Bureaucracy is the Beer Belly of Business

Once bureaucracy starts creeping onto the corporate body, it’s hell to reduce

Whether fairly or not, we form an immediate negative opinion of an individual who struts around supporting (actually a relative term) a beer belly bulbous enough to intimidate a sumo wrestler. When we see a turgid paunch on parade, we often draw an immediate conclusion about this person’s lack of self-discipline and roguish life style.

It may be none of our business and won’t impact our lives, but the natural assumption is that this individual is a committed couch potato, saturated by a high-caloric diet (both solids and liquids) and is not at all concerned about how these personal decisions will wreak havoc on his future well being.

Sadly, the same sorts of morbidities strike businesses of all sizes.  The culprit here, though, isn’t unwise eating habits or sedentary life styles, it’s bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is the beer belly of business and it can impact business futures just as deeply if left untreated. And that’s what separates ordinary from exceptional leaders.

Some leaders react to the beer belly of bureaucracy by outwardly expressing  repugnance, but more often than not, they wrap themselves in its suffocating blanket. For them, bureaucracy festers and grows while becoming a tool to control and stifle others; it also serves as a convenient excuse if objectives fail. Sure, there certainly is a need for structure and order, but all too often, once bureaucracy begins to bulge, it limits innovation and creativity in much the same way as a girdle of fat inhibits both freedom of movement and motivation to change and adopt healthy new strategies.

Growing the Beer-Belly of Bureaucracy

Like one too many beers and that surfeit donut, the incursion of organizational bureaucracy starts so subtly you barely notice. And unless it’s identified and rigorously disciplined, bureaucracy can grow into a corpulent beer-belly of rules causing an organization to become too paralyzed to act.

Bureaucracy is a natural byproduct of growth. Growth creates the need for varying degrees of rules that attempt to standardize employee behavior and company procedures. Often these rules and regulations become institutionalized in employee handbooks and operating procedure manuals that in some organizations sag library shelves. 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. That is all well and good, but there is a downside.

When following the rules becomes the objective rather than a path to the objective, they begin to dampen the spirit and effectiveness of the organization. When rules are obeyed simply out of tradition—without ever asking why? —they often evolve into a dam of endless delay that can stem the flow of ideas and action in the system and make life difficult for all employees. This is particularly true for the creative, entrepreneurial types who are inclined to take the very actions that make an organization better.

Principles of Engagement

Often a business leader may see straightjacket-by-rules as a way to provide security and protect against risk. But the fact is, it also suffocates the vitality of change. In an effort to block the development of beer-belly bureaucracy and encourage creativity, risk taking and innovation, other leaders will adopt a healthy lifestyle environment that can be called “principles of engagement.”

A principle of engagement is a clear guideline for doing business, but not a specific, fixed rule as to how to do business. A principle of engagement defines what the business is about, but it does not set the rules as to how an organization goes about its business. There is a difference between guidelines and rules and the healthy leader knows that:

Rules are for those you don’t trust.
Guidelines are for those you respect.

Give a person a rule and you take away thought. Give a person a guideline and you stimulate creativity, accountability and responsibility. Operating under a principle of engagement, a leadership environment allows those who will be required to follow the rules to set them.

Using the concept of “principles of engagement” to control the beer belly of bureaucracy brings supervision, structure and order to the efforts of an organization, without imposing the stultifying details of rules that full-fledged bureaucracy brings. Contrary to the concept of bureaucracy that is designed to define, monitor and control each and every activity, the “principle of engagement” is a slimmed down approach that is not focused on how an objective is accomplished, so long as it is achieved within the established principle of engagement.

What Happens When a Leader Allows Beer-Belly Bureaucracy

Allowing bureaucracy to infest an organization has a negative impact on all elements of an organization, but especially three areas that significantly affect the performance of an organization. They are:

  • Accountability
  • Responsibility
  • Sense of urgency

A bureaucratic corporate mindset arises when the leader allows for the loss of these key elements. And like a carrying around a robust beer belly, it will sap an organization’s strength and vitality because it enmeshes employees in an ever-widening inability to act.


The concept of accountability means different things to different people; the bureaucratic leader sees accountability as a way to assign blame and punishment, while for bureaucracy-busters, accountability is a tool teach and assign reward.

When a leader uses accountability as a weapon of punishment or to transfer blame, then the organization begins to wander down a path that leads to a paralysis of analysis. In a bureaucratic environment where failure is not an option, no one will assume the ownership risk of an action because there is no reward of equal value.

If accountability is used as a tool to identify and reward those who are willing to accept the risk of action, then more people are willing to step up and exercise the ownership risk of action. If a member of an organization knows they will be allowed to learn from failure, they are much more likely to make the effort and accept accountability.


Responsibility comes part and parcel with accountability. Those operating under a leader who does not understand or practice healthy accountability soon develop sophisticated techniques to avoid responsibility.

A bureaucracy defuses responsibility into a catacomb of committees, reports, analyses and a parade of consultants, all of which results in a beer belly of bureaucracy. For an organization to remain slimmed down, vibrant and effective, there must be clear lines of responsibility and along with them must come the transfer of the authority to do the job and a healthy element of accountability.

The Pressing Need for Urgency

Operating with a sense of urgency is the measure of an organization’s leadership and vitality. A sense of urgency does not mean operating at a forced frenetic pace, but rather it means all tasks, decisions and actions are tackled in a consistent, timely fashion, exhibiting neither delay nor panic. This cannot happen in a beer-belly bloated bureaucracy. Bureaucracy fertilizes indecision and delay, leading to a harvest of last-minute panic actions.

And here’s something else to remember: There is a mistaken belief that a sense of urgency only works in smaller ventures. Not so. Whether or not an organization operates with a sense of urgency is not determined by the size of the organization but by the size of its overhanging bureaucracy.

Having a sense of urgency does not mean that you are not organized or don’t plan —nor does not mean that you are running off at the cuff. It means that you have a sense of determination to get things done. Something that is difficult to do when carrying around a beer-belly bureaucracy.

And the Moral of the Story Is . . .

Many leaders tend to embrace bureaucracy for the comfort, control and risk management it promises. These leaders fail to recognize that institutionalized bureaucracy leads to a beer-belly structure that can rob their organization of its ability to perform up to its potential.

Those leaders who understand that the physical structure of an organization can impact the potential for performance and success constantly strive for a leadership style that’s “six-pack-abs” lean and free from bureaucratic bloat. They recognize the value of structure and organization but clearly understand that when a structure morphs into a beer-belly bureaucracy in becomes the controlling culture that encourages all to hide behind committees, pass the buck, shirk responsibility, sulk, and sit idly by as the organization eventually waddles its way into failure.

The antidote for the ravages of a beer-belly bureaucracy is a culture that operates within rules of engagement, encourages a sense of urgency that emboldens risk-taking, freedom from fear-of-blame type accountability. The leader encourages employees to make their own rules within established principles of engagement and may even reward them with an offer of a beer when they succeed.


2 responses to “Bureaucracy is the Beer Belly of Business

  1. Jerry Enoch

    I strongly agree with the identification of the problem. A good alternative mindset was suggested. The big problem is how to move from one to the other. I have worked in both types of organizations. Can anyone share experiences of an organization that has shed its beer belly?

  2. am a student and we were given an assignment on this topic.can someone please assist me with ideas cos am kind of stuck.

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