Transformational Leadership

Breaking Bureaucracy

Estienne De Beer asked:

Have you ever thought that your unconventional way of viewing the workplace tends to create cold sweat down the back of your boss? That is if he is a bureaucrat – a custodian of the status quo! It’s not really old fashioned shoes or light green krimpilene trousers that make your boss’s management style so outdated. It is his closed mindset, which passionately resists change and obsessively treasures policies and procedures. This is fertile breeding ground for complacency and killing creativity in a team!

Achieving results are not at the top of the list for your boss. Whipping up a whirlwind of rules and regulations is. He embraces the company’s policy at the expense of everything else. Getting things done with speed and a high sense of urgency doesn’t even make it onto his list. He will rather unleash report-writing mediocrity. Knowingly or unknowingly, he is an expert in causing obstruction. Your boss is a proper and self-respected ambassador for “rules” and “red tape”. Today’s accomplishments are not that important, but years and decades with the organisation are incredibly admirable from his point of view. Your thirst for performance and drive towards excellence is quite frankly a major irritation to the boss. He has already concluded a long time ago that there is absolutely no reason to get overly excited or passionate about the company. Not then, not now and not in the future! The ultimate goal for him is to retire and until then, bask in the glory of all his titles. Someone still has to break the news to him that times have changed and these days, you buy your own gold watch at retirement. The valuable contribution that you can make towards the organisation doesn’t even feature on his radar screen. Through years and years of service, he has “arrived”. Your boss is acutely aware of his positional authority and power. Everyone obeys him, because they are forced to. He is oblivious to the unproductive effect of his lack of influence on the team. Culbert & Ullmen caution that we recognize the hierarchy trap: “…one must also recognize that hierarchy is a cancer that causes human systems to close down. It almost always limits truth telling, authenticity, openness, and give-and-take exchanges.”

So why does your boss hail from the stone-age? Your boss doesn’t need to drive around in a Fred Flintstone car, wearing a leopard skin and carry a club to have a primitive way of thinking. It has also nothing to do with age. William Blake once wisely remarked that “the man who never alters his opinion is like standing water and breeds reptiles of the mind.” Years and years with the organisation without any competition in the industry forged your boss into a bureaucrat. Quantity in the absence of quality has become his measurement of success. Charles Foley describes these types of bosses as: “bureaucratic adversaries, with their single-minded devotion to preserving the order of things and their place within that order.” Bureaucratic bosses form part of a global clan that spans around countries, cultures and continents. Their “well-deserved” justification is always the same: “been there, done that, got the tie”. The walls in their offices announce in stereo surround sound their self-perceived value through framed diplomas, degrees and certificates. Their views and behaviours in the workplace reveal it all. It can only be described as self-justified entitlement. The organisation “owes” it to them. They have given years of loyalty towards the company in exchange for job security. But guess what? There waits a rude awakening! The workplace has changed. No company or organisation can afford to give you permanent job security anymore. You have to make yourself invaluable by producing results, mentoring those around you and contributing towards the bottom-line.

How do you manage a boss that is a bureaucrat? Maybe you are bored out of your skull in a sleepy business setting or stifled beyond comprehension in a stuck-up bureaucracy. You need to do something! A word of caution: be prepared to fight an uphill battle against your boss’s self-justified complacency and inward focus. In modern times, there is no way that any one of us can afford to get stuck in the rut of rigid tradition. It is easy to understand that innovation adds vitality to any organisation. Unfortunately for most of us, working under a bureaucratic boss, there will always be a nagging fear of being criticized, looking stupid or failing with our new ideas. This is why you need an abundance of courage. You should never be scared to deal with this type of boss. The future of the organisation is depending on it. If you are not going to stand up, who will? This is leadership in action! Don’t bargain on your boss to sponsor any change. Your influence and enthusiasm will have to create the necessary momentum for transformation. Build your business case slowly and back it up with solid data. Continue to lobby your boss tactfully. There is the danger that you can be negatively perceived as a non-conforming rebel, because you are threatening that which is familiar to your boss. Remember that bureaucrats become stuck in the strait jackets of their own comfort zones and tradition. The time will come where you have to sit down with your boss for a discussion. You might be anxious. Let your boss know that it is difficult for you to speak up, but you do it out of respect for the company and him as an individual. Don’t forget to express your appreciation for his “attendance”. Use non-judgemental words and describe the result of his management style on everyone. Give specific examples. Listen respectfully to your boss’s version of events. Provide non-threatening, but practical suggestions on how to potentially remedy the situation. Make sure to thank your boss for lending his ear to you. Remember, you had the vision, so now you have a job to do!

So what is the ultimate solution? Some managerial minds in the workplace are like cement … permanently set! They need to understand that persistent innovation is a lasting competitive advantage. Innovation and change is a sure way to open the doors of accomplishment for any organisation.

Everyone needs to grasp the hard-hitting business reasons that demand innovation. No strategy, procedure or course of action has a permanent lifetime. We live in an age of killer competition and the key to a company’s survival in the ever-changing workplace is innovation. Leaders need to nurture innovative organizations. They have to tap into the trust and collective guts of all employees to stomach uncertainty and risk new and creative ideas. True innovation is exactly the opposite of a bureaucracy. It requires a new way of thinking and viewing business. Traditional assumptions must be challenged at all times!

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