You have a project you and the team are really passionate about. You have done all the background work, created a great plan and now you’re ready to launch it out of the gates. You submit it to a leadership team and wait for the feedback.
This is where it all begins… First, you get a comment that you need to check some obscure company policies that were created 10 years ago to make sure it aligns. Then you get a question from one of the execs asking if you have considered if this fits with the way another team has always done it. Another says it will need to wait based on a queue of priorities that are in place. Another comments that it might be perceived negatively by the rest of the company. You’re then asked to go away and re-do the presentation in a different format and to come back in two weeks.
Before you know it, you’re slumped back at your desk and contemplating the next round of decision making you need to go through – where it’s not one yes, but several before you can even start moving. *Sigh*
Welcome to the world of workplace bureaucracy
In any organization, be it large or small, the unfortunate reality of life is that at some point you will encounter workplace bureaucracy.
For most of us, it can be the most irritating part of work to deal with. Because it gets in the way of getting stuff done. It adds in unnecessary layers and prevents you from achieving the goals you all share. Throw in some ego and office politics and you start to wonder why you’re bothering in the first place.
Bureaucracy was created for a different world than we live in today. It goes against so much of what the modern workplace stands for. And when so many organizations are dominated by the millennial generation, it’s easy to see why old school techniques grate against a workforce that just doesn’t think that way.
So why the hell do we continue to place unnecessary restrictions on the way we work? Why do we need seven decision makers when one would do? Why do we follow processes that seem to make no difference apart from getting in the way of improvement and real innovation?
Why do we bother with bureaucracy?
It’s a very good question. Why do we have it? Is it for reasons of control, like in the days of the Industrial Age? To cover ourselves in the ever more litigious world we live in? Is it to make executives feel more powerful? Or is it because we find it hard to change?
Every company will have their own reasons for having different levels of bureaucracy, but often the key consideration is understanding why it’s there in the first place. I have worked for organizations that follow out-dated decision-making processes; implement policies that do nothing apart from slowing things down and make decisions by committee rather than empowering their teams. But why?
For the most part, it feels safe. It puts the minds of the legal and HR teams at ease. We have a process, tick! It makes the top brass feel better too, even if they don’t agree with unnecessary documentation or layers of decision-making, it’s common place so probably something we should have, right?
How can we get rid of bureaucracy?
Shaking the bureaucratic roots of an organization is tough, especially if it’s a larger company. It takes a strong leader to assess where there is an absolute requirement for bureaucracy or where it’s simply holding the team back.
It also takes a strong leader to realize when they shouldn’t buy into the bureaucracy, even if that means being more vulnerable in front of other, more political peers. And if you’re a leader of leaders, it’s about taking a stand to stamp out the pointless bureaucracy you see rather than letting your senior leaders get away with it.
Now this isn’t an easy subject so I’m not going to have all the answers. However, there are three simple things that can start to breaking the shackles and moving to a more dynamic way of working. They apply as much in larger companies, where this problem is more prolific, as they do for companies that are more nimble and growing fast.
The role of transparency
Start by opening up the way you do things internally. A closed culture is yet another by-product of the Industrial Era and it has a large negative impact on the way your teams work.
When too many decisions are made behind closed doors or not enough is shared with your people, it’s easy for questions to start cropping up. Why are we doing things like this? Why do I have to wait so long to get approval Why do we bother with that policy?
Sometimes a decision will require a more complex way to get to an answer and it could involve more people. Sometimes you might have no other way but to abide by a legal requirement for the company. But the more open you are with your team, the more they can quickly understand what’s going on and why.
Don’t sugarcoat it, just lay it out for them and have a solid reason – even if they don’t like the answer, they still have an answer.
The power of why – do we really need to do it this way?
If you’re part of a larger organization or are starting to grow, it’s likely you’re going to have a few more requirements than a company of five or ten. But before you agree to just go along with a process because that’s the way it’s always been done, ask why.
Do you really need it? Is the policy you’re about to instigate on how to use the office phone absolutely necessary? Do we really need 10 people to make a decision that one person is perfectly capable of?
A big issue with bureaucracy, and why it has such a legacy, is that despite the fact people often get frustrated with something, they just go along for the ride anyway. For some reason, even leaders with a modern and forward-thinking approach can fall into the trap of implementing a new process or decision-making structure because it’s the way everyone else does it.
Leaders have a responsibility to question, to understand if what they’re doing is conducive to getting things done in the right way.
So even for the most necessary of requirements, we should still be asking why.
Empower, don’t control
A great way to achieve faster decision making and drive improvement is to look at how your team is set up to do what they do. Does every decision need to be run by you? Are you about empowering your team or controlling them?
Now, while this relies on trust, creating greater accountability within the team and letting them make more decisions can generate real positive momentum. It helps your team members grow, developing new skills and getting them out of their comfort zone.
Bureaucracy is about control, so it removes any chance you have of empowering your people. And when that happens the light that creates so many good things within your team struggles to shine brightly.
So look at the way you’re set up now or the way you’re setting things up for the future. If it feels like you’re putting more control points in place, you’re not doing your job as a leader.
Help your people grow through being more open in the way you communicate, question the way you do things and put the power back in their hands. The reward will be sweet. Oh, and drop the ego, that never helps anyone.