Is Your Workplace Too Bureaucratic?

Scott Mautz is a passionate expert on employee engagement/motivation/inspiration, workplace fulfillment, and others-oriented leadership.  Scott is the CEO of Profound Performance – a keynote, workshop, coaching, and online training company that helps you “Work, Lead, & Live Fulfilled.”

OK, we all know the ol’ stereotype of how bureaucratic government jobs can be. I’ll let you determine the extent to which that’s true in your own unique situation. Instead, I want to underscore just how damaging bureaucratic behavior can be and how to address its root cause—which we’ll get to momentarily.

New research reported in the Harvard Business Review reveals the depth of the damage that your slow, excruciatingly bureaucratic workplace is leaving in its cumbersome wake:

First, and not surprisingly, bureaucracy is expanding, not contracting.  Two-thirds of research respondents said they’re experiencing more of it over the past few years versus less.

We’re all at the bottom of a layer cake. The average research respondent said they had more than 6 layers of management above them.

Bureaucracy leads to non-value-added time suck activities. On average, an astonishing one day a week is lost “feeding the machine”.

Bureaucracy kills speed. Two-thirds agreed with this and it shoots up to 80 percent in large organizations (above 5,000 employees).

Bureaucracy yields internal navel gazing (versus external focus). As the research indicated, “Survey respondents spend 42 percent of their time on internal issues–resolving disputes, wrangling resources, sorting out personnel issues, negotiating targets, and other tedious domestic tasks.”

Bureaucracy stifles innovation. “Ninety-six percent of respondents working in companies with more than 1,000 employees said it was “not easy” or “very difficult” for a front-line employee to launch a new initiative.”

And what did the research indicate is the primary cause of all of these bureaucracy-induced blisters?

We’re all at the bottom of a layer cake. The average research respondent said they had more than 6 layers of management above them.


Senior managers reluctant to give away power and control. A failure to empower and grant autonomy.

If you’re a senior enough manager who is failing to give empowerment or an employee who isn’t receiving it–here’s help.

Take the initiative to develop an “Agreement for Autonomy.” It’s a simple document or a discussion that formalizes the rules of engagement and operation in the handover of power–making empowerment more comfortable and clear for the giver and receiver.

The Agreement can be easily written in bullet points (after all, we don’t want to add to the bureaucracy!) and has three parts:

  1. Construction.

Here you outline expectations for the work associated with the empowered task(s). You agree on the specific work to be done, the objectives, goals, and success measures. You also establish clear parameters around the scope of the autonomy given.

Parameters greatly reduce the likelihood of the manager worrying about the empowered going too far and overstepping their decision-making authority.

  1. Consideration.

This part of the agreement spells out what the delegator needs to be kept informed about along the way. The delegator will then be able to back up the employee’s decisions if necessary and better answer inquiries from his/her chain of command.

Informed managers are also less nervous managers and will be less tempted to intercede.

  1. Consultation.

This final portion of the agreement spells out the decisions that will require specific consultation from the delegator. Managers need to be brave in pushing the authority to make decisions down into the organization while still having a mechanism for giving their input if it’s truly necessary.

The consultation also allows employees to get practice in making tricky or vital decisions while increasing the quality of the decision and self-confidence derived as a result. The key here is to start from a place of being brave and being very selective in assessing which situations truly necessitate a consult.

Bureaucracy is the not-so-silent killer in an organization. Attack it pragmatically but profoundly and unleash your organization’s fullest potential.

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