Why Bureaucracy Destroys Human Spirit And Hurts Societies?

human leadership

Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them, a recently published book by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, really "spoke" to me. I have been writing about what I call "human leadership" for several months. The term resonated with me, but I was not sure if others would understand it. After reading Humanocracy, my doubts were eliminated as the authors made a case for a human-centric organization. Hamel and Zanini presented a framework for how we can achieve it.

All of us, from time to time, complain about bureaucracy. Maybe we are trying to get something done in our personal lives, and the red tape is preventing us from completing our goal. That can be frustrating. At work, the situation is even worse. We all understand that rules and regulations are necessary to a certain degree to prevent chaos and negligent behavior, but how many times have we seen regulations go too far, to the point that they inhibit progress and innovation?

The latter part is one of the aspects that Hamel and Zanini discuss in their book. In a typical 200-plus employee organization, employees are required to follow a multitude of rules, conform to certain rigid standards, and operate in narrowly defined roles. This type of environment discourages entrepreneurship and treats employees as nothing more than a human capital resource, a term which essence utterly lacks humanity.

Bureaucracies produce organizations with toxic politics, authoritarian hierarchy, and suffocating rules. These organizations are usually less creative, highly risk-averse, and exceedingly innovation-phobic. Worst of all, as the authors reveal, "bureaucracies are soul crushing. Deprived of any real influence, employees disconnect emotionally from work. Initiative, creativity, and daring - requisites for success in the creative economy - often get left at home."

Bureaucracies were designed to be dehumanizing, eliminating any personal, emotional, or irrational aspects. Jean-Claude Marie Vincent, France's administrator of commerce, coined the word bureaucratie in the early eighteenth century. The exact translation is "government by desks" or "the rule of desks," an unflattering term describing an organization that enforces rules without understanding or caring about the consequences of those actions. In 1837, British philosopher John Stuart Mill went even further and described bureaucracy as a tyrannical network.

To be fair, bureaucracy did serve a purpose during the Industrial Revolution and even beyond to create more efficient organizations and multiply our purchasing power. The typical bureaucratic organization includes the following elements:

  • A formal hierarchy
  • Power designated by a position or title
  • Top-down authority
  • Strategies and budgets established at the top
  • Centralized management ensuring compliance through oversight and rules
  • Narrowly-defined job roles
  • Managers assigning tasks and assessing performance
  • Employees competing for promotion
  • Compensation linked to an employee's rank

While societies might have benefited from bureaucratic processes over 100 years ago, today, bureaucracy causes more harm than good. Surveys show that 70% of the U.S. employees are in jobs that require little or no originality. We need to turn more jobs into good jobs that are more creative and elicit originality from every individual.

Some organizations are starting to realize that, and they are creating new management models that are human-centric. Instead of processes, rules, and regulations, leaders put human beings at the center of their organizations. Instead of seeking to maximize control and organizational efficiency, leaders seek to maximize human contribution to achieve the greatest impact possible.

These organizations are proving that it is possible to incorporate the benefits of bureaucracy, such as control and consistency, and avoid the disadvantages of bureaucracy, which are usually exhibited through mediocrity, inflexibility, and apathy. Hamel and Zanini illustrate that it is "possible to build organizations that are big and fast, disciplined and empowering, efficient and entrepreneurial, and bold and prudent."

The CEOs of the vanguard companies are committed to allowing human beings to do their best work. They know that "Higher-order capabilities are the product of passion, of a commitment to something that inspires us, something outside ourselves that needs and deserves the best of who we are. Initiative, creativity, and valor can't be commanded."

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