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Why we love the bureaucracies we hate

How many companies have you worked for where this could be the org chart?


Yeah, me too….  but the question for me is why?  Article after article has been written about the dangers of stifling bureaucracy and the power of the nimble and “flat” new competitor, yet the hierarchies reappear over and over.

I’ll offer my take;  bureaucracies reappear because we humans are drawn to hierarchy and stability — and bureaucracies offer the illusion of both. 

As an example, I have been through several big changes at my current company — an aborted divestiture, multiple reorganizations, a private equity buyout, and the spinoff of a division — all within eight years.  Yet, if you listened to the buzz in the hallways, most of my colleagues talk about the “good old days” before all of these changes.  Never mind that they are forgetting to mention about 80% of the changes that actually happened, and that while the company “wasn’t changing” it laid-off almost 30% of its staff, changed CEOs four times, and replaced all of its systems.  

My colleagues are just as human as everyone else — we cling to the appearance of certainty and stability, even if it’s illusory and comes at a very high price.  And who can blame us?  Most Americans aren’t making windfall profits from these changes — and our jobs seem to be getting harder every year.  Stability would be nice given that “change” doesn’t seem to bring many rewards.

The problem is that we really haven’t ever had “stability.”   American society has changed rapidly and constantly since the Revolution (and well before that) — but we too often forget about the disruption, uncertainty,  and trauma as time marches on and instead focus on the changes we face today and tomorrow.  We look back with nostalgia and look forward with anxiety.  Neither perspective is 100% accurate and together they make for a very stressful state of mind.

So, we seek structure, certainty, and definition to counter the stress of the many things we see changing all around us.  In my office, the code phrases are “I need to know my job responsibilities,” or “I need to know who I report to and how I will be measured.”  We are making the classic tradeoff of freedom and flexibility for perceived stability and security.

How do we do that in the workplace? — set up structures and processes, aka bureaucracy.  Bureaucracies promise clear authority, defined responsibility, and strong accountability, while flat organizations depend on teams to sort things out for themselves with a minimum of guidance and daily direction. That “chaos” from a flat organization is admittedly hard to scale and can bring its own problems, but what does bureaucracy bring?  We all know the downside — slow decisions, lack of accountability, stagnation, disengagement, and social stratification.

So why do it?  I think we simply can’t help ourselves.  When chaos hits, we seek certainty and forget the price of that certainty.  Yes, we will take the shit as long as we know who is doing the shitting on us and we know on whom we can shit.

Maybe coming to peace with our stability-loving ways and learning to love the org chart is the answer...


© Steve Ritchie 2017