Success Secrets | Breaking through bureaucracy

Success Secrets | Breaking through bureaucracy

How do you break through the bureaucracy that damages so many organizations?

—James Moss-Solomon, Barbados

Damages? How about deadens? That’s a better way to describe what bureaucracy does; it sucks the life out of places. It turns perfectly normal people, given a smidgen of authority, into rule-bound technocrats and transforms what should be candid conversations about real issues into jargon-laden gobbledygook.

In short, bureaucracy gums everything up and slows everything down. It’s a competitiveness killer. And yet, for all its destructive power, and for all the people who claim to abhor it, bureaucracy almost never gets the kind of fightback it deserves. Most people simply suffer through it.

We both just finished My Grandfather's Son, the engrossing memoir by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In one chapter, Thomas describes the Kafka-like experience of trying to insert innovation into the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Eeoc), where he was chairman during the Reagan years. Sure, Eeoc is a government agency. But without doubt, Thomas' story will also sound painfully familiar to the legions of businesspeople who have run headlong into the stultifying effects of corporate “officialdom".

So, why do people put up with it? Probably because bureaucracy just seems like too big a monster for any one individual to slay. And we would agree, unless that individual happens to be the leader. After all, leaders set the tone for their organizations through the values they choose and the behaviour they demonstrate. And ultimately, leaders, and leaders alone, have the power to put the bureaucracy eradication process in motion.

Not to make that sound easy. In fact, declaring a war on bureaucracy is not unlike declaring a war on, say, cancer or drugs. From the outset, you know total victory is impossible, and the battle itself will be never-ending.

To compound matters, an anti-bureaucracy campaign can really shock a company. Sure, bureaucracy is almost everyone’s sworn enemy, but it’s still the enemy within. The minute leaders announce they’re on its trail and taking no prisoners, people can get defensive. They can really quake.

Let them. It’s the only way they will believe you’re fighting in earnest. And then go for it. At every opportunity, poke fun at anyone who appears to install process for process’s sake; rib people who get all puffy about their positions or titles. Make a scene every time someone says something hollow or phoney just to avoid a contentious issue.

We’re not saying be cruel. We’re saying be relentless and outrageous. Just make it so unpleasant for people to act rigid or formal that they physically recoil every time they even think of uttering: “That's the way it’s always been done."

And while you’re at it, make people afraid—very afraid—of scheduling any kind of formal presentation, especially if it involves slides in a darkened room. That all-too-common practice is a total bureaucracy enabler. It makes idea-transfer so one-way and ceremonial.

What you want instead is an organization where ideas flow freely up, down and sideways, in the halls and elevators, and where their value has nothing to do with the stripes on the shoulder of the person talking, and everything to do with the insight and creativity of the brain inside their head.

So, if you’re a leader, while you’re out there making fun of bureaucrats for their more obvious transgressions, make sure you’re also building an organization where people who demonstrate an impassioned and limitless approach to ideas are amply rewarded and celebrated as role models. Love the people who hate presentations.

Finally, leaders can fight bureaucracy by letting their people fail. Not often, of course! But a company that routinely hands its high-potential managers risky assignments and says, “Swing for the fences," inevitably breeds a culture of excitement and engagement and sends the organization a bold message: This company is not a machine, and you are not a cog.

Which brings us back, actually, to Clarence Thomas’ story. His entire life, there were people who tried to stop him from challenging the status quo. Because of his race, he could not go to certain schools or work at certain law firms. He could not even hold certain beliefs. In time, Thomas came to consider these dictums offensive. His success is a testament to his refusal to surrender to them.

If you’re a business leader, you can’t surrender to the status quo, either. True, you will never be able to eliminate every vestige of deadening bureaucracy from your organization. But try like crazy anyway. The upside is huge.

All it takes is courage.

©2007/By NYT Syndicate

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Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Campaign readers can email them questions at Please include your name, occupation and city.Only select questions will be answered.