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The Management of Bureaucrats: 1 Rule, 3 Options

small business

In the management of any small business, the business owner must deal with bureaucracies. It might be your own. It might be someone else’s.

But you must learn to manage that person whose every incentive is the polar opposite of your incentive. Your Small Business Owner’s Doppelganger is…the Bureaucrat.

Rule Number One:

Never Give a Bureaucrat a chance to say no.

Morton Blackwell, founder of The Leadership Institute, wrote The Laws of the Public Policy Process that has 45 such pithy points.

They are helpful to anyone dealing with the servants grinding out the sausage of law, policy, rule and reg. I keep a copy framed near my desk — even when that desk was a part of the Office of the Governor. But Your Business Blogger was no mere Bureaucrat.

No siree. I was an Appointed Bureaucrat.

Here’s what I learned: Governments and most any organization have what my favorite political scientist would call “multiple points of accountability.”

This is where any stakeholder or key influencer or television camera can veto an action. The Bureaucrat learns very quickly that vetoes will come fast and from all directions with lethal effect onto any movement by said Bureaucrat. There is no penalty for no decision. It is safer for a simple preemptive “No.”


Remember our Bureaucrat is in a matrix (an organizational structure; not the movie — although it may seem that way). He can get fired by a number of bosses. Or worse: to work past 5pm or on Saturday. A fate worse than death.

For example, we have seen the inner workings of the Bureaucrat in his natural habitat: Hurricane Katrina.

I have found one method of confronting this breed in the public or private sector:


Instead try these options, three Bureaucrat workarounds:

1) Use a third party. Watch how our Congress does it: Closing military bases a hot potato(e)? Form a commission. Afraid of controversial social issues? Let the Supremes decide. The good manager finds that third party. Finds that friend. There is always someone, somewhere who will sign off or lift off your project — for a price. (Call me for rates.)

2) There are some Bureaucrats who can be inside champions for your project. Here’s how you can identify this rare subset: Ask them if they like the child’s game of ‘Whack-a-Mole.’ If the Bureaucrat brightens up, leans forward and smiles, start enlisting. If the weather turns cloudy, walk away. Finding that particular Bureaucrat is tricky. Think CIA and spy recruiting.

3) Or my favorite — simply proceed with your initiative, process the paperwork after the fact and beg forgiveness. At 4:55pm. Friday’s are best.

It is the smart Small Business Owner who uses the One Rule, Three Options Matrix for managing Bureaucrats.


Jack Yoest

Jack Yoest John Wesley (Jack) Yoest Jr., is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Management at The Catholic University of America. His expertise is in management training and development, operations, sales, and marketing. Professor Yoest is the president of Management Training of DC, LLC. A former Captain in the U.S. Army and with various stints as a corporate executive, he also served as Assistant Secretary for Health and Human Resources in the Administration of Governor James Gilmore of Virginia.

33 Reactions

  1. Let us not try to give bureaucrats such a bad name (grin)…

    As my business grows, I found out that i need people who makes sure processes are followed, and that the documentation is done. Not a lot of people want to do that, and there is always many people in the company who wants to circumvent decisions made, or make a short cut of the process to avoid work.

    Yes, a bureaucrat who knows how to prioritize, and get things done is still a jewel.

  2. Josephine Livingston

    Bureaucrat is someone who must be able to lead, be hard but fair, and cut through lots of red tape. So many of us, think that one within that role must only follow orders. As the leader, beyond all the bureaucracy, it must be known to his/her employee that everyone has the responsibility to improve the work environment. There are many things within the workplace that are out the employees control, as the leader (bureaucrat) he/she can adhere and provide accurate information to those in charge. Bureaucrats not only have to follow orders, he/she must see that the policies and the structure of the organization is in compliance with upper management as well as how authority is given.

  3. It seems to me that bureaucrat has become a very long four-letter word, or at very least an insult, in today’s fast moving world. Its unofficial definition could be someone who makes all progress come to a grinding halt or at least derails every project that comes across his desk. From that point-of-view, the advice given in this column holds a lot of wisdom. The only way to avoid getting hit by that slow, lumbering truck is to stay out of its way– if you can.
    What motivates a person to become a bureaucrat? Why derail all progress, letting paperwork sit, sit, sit on one’s desk, only to say no to whatever it requests? Are bureaucrats procrastinators who clear their desks by stamping “DENIED” on everything in their inboxes right before vacation — so that they can go away with a clear conscience? Really, what is the deal? An organization – even a government — is a team with a goal. Shouldn’t we all be working together? Oh…. maybe that’s it, conflicting goals, conflicting priorities. I want to remind bureaucrats that there is no “I” in TEAM — if you are wondering to what team I refer, you may just be a bureaucrat.

  4. Jelena Cobanovic

    Very interesting article! In my opinion, bureaucracy can be both efficient and inefficient. If a bureaucracy is properly designed, it would be staffed with trained and motivated employees, and effectively resourced. If a bureaucracy is not set up and maintained in that proper way, it can waste resources and cause damage to an organization. Therefore, bureaucracy structure can be beneficial when used properly and horrible when used wrongly. However, it seems like in the United States in the recent years people generally do not have positive opinion about bureaucracies. Bureaucratic rules and authority are often unfair to many and if people are blindly following those rules they may do their tasks incorrectly, and those actions will not contribute to the company’s goals. Having the strict rules and regulations used in bureaucracies often eliminate the freedom of a person to act and form his or her opinions because of those certain restrictions. This is wrong as everyone should be able to express themselves and have a freedom to act and think outside of the box. Another flaw of bureaucracy is that when there is the need to follow a chain of command to proceed, a lot of important time can be wasted especially in some crucial situations when decisions are needed quickly.

  5. A bureaucrat is a member of a bureaucracy can compose the administration of any organization of any size, although the term usually connotes someone within an institution of government. Bureaucrats are known to be split into different categories based on the system, nationality, and time they come from. The main categories are: Classical, American, Chinese, European, and Modern bureaucracies.

    It is important to know that bureaucrats can work to be a major part of any organization rather t be for positive reasons or negative. They are typically appointed to the position based on conduct. The goal of the bureaucrat must be exercised by good judgement and skills, but the duty is to place these at the service of a higher authority.

    I believe that it is extremely important to identify with your bureaucrats sooner than later. Although bureaucrats are supposed to be fair, there are some bureaucrats who enjoy stirring up the pot. The more a company can identify with the bureaucrat, the more likely that the bureaucrat will side with decision made within the organization when problems arise. I believe that it’s a good idea to have bureaucrats so if they are truly for the right mission.

  6. Bureaucrats would be best seen as a neutral member who can serve a positive or negative purpose. Depending on how the bureaucracy is established, it could have members who are well trained and motivated in the right direction. Their mission should always to move forward with positive intent and good judgement. I would stress however that bureaucrats are quite known to be on either end of the spectrum – some very good and others very bad. Another flaw I see in bureaucracy is the notion that a series of higher judgements must be made before one is able to make any decision. This could render the decision to be costly if time was of the essence.

  7. At first when I read this article, I was confused how dealing with government bureaucrats connected to what we are learning in Human Resources Management, but upon reading the article a few times over, it is easy to understand how these tactics apply to any field. The rule number one: “Never give a Bureaucrat a chance to say no” can apply to many different fields and all kinds of management positions. I also think that this mentally connects to Completed Staff Work because a Bureaucrat will have a hard time saying no if a manager or employee gives him or her no reason to say no. In the case of Completed Staff Work, the employee would work out all of the kinks before presenting their ideas to the manager, so they are more inclined to approve the work. In the same way, if a manager presents an initiative to a Bureaucrat after fixing all possible mistakes, then it would be hard for this person to say no. I also like the first rule of Bureaucrat workarounds: Use a third party. This rule is a good tactic because there are appropriate loopholes to any initiative and good managers will use their resources to achieve their goals.

  8. Bureaucracies could be very helpful if they are run the right way. Most of the time, bureaucracies have been hard to control. I do not however think it is a coincidence that Americans do not like these bureaucracies. Americans often do not like being told what to do. People want to understand the rules and do their work the way they want to do it. For the most part, when people hear information from these bureaucracies, they feel as if they are getting bossed around and they don’t like it. Like I said before, they could be very helpful if they are run correctly and give employees the opportunity to be better work with others. At the end of the day, if bureaucracies focused more on the betterment of the employee themselves, I think they could be more effective. Bureaucrats often seem to work for themselves and for the betterment of the organization they are working for. Therefore, I think if they focused more on working with the employees individually, then the employees would buy into their work a little more. While many people don’t like bureaucracies, I think that they could be very beneficial in the business world. At the end of the day, I think they just need to work on how they are delivering the information.

  9. Mary-Christina Onyeocha

    Bureaucracy is one of the subjects that gives more of negative impression/reaction in many people. Some of the instant thoughts about bureaucrats include; bossy, big brother, suppression, manipulation, a cheat, law, policy, regulation, or “iron bars that stifle effectiveness and innovation” (on the words of Max Weber); and, sometimes presumed as limitation to human freedom and achievements. Who does not want to celebrate little sense of being real and relaxed as much as could be afforded? On the contrary, some bureaucrats who manage to drop off the heavy weight of the bureaucratic hoods to enjoy some natural and fresh air with the commons are those on the track to becoming the human being fictionally envisioned by Robert Heinlein. Yet, it demands prudence/diplomacy because, “he can get fired by a number of bosses…” Even in the struggle to become a little bit more human, unconscious embargoes shroud the bureaucrat. Yet, someone must occupy that office and execute the policy and regulations. The 1 rule, 3 options make sense for different kinds of personalities. For the courageous, the preferred option would be Prof. Yoest favorite – “simply proceed with your initiative, process the paperwork after the fact and beg forgiveness. At 4:55pm. Friday’s are best.” This option works for me with success; but, it requires courage, prudence, and accurate timing (a lot of energy). The three Bureaucrat workarounds are equally good options because, “there is always someone, somewhere who will sign off or lift off your project…”

  10. In life we all know that we can’t escape adversity. This article makes that clear and its something i agree with a lot. In our personal lives we may yell, we may scream but things have to handled with more delicacy than that in the work environment.. the three guildlines see I think offer good insige on how to deal with someone that stands so opposed to you in every way.

  11. Mary-Christina defined and summarized the most common thoughts of a bureaucracy above accurately for me. The term typically comes with a negative connotation and not as often in a positive light. When I think of the term, I think of someone (or a group) that rarely listens to or entertains the input of other and typically close-minded. While I am open-minded and hope to have this impression amended.

    A great part of the article that I particularly agreed with is ” Here’s what I learned: Governments and most any organization have what my favorite political scientist would call “multiple points of accountability.”

    This is where any stakeholder or key influencer or television camera can veto an action. The Bureaucrat learns very quickly that vetoes will come fast and from all directions with lethal effect onto any movement by said Bureaucrat. There is no penalty for no decision.”

    This article and reading the comments not only made me think and opened my mind, like a great and well-supported one does.

  12. No matter how much a business is small or big, every owner of that particular business needs someone who can take care of the whole process of the business, meaning someone somewhere who is skillful in his or mind to handle the legal processes of that business. I quiet agree with the article on its 3 option strategy . A successful business owner should always look for a third party person within the business to get the things done rather than handling everything by himself.

    I believe that taking your own initiative to do things is always an option but it might prove to be a risky accountability on a business owner’s behalf to do things while carefully look at the facts, but ultimately if the higher authorities or the so called government agencies who regulate small scale businesses don’t like that kind of effort from the business owner’s side, it might prove to be lethal for the owner itself.

    I surely agree with the fact that managing bureaucrats is tricky and it should solely be left on to the business owner’s hands how to deal with it and picking up the right bureaucrat to do the processing job for the business.

  13. Harshani Kumarasinghe

    Every owner needs to be somewhat extend a bureaucrat. despite of small or big the entity. the leader or th manager who runs the team needs to be a hard and fair thats hat you can earn the respect from your team and make team followers to the ultimate best. the beauty of this is bureaucrat needs to to have an update mind set and ie what really gong on around the business world. thats where the multiple accountability come in action rather than “just one at a time”.

    i truly agreed with the article and the point have listed. we all have screamed sometime when we need to get the work done, but it doesn’t mean that we have failed. being hard and sometime the work in rule needs to be done not just government entities i believe anywhere when you run the team or lead. thats why the beauty when accomplishing a task it is so perfect, just because being hard and same time humble , respectful leader would be better call for a bureaucrat even it is not the nature.

  14. In this article, I have learned that Bureaucrats are the best as a neutral member who can serve a positive or negative purpose. Bureaucrats have members are motivated and trained in the right direction. In addition, they could be helpful if they heading to the right way. The article clarify that we can not escape diversity because we have to deal with people who have different cultures, in order to be good bureaucrats. I have learned from this article, that bureaucrats are supposed to be fair or adjuster. In my opinion, it is significant the bureaucrats to be a major part of any organization because they have goals to make any organization more successful and achieve their targets. I agree, that bureaucrats focus more on the betterment of the employees themselves, and I think they could be more effective.

  15. Veronica Cordova

    The article is really interesting because it gives us a different perspective on how bureaucrats work within the organization. In some articles they mentioned the word bureaucracy as a leadership that could have a bad reputation, but it is one of the oldest leadership styles in the world. It is an efficient way to govern a leadership that has proven to be a simple way to govern and organize societies. It is important to mention that bureaucrats can be really important for the organization. Bureaucrats are responsible for improving the work environment and leading the organization. I agree that it is a good idea to have bureaucrats in the organization, because they are people who will help enrich the mission of the organization and can manage a large number of people who need to work together. In conclusion, bureaucrats are important to the organization and are great leaders.

  16. Priscilla Sanchez

    I would say that based on this article, bureaucrats is seen as the neutral member who can go either way positive or negative. It all depends on the environment that the members are working in. This all depends on what their motivation is held and this could lead to the right direction. It is important that they should always have good intensions for their company and with good judgement to proceed in a positive way. Bureaucrats are set to be a major part of an organization because they aim for the goals and achieve their targets and successes. Yes, they do have a flaw where they focus more on themselves because they believe they could be more effective in delivering it themselves.

  17. Meagan McClendon

    Bureaucracies are usually characterized with extreme authority which can leave a business unmotivated and stagnant. An unmotivated office environment needs a balance between consistency and creativity as each employee is liable to enhance the work environment. This balance can be achieved by putting more emphasis on customer focus. A good way to modify bureaucracy structures is through projects. Projects allow organizations to perform special tasks or solve specific problems under a project manager through groups which compromise employees with specialized knowledge and experience. Project structures can generally lessen bureaucratic systems better than functional departments within an organization.

  18. I think that the idea of bureaucracies has a bad connotation with them and that they actually can be efficient and effective if done properly. People may atomically think that they are bossy, controlling and manipulative in order to get what they want. How can they fix that? They should improve the way that their information is delivered in order to gain confidence and respect from the business world so that way they can be successful. Bureaucracies try to be effective and beneficial and have the ability to help companies and employees work together, as long as they are working to help the concept of Completed Staff Work.

    This article really made me think and I like the three workaround points that were made at the end to help work with and manage a bureaucrat. Using a third party, identifying the bureaucrat and then going with your initiative can be strategies to manage your business and be successful in the end.

  19. I currently work for the government, and I understand the need for bureaucracy in that setting. I work for the DC government in budget, and one thing that is drilled into our minds is that we are not managing our money or the money of DC, we are managing the money of the residents of DC and with this comes more responsibility. The government shouldn’t be run like a for-profit business because it isn’t. There needs to be checks and balances to ensure that funds are being spent and decisions are being made that truly meet the needs of the people. As for the private industry, bureaucracy is not necessarily needed, but some of the practices could help fix some of the abuse going on the industry.

  20. Prior to reading this article, I was under the impression that bureaucracies had a general negative connotation. I think that is a common misunderstanding about the matter. However, after reading, I found that if administered in appropriate fashion, bureaucracies can actually be very beneficial to organizations. If bureaucratic leaders are stern and fair with their employees in all aspects, then they should earn the trust and respect of their workers, which we have learned is of utmost importance in an organization. As a result, the best quality work will be achieved. Further, I think that bureaucratic leaders can also be mistaken for being self-interested, which will push away workers from the organization. Workers will feel less valuable and less heard. This could lead to retaliation against the leader. which can include strikes and quitting. In order for bureaucracies to avoid this, their leaders can be aware and conscious of how they communicate with their workers. They also must be sure to give them a voice and remain democratic.

  21. The article gives essential recommendations about how to manage bureaucrats as a small business owner. As a small business owner, you are the one who will make a decision about your business and will have to meet with government representatives in order to work with them for your business ,either about law stuff or an initiatives. At that point, you have to know how to deal with bureaucrats. There will be good bureaucrats make your job easier and help you to improve your business and there will be some who will give you hard times. You have to be ready to deal with them and make the relationship very efficient in terms of you and your business.

  22. There will always be obstacles in the way of you attempting to accomplish your goal(s), some self-induced and other’s that come from people who just want to cause confusion and delay the process. It is important that we not give those individuals too much attention, because it will only delay our efforts. Acknowledge their concerns, but do not allow them to take up too much of your time.

  23. Bureaucracy have been developing throughout the years as an answer for many gaps in law and policies which makes it now complicated and not always easy to understand for us. People are very good at going around given regulations so as a result the new ones are added to prevent similar actions in the future. We might think that all administration and regulations make business more difficult to run and more complicated but at the same time we need them to know how to proceed in certain situations.
    Extending bureaucracy gives a chance to create new job positions and at some level we might consider that as a positive aspect.
    I do not think there is anything that we could do to avoid administration system so we certainly should be aware and conscious of all steps we should take and consequences that we might face later.

  24. When forced to work in a bureaucracy, I agree with Rule Number One: Never give the bureaucrat a chance to say no. I work in a bureaucratic environment, and have seen firsthand how a simple decision turns into chaos when multiple stakeholders must provide input on that decision. It often seems as if each stakeholder is more interested in “making their mark,” rather than simply providing the relevant input needed to make the decision. Out of the three options presented as bureaucrat workarounds, my preference is number 3 – proceed with the initiative and ask for forgiveness later. I have found that the less questions and permission I ask, the faster I can get things done, and usually without any negative ramifications. Bureaucracy is probably always going to exist in every organization to some extent. Every manager would be wise to anticipate it, and have strategies ready to counteract the bureaucracy when it is headed their way.

  25. Bureaucrats in this article are seen to be the gate keepers to destiny with legal actions. they have the main power to turn you down and veto any laws that have been passed. learning how to deal with bureaucrats for your small business is very vital. finding the good bureaucrats will make your job easy and can help you your business improve. Running into the wrong ones can make your life a misery! They can make it hard for your business to thrive with ll the laws and vetos that are going ronin your state. the best thing that you can do is get to know them build relationships that can benefit your business.

  26. Bureaucrats understand how their organizations work and use that knowledge to influence decisions in the directions they see fit. Part of the reason they are bureaucrats is because they know what will keep them in power and what will not. By implementing the rule of not letting them say no it can lead to mutual benefits for them and the organization. Following this simple rule relates to what we have learned in The Memo about completed staff work. Go to the boss with all the kinks already worked out so all they have to do is make a decision and then the organization moves on. The ability to work out all the details before delivering the proposal to a superior is crucial in getting most things done. The completed staff work also cuts out one of the “no’s” you could encounter.

  27. When I think of bureaucrat, I imagine stacks of forms leading to more stacks governed by company policy and procedure. They restrict efficiency and timeliness when solutions seem simple in nature, reminding me of dependencies in my project manager’s Gantt Charts. The waste of time and resources ensuring that a request is opened correctly or proper language is included ruins the week for me when it gets rejected. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, relief was tied up in so many processes and government channels that the area suffered needlessly from inaction. My favorite is actually subcontracting some of recruiting and web to other companies, so we can avoid the complacent bureaucrat in those areas and concentrate on where we gain a competitive advantage in the market.

  28. Mayara Correa Bonamichi

    An organization is a team that has a goal (even if the organization is the government) and, as a team, all the parts should work together and with the same purpose. Bureaucracy focuses in enhancing the efficiency of administrative structure in order to achieve an effective outcome of its service, but bureaucracy can be efficient or not efficient at all, depending on how it is established. Some members are well trained and motivated while others are not, reason why some bureaucrats are not seen as a positive part of the team. In my opinion, another flaw of the bureaucracy system is that, because of all the strict rules and regulations used in bureaucracy, it sometimes eliminates the freedom of employees to act the way they want and to form their own opinion. I like the option of using a third party, it is always good to have a neutral opinion.

  29. I thought that it’s the only organization’s culture and policies that produces bureaucrats, and it is more a system that paves the ground for bureaucracy than individuals. Maybe that’s right, but this topic focuses more on individual bureaucrats within a business and clarify that bureaucrats are a major part of bureaucracy than the organizational culture. Whatever it comes from, it is extremely critical to identify bureaucrats as soon as we can and find a solution for the them. I believe the second option would be more realistic if the organization could solve the bureaucracy by bureaucrats and that would be a good option to put them on the mission.

  30. Dealing with bureaucrats never seems easy, and can be quite frustrating. When dealing with any government entity it seems impossible to avoid interacting with bureaucrats. The three workaround options offered in this article provide insight and advice on possible ways to handle them. The first option I find to be very enlightening. It very poignantly illustrates how Congress tries to avoid blame for any outcome that may offend their constituency. Congressmen desperately depend on their constituents’ votes, so they cannot be the cause of voters in their respective districts losing jobs. Forming a commission to do the ‘dirty work’ allows the Congressmen to maintain separation from the process, thereby allowing them to later claim that they fought hard to keep the jobs within their district, whether they did so or not. Quite clever!
    The second option of finding a bureaucrat on your side seems like it would produce the best results in your favor, if you can find that person. The begging for forgiveness seems to be a popular course of action to take when dealing with bureaucrats. Asking for permission before you proceed with your plan breaks rule number one. It gives the bureaucrat a chance to say no.

    • As it is true for all the lawmakers and bureaucrats, they passed and support things/regulation that aligned with their agenda or values. Anything else, you have to either convince them by using one of the three bureaucrat workarounds offered in the article above. Also, sometimes we give the bureaucrats so much power by relying on them for a lot of things. At some points, we have to not compromise with them for the stuff that we know we can get done without them even if they could facilitate to get it done fast. Furthermore, I would rather deal with a bureaucrat who vetoes things for the sake of the well-being of the future; rather than having a bureaucrat who sign off everything that lands on his or her desk so long as it is from his or her political party/cronies regardless of the consequences that might arrive after his departure. I am sure the intended purpose of creating the bureaucrat positions was not for them to have a negative connotation

  31. I voluntarily transferred out of the Field Artillery several years ago. I left my basic combat arms branch of service for the Army’s functional area known as “Force Management.” As an Army force manager, I’m charged with “making the Army run;” essentially helping subordinate Army commanders from both the generating and operating forces, as well as senior Army leaders, navigate the complex, institutional processes and systems used to produce capabilities, structures, and most importantly, trained, lethal, and ready forces for employment by joint (commandant) commanders. If I’m to live up to my billing as a force manager, I’m to be an expert Army “bureaucrat.”
    I have a lot of experience dealing with bureaucrats.
    Big government issues, actions, can be so opaque, so process-oriented, so “regulated.” No one person knows everything that one would need or want to know to truly diagnose and solve an intractable, ill-structured problem (as one colonel described them to me).
    So some additional advice from me would be:
    Get others involved in your project early and often. “Pre-coordinate” any controversial or hard-to-understand issues that affect other “departments.” Use a common, consistent “taxonomy” during projects; so each disparate “fiefdom” knows what-the-heck everyone’s talking about. Finally, articulate your needs in terms of “risk;” decision-makers pay attention to sound risk assessments; and be sure to clearly articulate “non-quantifiable” benefits to stakeholders (on top of quantitative cost-benefit analysis).

  32. As it is true for all the lawmakers and bureaucrats, they passed and support things/regulation that aligned with their agenda or values. Anything else, you have to either convince them by using one of the three bureaucrat workarounds offered in the article above. Also, sometimes we give the bureaucrats so much power by relying on them for a lot of things. At some points, we have to not compromise with them for the stuff that we know we can get done without them even if they could facilitate to get it done fast. Furthermore, I would rather deal with a bureaucrat who vetoes things for the sake of the well-being of the future; rather than having a bureaucrat who sign off everything that lands on his or her desk so long as it is from his or her political party/cronies regardless of the consequences that might arrive after his departure. I am sure the intended purpose of creating the bureaucrat positions was not for them to have a negative connotation.

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