of engagement leadership philosophy allows those who are responsible for achieving the objective to set the rules they will follow. For example, the life insurance company LifeUSA had a rule of engagement that stated the company would sell all types of life insurance – except term insurance. The marketing people at LifeUSA were free to develop any type of life insurance they desired, just so long as it was not term insurance.

Even within the sphere of the insurance products sold there were rules of engagement, e.g., all products offered had to be in parallel so that the customer, company and selling agent benefited equitably. If that could not be accomplished, then the product was not offered. However, the specific rules as to how equitable benefits were achieved were not something imposed from above. Rather they were established by those charged with the responsibility for developing and selling the products.

This approach to product development at LifeUSA had the effect of “busting the dam” of bureaucracy by allowing those with the task of designing and marketing the products to apply all the innovation and creativity they could muster, just so long as they remained within the broad-based rules of engagement. Following this approach, LifeUSA offered some of the most creative and innovative products in the industry and became the fastest growing company in the insurance industry.

Using the concept of rules of engagement brings supervision, structure and order to the efforts of an organization, without imposing the stultifying details of rules that a full-fledged bureaucracy brings. The successful leader does not care how an objective is accomplished, so long as it is within the rules of engagement. Using rules of engagement to build the culture of an organization also offers other benefits that help to immunize an organization from bureaucracy. A bureaucracy hides accountability, disperses responsibility, discourages a sense of urgency and inhibits reward for achievement. When an individual uses the concept of rules of engagement as a leadership tool it empowers others to feel that they have the power to make a difference and add value. In this type of culture, responsibility is empowered, accountability is identified, a sense of urgency encouraged and rewards for success quantified. And that is the biggest threat to bureaucracy in any organization.

The effective leader understands there is a clear difference between guidelines and rules: Rules are an indication that those they are imposed upon cannot be trusted to make decisions and add value. Guidelines are a sign of trust in the ability of an individual to find the best way to accomplish an agreed upon objective. The effective leader recognizes that the best way to win the battle of bureaucracy is to never allow it to invade an organization by avoiding the implementation of rigid, creativity suffocating rules. Instead, “rules of engagement” establish a framework that defines boundaries, but within that structure the responsibility, authority and details of achieving the objective are left to those who do the work. This approach is, in effect, an inoculation against bureaucracy.

And the Moral of the Story …

While they often feign frustration with bureaucracy, the reality is that the typical corporate leader tends to embrace bureaucracy for the comfort, control and risk management it promises. They are willing to trade the ability of individuals and the organization to perform up to full potential for this comfort and the security of order.

It is bad enough when members of the organization have to buck the inflexible tradition of mindless rules and regulations, but when they aren’t rewarded – indeed, chastised – for resisting bureaucracy and fomenting creative action, the entire organization suffers.

The successful leader acknowledges the value of structure and organization, but is also cognizant that when bureaucracy becomes the controlling culture, it encourages people to hide behind committees, pass the buck, shirk responsibility and sit idly by as the organization rolls over and sinks. Gone is the incentive to take the brave steps needed to make an organization a true success story.

The antidote for the ravages of bureaucracy is a leader-led culture that operates with a sense of urgency, emboldens risk-taking, offers a fear-of-blame accountability, encourages learning from failure and equitability recognizes and rewards success. This is best accomplished by allowing the members of the organization to make their own rules within established rules of engagement.

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