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:

Don’t.

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.

15 Comments ▼

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.

15 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.

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