What Is Bureaucratic Control & How Do You Eliminate It?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Humanocracy" by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is bureaucratic control in management? How can you build a company without bureaucratic principles?

According to authors Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, outdated bureaucratic business practices should be replaced with human-focused business models. They argue that bureaucratic control in management disempowers employees and results in a less productive work environment.

Read on to learn more about bureaucratic control and how to counteract it, according to Hamel and Zanini.

What Is Bureaucratic Control?

In Humanocracy, Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini explain what bureaucratic control is by contrasting it with the principles of human-focused companies. They also present some tips for building your own human-focused company; however, the authors’ purpose isn’t to give you a step-by-step process for starting a new company—countless other books and business guides already do that—but rather, to make sure that the company you build upholds human-focused principles. 

To begin with, let’s explain what bureaucratic control is: Bureaucracy emphasizes stability and control, and as such, existing companies that rely on it naturally resist change. Furthermore, power in a bureaucracy tends to be concentrated in the hands of a few decision-makers at the top of the organization, so if you’re not one of those decision-makers, then you’ll have an even harder time turning an existing organization into a human-focused company.

How Do You Eliminate It?

The main goals of a human-focused company are minimizing bureaucratic control and maximizing each employee’s creative potential. Achieving these goals will require building human-focused principles into every aspect of the company, from daily operations to executive decisions. Hamel and Zanini say that it’s often better to start your own company and build it around human-focused principles from the ground up.

The authors add that, if you’re not in a position to start your own company, you can still encourage human-focused principles among your team members and any employees who report to you. For example, assign people important tasks, then give them the autonomy to carry out those tasks as they see fit—don’t get directly involved unless they ask you for help. 

(Shortform note: Since the purpose of a human-focused company is to create a work environment that works for everyone, one way to encourage human-focused values at a grassroots level could be to ask your colleagues what they think about the current state of your workplace. Hamel and Zanini have designed a workshop that helps small teams to identify how bureaucracy is holding back the company and brainstorm human-focused solutions to improve morale and productivity.)  

How to Lead Organizational Change

Unfortunately, starting a new company from scratch as Hamel and Zanini suggest isn’t feasible for many people. Difficult though it may be, you might find that working to change your current organization is a more realistic option. But how can you institute large-scale change in your workplace if your goal is to reduce or eliminate bureaucratic control?

Leadership expert and consultant John Kotter writes in Leading Change that spearheading organizational change is a seven-step process. While some of his advice is only possible for an organizational leader to enact (particularly Step 7: update the company culture), much of it can be implemented by any motivated employee. 

1. Create urgency. Make sure everyone understands why this change has to happen and why it has to happen now. 

2. Make a team. Put together a group of people with diverse skill sets to lead the organizational change. 

3. Develop your vision. Make sure you have a clear and specific idea of your company’s future. In other words, what are you ultimately trying to accomplish by making this change? 

4. Sell your vision. Prepare a statement that you can distribute through the organization explaining what your vision is and why it’s right for the company. Make sure your statement is clear—avoid jargon—and invite feedback on and discussion about the vision. 

5. Clear the way. Identify obstacles to change and overcome them. Common obstacles include pushback from supervisors and managers and insufficient training among core staff.

6. Set small goals to produce small victories. As you implement large-scale and long-term change, keep people motivated and determined by setting achievable milestones and celebrating when you pass them.

7. Update the company culture. Once you’ve accomplished your change, make it stick by incorporating it into the company culture. For example, if your goal was to boost employee satisfaction, you might try relaxing the company dress code or guaranteeing more vacation time in employee contracts. Make sure your organizational leaders are on board with the new culture—you might find it necessary to replace the most recalcitrant supervisors or managers.

Remain Vigilant Against Bureaucracy

It might seem easy to avoid bureaucracy when building a human-focused company from scratch, but the authors warn that the bureaucratic mindset is pervasive. You’ll probably be tempted to secure your control over the new company and improve your workers’ performance through strict rules and systems. 

That’s why you must always remember the reason you’re doing this in the first place: because that kind of bureaucratic, authoritarian control doesn’t work. Your company will be more successful—and your workers will be happier—if you instead encourage them to find solutions to their own problems and empower them to carry out those ideas. 

Hamel and Zanini also encourage you to regularly reflect on ways you’re being bureaucratic and determine whether that bureaucracy is absolutely necessary. Also, encourage your employees and co-workers to point out bureaucratic behavior within your company—remember the “web of accountability.” 

(Shortform note: While the authors warn strictly against bureaucracy here, it often does help organizations to run efficiently and effectively. Clearly defined duties, chains of command, and reporting systems allow large numbers of people to work together smoothly, while rules and regulations ensure that everyone is treated fairly (in theory, at least). This might be why people slip back into the pervasive bureaucratic mindset, even when they’re trying not to: because, in many ways, it works. What Hamel and Zanini are really opposed to is micromanagement, as we discussed earlier. In other words, the authors aren’t really against the concept of bureaucracy—they’re opposed to what they see as its misuse in the modern workplace.)

What Is Bureaucratic Control & How Do You Eliminate It?

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  • Why employee obedience and efficiency are not the most important traits
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  • The six-tier hierarchy of needs in human-focused companies

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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