Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Bureaucracy (Part 1: The Nature of the Beast)
Bureaucracy is the plague of the modern organizational world. It breeds inefficiency and leads to personal and organizational stagnation, but even more disquieting is its penchant for provoking aggravation, frustration, and gloom in the souls of nearly all who come in contact with it. Bureaucracy afflicts government agencies, corporations, and nonprofit institutions alike. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is certainly not immune, as revealed in this candid confession from President Gordon B. Hinckley’s official biography: “As thrilling as [Church] growth was, he abhorred bureaucracy and at times felt himself swimming helplessly against a mounting tide.”1
Bureaucracy, it would seem, is a malady that even prophets have found problematic, if not enigmatic or even incurable. But this perception is imprecise, for bureaucracy is not an organizational illness at all; rather, it is a symptom of an underlying infection. And it is certainly not inevitable. It is a yet another distasteful aspect of the organizational imperative and its inverted values (see the five consecutive posts beginning here for a full description).
What Is Bureaucracy?
Bureaucracy is defined as the division of an organization into specialized departments, which are structured according to a hierarchy of authority and status, and which are managed by appointed officials who follow an inflexible routine. This is more or less the formal dictionary definition, but as former Newsweek editor Jon Mecham reminds us, we do not live in the dictionary.2 Colloquially, people use the term bureaucracy to describe an institution that is not just structured and inflexible, but also dysfunctional—irritating, impenetrable, arbitrary, unreasonable, and oppressive. Toward the end of this post I’ll examine the relationship between the formal and informal definitions.
German social and economic theorist Max Weber described how bureaucracies form. In doing so, he identified three “pure types” of legitimate authority: rational (“resting on a belief in the legality of enacted rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands”), traditional (“resting on an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of those exercising authority under them”), and charismatic (“resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person”).3 Interestingly, Weber used Joseph Smith as one example of charismatic authority: “Another type [of charismatic leader] is represented by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, who may have been a very sophisticated swindler (although this cannot be definitely established).”4
Weber was particularly interested in what happens “with the death or decline of a charismatic leader. Charismatic authority is ‘routinized’ in a number of ways according to Weber: orders are traditionalized, the staff or followers change into legal or “estate-like” (traditional) staff, or the meaning of charisma itself may undergo change.”5 Weber would undoubtedly have been interested in the transition of the LDS Church from a charismatic “new movement” to a unique combination of traditional legitimacy and legal-rational bureaucracy. In Weber’s theory, though, bureaucracy was an efficient and ideal form of organization.
Michel Crozier re-examined Weber’s concept of bureaucracy and disagreed with it in light of the way bureaucratic organizations had actually developed. He concluded, among other findings, that bureaucracies exhibit “the slowness, the ponderousness, the routine, the complication of procedures, and the maladapted responses of the bureaucratic organization to the needs which they should satisfy”; that “a bureaucratic organization is an organization that can not correct its behaviour by learning from its errors”; and that “the bureaucratic system of organization is primarily characterized by the existence of a series of relatively stable vicious circles that stem from centralisation and impersonality.” All this suggests that bureaucracy, contrary to Weber’s enthusiastic theory, is in practice a dysfunctional form of organization.6
The formal definition of bureaucracy certainly applies to many organizations, including the corporate side of the Church, but when most people use the term, they have the other meaning in mind. This is undoubtedly the way President Hinckley was using the term, and the way most people who talk about Church bureaucracy use the term, but in certain ways bureaucracy manifests itself quite differently in the Church than in traditional capitalist corporations or government institutions. This has something to do with the Church’s dual hybrid nature—as both ecclesiastical community and corporation and as both theocracy and democracy. Still, in many ways, the Church is quite typical of your garden-variety bureaucracy.
Despite sporadic efforts by the Church hierarchy to reign in the bureaucracy, most efforts to simplify and curb the organizational Church have been largely unsuccessful, I believe, because bureaucracy is not just a complex structural phenomenon; it is a culture, an entrenched and self-perpetuating system of attitudes and procedures based on a particular set of organizational values.
Structures and Values
If we look carefully at the formal definition I gave above, we can see how closely it aligns with the values of the organizational imperative—and how the basic form of bureaucracy feeds quite naturally into the informal bureaucratic culture that most people associate with the word. The formal definition has three parts:
1. the division of an organization into specialized departments,
2. which are structured according to a hierarchy of authority and status, and
3. which are managed by appointed officials who follow an inflexible routine.
The values of the organizational imperative, you may recall, are: malleability, obedience, dispensability, specialization, planning, and paternalism. By definition, then, bureaucracy fits hand-in-glove with these organizational values. The division into specialized departments facilitates the treating of people as dispensable cogs in a machine; a hierarchy of authority and status encourages management to treat people as malleable resources, to assume a paternalistic role, and to require strict obedience to managerial edicts; and the inflexible routine relies on the predictability of planning. It is not entirely clear which direction this relationship runs, but it really doesn’t matter. The formal nature of bureaucracy and this inverted set of organizational values are mutually reinforcing. The values tend to produce bureaucratic structures, and bureaucratic structures inevitably perpetuate inhumane values. The result is always an organization that is dysfunctional—irritating, impenetrable, arbitrary, unreasonable, and oppressive—an organization with the three basic features Crozier identified:
1. slowness, ponderousness, routine, complication of procedures, and maladapted responses;
2. an inability to correct its own behavior or learn from its errors; and
3. a series of vicious circles that stem from centralization and impersonality.
The task of defeating bureaucracy can be approached from either direction—by replacing the organizational values with a set of more people-friendly values or by making needed structural changes. Of course, making structural changes without changing the underlying values is simply an invitation for new bureaucratic structures to replace the old ones, but it is possible that structural changes can create a better soil in which to grow humane values.
As Crozier pointed out, one of the structural tendencies of bureaucracy is centralization. Centralization is the logical consequence of an organization that values order, or control, above creative freedom and spontaneity. A natural tension exists between these two ideas, and both are prominent in Mormonism. God’s house, we read, is a house of order (D&C 132:8), but a central tenet in Mormon theology is agency, the freedom to choose (2 Ne. 2:27). When order trumps freedom, however, the result is usually centralization, and heavy-handed bureaucracy. In the next post, I’ll delve into these ideas.
1. Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 408.
2. Jon Mecham, “A Reader’s Guide to the Colbert Issue,” Newsweek, June 15, 2009, 2.
3. Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, trans. Ephraim Fischoff and others (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), 215.
4. Weber, Economy and Society, 242.
5. Dana Williams, “Max Weber: Traditional, Legal-Rational, and Charismatic Authority,” http://danawilliams2.tripod.com/authority.html.
6. Michel Crozier, The Bureaucratic Phenomenon, trans. M. Crozier (London: Tavistock Publications, 1964), 3, 187, 193.