Bureaucracy ‘R’ Us

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Would you be surprised to learn that I haven’t been able to find a single positive quote on the topic of bureaucracy? Probably not. Franz Kafka’s “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy” may be my favorite. And I certainly have done my share of railing about red tape, phone trees that never offer the choice one needs, and staff who don’t seem to know how to be helpful.

And yet, in grad school, I learned an important reframe about the bugaboo that is bureaucracy. In my Organization and Administration class, the professor explained that done well, bureaucracy should create the opportunity for routine work to be handled routinely. If that happens, then there is space and time to examine the unusual and consider making exceptions. Designed well, staffed by people who have been trained appropriately and given clear guidelines within which to exercise their authority, bureaucracy can help complex organizations run smoothly

It’s that nugget I often share with staff members as they describe bureaucracy or ‘the administration’ as an impediment to their creativity and innovation. I remind them that we ‘R’ the bureaucracy. They are university administrators. We are often the ones explaining the rules and processes to students and colleagues. Occasionally, we’re the ones saying no. It creates a bit of cognitive dissonance.

Creative tension

A different version of that cognitive dissonance was on display in some feedback I received after a session on being successful in complex organizations. The participant heard two messages: find your style, be fully yourself as a leader, and “toe the line” as an administrator. She thought I was talking out of both sides of my mouth. I wish she had shared her frustration in the session so we could discuss her concerns. We could have talked about the challenges of holding those two realities that will likely be a perpetual creative tension in our work.

I often say, bring your full self to work, but not your sweats and bed-head self. We need to clean up ourselves a bit when we come into work, but we still bring our values and our opinions to work. However, we don’t get to express them any time we want to. That’s true in person and on social media. We should advocate for change, work for improvements and challenge ourselves and others to examine the status quo. And we have obligations to our organization to accomplish the work we have been hired to do.

Our work brings us in contact with people who have very different, sometimes radically different opinions. Our job requires us to work with them anyway. The bureaucracy gives us a framework to work with them fairly and even-handedly. And the bureaucracy can be something we hide behind rather than do the challenging work of addressing real problems and concerns – for people and within the organization itself.

There are too many levels of complexity on this topic for a short blog post, but it’s an important topic. Being true to oneself and to one’s organization is always challenging, sometimes impossible. Making bureaucracy effective and humane is also difficult. Learning to find our way through the conundrums of these creative tensions is a necessary skill for all of us.

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