You think about it when you contact the often ironically named “customer service” section of a major corporation.
You think about it while you’re on apparently ceaseless hold at a government agency “help line”—and afterward, when you speak with an employee who knows next to nothing and cares even less.
You think about it when you’re seeking a fair shake from any large enterprise.
You’re living it 24-7 when you’re striving to change an inert organizational culture.
All paths point to the same end: Bureaucracy is the Enemy.
This is surely the main problem of the twentieth century: is it permissible merely to carry out orders and commit one’s conscience to someone else’s keeping? —Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn endured the most tyrannical of regimes. Under the banner of equality and class struggle, the Stalinist Soviet Union rationalized intervention in every aspect of the lives of its subjects. The inevitable result was bureaucracy taken to the greatest conceivable extreme.
Solzhenitsyn recognized that the Communist regime functioned, on a day-to-day basis, because of the compliance of the apparatchiks. Ordinary and otherwise “good” individuals would find themselves performing heretofore unimaginably evil acts or omissions as part of the bureaucracy.
To be sure, jailers inevitably include some very bad apples, who might well have been prisoners other than for a stroke of fate. More interesting is that many who became cogs in the bureaucratic machinery doubtless entered as upstanding members of the community, solid contributors to their families and friends.
Soon enough, most would become unwitting witnesses to their own moral deterioration.
Bureaucratic Corruption Rampant
You might nod along, thinking that Solzhenitsyn might well understand Communist Russia, but there are few parallels in our own lives and work.
Solzhentisyn’s insight can be seen on any given day right here in America:
—Many bureaucratic organizations instill utterly selfish approaches among their employees. They will routinely mislead or straight-out lie to customers or competitors or allies. They may rationalize it simply as how “business” is conducted.
—Some of the worst offenders can be found in the professions. In theory they meet a higher standard. In practice they often use their knowledge or position to rationalize and defend wanton self-dealing.
Think of the doctors who serve their employers, such as hospitals or insurance companies, to the detriment of their patients.
Think of financial advisors, including at the most prestigious financial institutions, who withhold pertinent information an otherwise offer deceptive information to customers and clients.
Perhaps most egregious are lawyers, including at prominent firms, who succumb to legerdemain at the expense of their clients and others. Their capacity to rationalize and defend what a school child would call out as dishonest activity is honed from legal training and acculturation.
Bureaucracy is the Enemy
Much of my career has been dedicated to reforming or redirecting public and private bureaucracies. The immediate need is to improve performance by transforming the organizational culture.
The underlying, fundamental issue is identifying who is being served, and how best to serve them. In turn, this points to the need to instill trust and integrity as bedrock enterprise ideals, indispensable to any sustainable value-creation.
Bureaucracies are created to provide effective and efficient service. Over time, absent highly intentional intervention, they can morph into systems reinforcing mediocrity and mendacity. Reform and reinvention must be a permanent aspect of their operation, lest they betray those they would serve and decline into an insecure incumbency.
Bureaucracy is the Enemy