Useful Bureaucracy

When Bureaucracy Is Actually Helpful, According to Research:

“Bureaucracy” has become a catchall term for the many ways in which organizations squander workers’ potential. From needless paperwork to delusional project timelines, administrative overhead can prevent workers from doing the meaningful tasks that contribute to the organization’s bottom line. Employees perceive bureaucracy to be an immovable beast, blocking their path toward efficient, satisfying work lives.

And yet excising these bureaucratic elements from organizations would be nearly impossible. Projects that involve complex technical work must be tracked and coordinated across departments; budgets must be accounted for; and costs must be kept in line. While some organizations do a better job than others of protecting their expert workers from the detrimental effects of documentation, schedules, expense accounting, and budget statements (the list could go on), managers can only do so much.

In our research, originally published in Administrative Science Quarterly, we compared two contrasting production settings: film sets and a semiconductor equipment manufacturing firm. In both situations we found plentiful evidence of bureaucracy. And in both situations employees managed to fulfill these bureaucratic expectations with a minimum of complaining or disillusionment. We find that in these organizations, the experts have figured out how to make bureaucracy work for them.

Why? One reason is that experts in both settings recognized that making bureaucracy work allowed them and their colleagues to maintain a sense of control over the tasks they care about.

For example, on one film set, Don, the production manager of a shoot in New York City, heard that a principal actor had the flu and his handlers wanted to take him to the doctor. Don called the studio accountant to find out how much it would cost to wrap early, and then called the studio’s risk management department to see if the studio’s insurance policy (which covers filming disruptions such as sick or injured actors) would cover it. Then Don got together with the producer and assistant director to discuss what other scenes they could shoot in the actor’s absence. Don saw that proactively managing these bureaucratic constraints would allow the crew to move forward with their substantive work.

In addition to their desire to maintain control over important tasks, people make bureaucracy work when they treat it as a shared, rather than an individual, burden.

In some cases, this means managing the bureaucratic workload hierarchically, with senior members of an organization absorbing much of the burden and allowing junior members or groups to avoid dealing with it; this was the approach on film sets, where senior crew leaders like Don buffered the junior workers from bureaucratic hassles. In contrast, in the equipment manufacturing firm, experts with different technical backgrounds often worked together to solve a bureaucratic problem before the organization was even aware of it.

In one interaction at the manufacturing firm, two technicians, Terry and Mark, needed to add a new switch to the machine, but there were no holes to attach the switch plate. This was a bureaucratic problem as well as a technical one, because the organization required that the engineers’ drawings match the machine exactly and that every change to the design be carefully documented. Pete, an engineer, met Terry and Mark in the lab. After some discussion, Terry drilled the holes and mounted the switch plate. Pete noted the change on his drawing. In this case, the group worked collaboratively to both solve the technical problem and share the bureaucratic burden, to prevent potential errors in documentation and manufacturing.

Instead of being overwhelmed by bureaucratic demands, the people we observed were proactive in making sure they were meeting these demands. Perhaps this was because, given their expertise, their organizations gave them latitude over their substantive tasks, and workers saw meeting bureaucratic demands as the ticket to continuing autonomy.

Our advice to managers whose employees seem dejected by paperwork would be to pay attention to what they might want in return: more autonomy, more respect from their peers (for protecting the group from unnecessary delays or intrusion), or greater learning.

A realistic answer to the chorus of employee complaints about bureaucracy might not be to eliminate bureaucracy altogether but to link bureaucratic tasks more closely to upsides that workers can agree are worth the trouble.


By Daisy Chung (Cass Business) & Beth Betchky (Stern School) @ MIT Tech Review