The bureaucratic condition

Working in organisational transformation certainly produces some home truths. The latest for me has been realising  how deeply bureacracy resonates with human beings. I mean as a default behaviour, especially in times of stress.

In employees, stress is routinely caused by not liking your job; not having a purpose; not being properly trained, or emotionally or intellectually equipped for the job. Stress generates resentment, which is vented on colleagues and customers, thwarting brand delivery.

Change programmes also brings stress. Change makes the bravest manager and  the most insouciant Millennial  pause for thought. You can make the change progamme safe. You can get the CEO to champion it. You can ask  the marketing team to communicate it. You can whip the workforce  into a revolutionary frenzy on a teambuilding weekend. But, come the moment to create change, individuals still tend to hold back. Sometimes it’s like watching animals in a zoo ,where the cage doors have been opened …  but not even the Tiger is venturing out.We love bureaucracy.  It’s  the corporate equivalent of the rule of law. It appears to protects people from arbitrary decisions inside the organisation. Rules and procedures give people clarity about their roles, their scope for decision making and their boundaries. Like the rule of law, they should protect employees from random and vindictive treatment by their bosses. So working in organisations with fewer rules and procedures can actually be more unpleasant. Trying to second guess the whims of an autocratic boss can be every bit as energy draining and innovation stifling as working in a bureaucracy.

So, when organisational transformation programmes begin, one has to be careful to prevent cross disciplinary, multi-level teams (specifically set up to break down silos) from becoming committees. Committees with minutes, responsibilities, stories, resentment and blame. Committees that report activity, but not productivity. Committees whose work is a burden to all, and whose contribution is just further inertia.

We’ve learned to avoid email as a communication medium. It already ruins most people’s lives, so how can you link it to positive change? We use face-to-face meetings (remember them?)  phone calls and online chat. We create virtual and real spaces; and we protect time. We celebrate the smallest victories and we link them to a narrative that the whole company shares. We empower the lowest employee level, so that their ideas can bubble up through the organisation and go ‘Pop!’ at the top.

Committees kill progress. So, let’s all find better ways to collaborate.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside







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