Over time I have used this platform to rail against the negative aspects and the debilitating results of bureaucratic corporate culture. We have illustrated examples of insincere, insecure, incompetent and incoherent bureaucratic management actions that create an unhealthy and unhappy work environment that consistently destroys corporate value and disrespects the worth of the individual.

Of course, it is easy to criticize, especially when the bureaucratic actions of management are so consistently egregious. But the real challenge is to offer solutions to this problem. In fact, a constant theme of many of those who have posted comments or contacted me directly, goes something like this, “Mac, you are right on! I work in a bad environment, but what can be done about it?”

Excellent question. The good news is that a bad corporate culture can be changed and improved. But here’s the bad news: it is extremely difficult to do so. This blog examines how and why corporate cultures go bad and how to improve them. A future blog will offer some advice about what you should do if you’re caught in a bureaucratic environment.

The Chicken or the Egg?

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. Successful companies 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.

In simple terms, if the quality of a work environment and culture of an organization are poor, it is because poor quality managers or top management want it that way. This often means that when the environment is negative and employees are downtrodden and unmotivated, these executives do not even recognize the problem. And management cannot change a problem which it denies exists. If this is the case, then the only way to change the culture is throw out the managers and bring in new ones to build a positive culture. And that’s much easier said than done. It is one thing to know the truth; it is quite another to be guided by it.

Monkey See – Monkey Do

As much as I despise bureaucratic managers who give short shift to the idea that the culture of an organization is important to the ultimate success or failure of the organization, I am inclined to cut them a little slack. After all, most are simply acting out the environment in which they were educated. One does not usually climb the ladder of leadership in a bureaucratic organization by cheating on the rules—dishonest though these rules may be. Many managers are socialized to “go with the bureaucratic flow” and not to rock the boat. As a result, these top managers parrot a sort of bureaucratic gobbledygook because they don’t know any better; they seek only to perpetuate the bureaucratic culture of an organization.

It is even worse when managers trained in a bureaucratic culture are brought in from the outside and placed in positions of authority – God forbid as the CEO – in a company that had been built on be basis of entrepreneurial concepts. These bureaucratic managers lack the ability or experience to recognize or understand an entrepreneurial culture. As a result, their actions begin to destroy not only the culture, but the future of the company as well. These outside managers may well be gregarious, friendly and well meaning, but they come from and are the product of bureaucracy; they don’t know any better and are beholden to their superiors who hired them.

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.

See for Yourself

Examine any company with a negative corporate culture and you will find a 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 entrepreneurial manager has an “open mindset” as to how objectives can be accomplished. 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 achieve consistency when following a rigid system or set procedure than it is to deal with the variable 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.”

It is unfortunate – but true – that once the culture of an organization begins to erode and decline into the depths of bureaucracy there is little likelihood it will stop until the very soul and success of the company has been destroyed.

Difficult as it may be, it is possible to turn the situation around. If an organization was once based on entrepreneurial concepts and philosophies there are still those in the organization who remember how it was and will – if given the chance – work to make it the same again. The problem is that since corporate culture emanates from the top down, the management that destroyed the previous culture and set the current negative tone do not see the need and have no desire to change the environment. They not only don’t know what is wrong, they don’t get it when it comes to building a healthy corporate culture. As a result, if the corporate culture is to be improved, these managers will need to be outsourced, downsized and laid off. (With a good package of course, but they must be given only two hours to exit the building.)

Transforming a working environment from bad to good will not happen using systems and procedures, but by adopting a long-term process of implementing simple but critical actions. These needed actions are numerous, but they are simple and simply must be done.

This blog is too short to outline the entire process needed to heal such a sick environment. At the risk of being criticized for trying to sell books, I have written two books – Cheat To Win and Beat The System – that outline and offer a proven plan for building and maintaining a positive and motivating corporate culture. I would encourage those interested in turning around bad cultures, building new ones and maintaining a positive work environment to read these books. However, I am willing to bet that the bureaucratic managers of some of the companies that we have exposed have not and are not willing to read the books, let alone take these proven ideas to heart!

The Disheartening Truth

So the bottom line to this is simple, yet depressing. The culture of an organization is established by those who are charged with leading the organization. If those managers do not understand or give credence to the value of a healthy, motivating culture based on respecting and rewarding the value of the individual then such culture will not exist. The reality is that managers raised and conditioned to a bureaucratic culture – where the employee is considered a tool to the bureaucracy’s success -will do nothing to implement and perpetuate such a culture. Unless these bureaucrats can be ousted and replaced by those who better understand the value of a healthy entrepreneurial culture, what is bad now will unfortunately only get worse.

(Please stay tuned for a future blog that will discuss what individuals who find themselves trapped in a bad work environment can do to make things better for themselves and the people they deal with.)



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