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Is Bureaucracy Killing Engagement at Your Company?

Nicole Klemp
Nicole Klemp

In past decades, bureaucracy was needed to create order and structure in large organizations. Power and influence resided at the top of the hierarchy, vision and ideas came from the top, and work was handed down to employees to complete (and never to question). In his 1920 book, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, Max Weber called bureaucracy “the most rational known means of carrying out imperative control over human beings.” (Yikes.)

While most business leaders today don’t intend to command “imperative control” over their employees, these antiquated organizational structures do still exist in many modern-day companies. And while there’s nothing wrong with having a traditional hierarchy—most companies do—what does matter is the ability for employees at all levels to make an impact and affect change.

Bureaucracy has no place in an innovative company.

Technology is evolving at such a rapid pace, many of the jobs your children or grandchildren will have don’t even exist yet. Organizations that aren’t constantly ideating and striving for more efficient ways to work will fail against more innovative competitors. And in order for those business advancements to occur, employees at all levels must be empowered and engaged. “If an organization is going to outrun the future, individuals need the freedom to bend the rules, take risks, go around channels, launch experiments, and pursue their passions,” wrote Harvard Business Review’s Gary Hamel, in his article Bureaucracy Must Die.

Empowering employees to share ideas and suggest improvements to the business will not only benefit productivity and efficiency but will also give a boost to engagement levels. Employees who are able to provide input and affect real change will feel more connected to the company’s overall mission, and therefore find deeper meaning in their work. If employees are instead met with bureaucratic red tape at every turn, the opposite happens—they feel less engaged, and those great ideas die on the vine.

“Bureaucracies are about rules, not results.” — Peter Drucker

Employees surveyed by HBR reported spending an average of 28 percent of their time on bureaucratic chores like preparing reports, attending meetings, complying with internal requests, securing sign-offs, and interacting with staff functions. That’s more than an entire day out of an employee’s week spent on work tasks that create little to no value for the company (and are a major drain on engagement).

Of the 14 underlying drivers of employee engagement (i.e., utilization, fairness, competency, autonomy, purpose, shared values, role clarity, friendship, feedback, manager, trust, professional development, authenticity, and PTO), at least four of them run counter to a bureaucratic system. Autonomy, for example, is a key driver of engagement, yet most employees in bureaucratic organizations don’t feel they have it. Only 11 percent of respondents to the HBR survey feel they have “substantial” or “complete” autonomy to set their own priorities and decide on work methods.

It’s up to business leaders to dismantle bureaucracy.

José Almeida, the chief executive of Baxter International, has made it his mission to eliminate bureaucracy and connect with employees at all levels of the company. He believes in listening to and empowering his people and innovating on their ideas to make the organization (and employees’ lives) better. Despite the company’s massive size—including 60 factories and 12 R&D centers—Almeida believes the fewer layers of separation between himself and his employees, the better. “The reason for eliminating the layers was not only cost reduction, but also the ability to connect with the folks across the company,” he said in an interview with Fortune.

It appears that Almeida is on to something—Baxter’s stock has increased by nearly 70 percent since he became CEO, and earnings and revenues have been exceeding expectations. He also emphasizes the impact of building an innovative, empowering culture, and believes doing so starts with company leaders. “Culture is what makes a company tick. It’s the pulse, the soul of a company … You cannot hire a consultant to do it for you. The culture has to come from the top.”

You don’t know what you don’t measure.

Finding out where blockers exist in your company and discovering what’s driving (and what’s stifling) employees is the first step in eliminating those unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. 15five offers a science-based framework for pinpointing challenges and opportunities across your organization and provides actionable insights to help you move the needle on employee engagement.

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