THE LOVE OF BUREAUCRACY

This is an observation I have made. People love bureaucracy. Most people like complicated things. They want to talk about nothing. I don’t mean small talk. I find no problem with small talk where we are all being silly, are happy and have a conversation with no clear goal. Rather, I am saying that people like to perform complicated rituals that are of no use.

I am an informal person. I don’t like bureaucracy. I don’t like people who fall in love with rules so much that they forget the purpose of the rules ; the rule then becomes an end in itself. To be honest, I don’t like breaking rules. I will only break a rule when it’s clearly harmful, because I assume that rules often exist for good reason. I am not omniscient, so it seems to me that some humility will help me. When I say that most people are bureaucratic, I say this from personal experience. They like to waste time on things that are not important. It’s similar to when you work in an office and you realize that no one wants to take responsibility. They go back and forth sending emails and copying others when what is really required is to go to the other person’s desk to press your demands, or even have a shouting match if that’s what it will take to get the job done. I am thinking about my topic as I write. My writing goal is to clarify my thoughts. It just hit me that one of the bureaucratic things that you see especially in organizations is people in the same office sending emails to each other, which I just mentioned. From personal experience I believe people do this mainly to evade responsibility than for any other reason. There can be other good reasons for this practice; I would admit. But most often people do this so they can have something to protect themselves when there is a problem. Of course, there is nothing wrong with protecting yourself. Except that with time the organization becomes full of bozos. This may not be because most people are bozos. But that’s what such a culture can engender. When I speak like this I am also speaking to myself. I am thinking of how to avoid the trap of becoming a coward.

It seems to me that the attraction to bureacracy grows from two vices- cowardice and dishonesty. I want to expand a little on what I mean by bureacracy. There is a form of bureaucracy that seems inevitable. When organizations grow it becomes necessary that they develop routine procedures for addressing problems. Big organizations can’t afford to develop a novel system for every problem that arises. Such routines are necessary evils. Evil because they sometimes waste time. One can be sympathetic to this problem especially when one realizes that the organisation is trying its best to be fluid.

What seems evil to me is the bureacracy that leads to useless back and forth emails. Bureaucracy that leads to units in organizations working in silos with the accompanying infighting. Siloing can even be more dangerous if units simply mind their own business, without thinking of the effect of their work and that of other departments on the output of the entire organization.

Let me share a story with you about my experience working with a certain organization. This is where I learnt about the email wars. But enough of it. I have mentioned it too many times already. One thing I found completely exciting about the CEO is that he never wore a suit. I worked with the company for about four months, and I never saw him in one. He also seemed to come to the office anytime he wanted. Sometimes he was absent. Maybe his CEO duties kept him occupied outside. I remember him saying in a staff meeting that he would leave the company if he thought it was going to fail. He said it as a witticism and the workers laughed with him. An aside here. I don’t get this whole thing about people laughing at the unfunny jokes of powerful people. It was the same with the CEO. Workers there worked themselves into guffaws by the least he said. I think I get it. His position made him automatically funny. Now I am intentionally going to digress. I don’t have anything against white lies. They seem inevitable. However, I think it a moral responsibility to be honest with others. A few days ago I saw the picture of the fiancé of an acquaintance. The lady is ugly. Two guys I know came to the same conclusion. But I saw someone comment under the picture that the lady is beautiful. This shocked me. I have no problem with ugly people. I don’t consider myself to be handsome. In fact beauty may be so subjective that in discussing it you will be talking about nothing. I can’t tell someone I know that his partner is ugly. It seems mean, and rather useless. People are more than what you see. What seems objectionable to me is saying something is what it clearly isn’t. If you can’t say she is ugly, keep quiet. Beauty, as I have already mentioned, is subjective so let’s move on to other matters. Like people lying when the stakes are getting higher. Lies can nolonger be white. They are clearly dangerous. What annoys me about this ugly-beautiful girl matter, I am sorry I keep bringing it up, is that I suspect the person who commented is secretly laughing at my acquaintance. I know this because I have ever done that. Seriously, stakes get higher sometimes and it doesn’t help the wellbeing of anyone in the longrun, irrespective of how they take what you say now. Being honest can make you feel good about yourself. But don’t count on it. You might feel miserable telling the truth. It is always helpful to remember that there is no better alternative, and that you are likely to develop self-respect in the long run if you are truthful. It is also necessary to be kind in your candour. You can even try to motivate those who suffer from the sword of your honesty. All I am saying is that you should be constructive in your critique. I keep repeating that sometimes stakes get higher and we can’t afford to lie to people ; I even consider it morally reprehensible. I will now explain why. You see so many people who audition for music shows but clearly can’t sing. Sometimes you realize that their situation is so hopeless that they are better of doing something else. What is surprising is that most of these people get to know for the first time that they are no good at what they have perhaps invested their whole lives in. Their families didn’t tell them the truth. Their friends didn’t tell them the truth. I agree that a lot of factors go into play for someone to have a good performance, and that a bad performance doesn’t necessarily mean that the performer is untalented. It is an unsophisticated way to judge people. It’s like watching a failed interview of an intellectual, then concluding that he has nothing sensible to say. But I also have friends who have absolutely terrible voices. The kind that drowns all the harmony in your chorus, and you will just have to plead with them to stop singing. So clearly, some people are not good at some things in the same way it is a truism that nobody is good at everything.

If you tell people the truth, you save them time. They can move on to other things. This case can be made for firing people who are underperforming. One should be kind in such situations. Often, telling people the hard truth is for the best. I was talking about the organisation I worked. I will continue from where I left off.

One thing the CEO used to do which showed a lack of balls was divesting his expenses. There was an expense column for just him, the CEO. To reduce that cost he would let other departments take the responsibility. Those costs were not much so I didn’t get why he was doing that. Such acts create a culture of suspicion and dishonesty. The really annoying bureacracy in the organization was purchases. It wasn’t that it took time. No. I was in the finance department and requests were worked on in good time. What annoyed me is that finance seemed to have no say on buying decisions. I just remember I wasn’t annoyed at all. I think I am getting annoyed now as I write. At the time I thought the company would fail ; if for nothing, workers hated their jobs. What is annoying me now is the stupidity in their purchases. They would buy laptops at unreasonable prices. Same with chairs. Almost everything. They were so expensive that I wondered what was going on. My boss would look at it and shake his head. Since there was the cachet of his bosses on it, he did nothing. The prices made no sense that I suspected someone was getting a kickback.

The love for bureaucracy is a frustrating attitude. Sometimes it’s so overwhelming that it gives you headache. Like when people play with numbers. They give you unnecessary precision. Like presenting budget deficit figures in several decimal places. Who cares about several decimal places when making a projection ?

A quintessential form of bureaucracy is a lot meetings . It is my belief that most meetings are about those who call the meetings than the meeting itself. It is an opportunity for them to feel good about themselves. To dominate the meeting and in turn feel like an alpha. I haven’t worked in many organizations, but the few meetings I have seen this is how things play out. I am not saying all meetings are useless, but I wouldn’t argue with you if you say most of them are.

Bureacrats can be good at rising higher in an organisation. It seems to be a special skill. They can be Machiavellian, which is not always a bad skill. But any system with too many bureacrats will eventually collapse because these people often do not have skin in the game.

It is my opinion that those who lead organizations are not always the most competent. Or perhaps not the most moral people. Is there any real difference between competence and ethics? As Nassim Taleb asks in one of his books, when you say you trust your accountant does it mean you trust that he wouldn’t make you pay more taxes than you are supposed to (competence) or you trust that he wouldn’t abscond with your money (ethics)? Thus, competence and ethics cannot easily be divorced from each other. It seems playing the trickster in a system can make one succeed. The problem with playing the system in this way is that it is not sustainable in the long run. If you get to the top through other ways than competence, when the day comes that you have to perform you will be incapable. A story that indirectly shows that top management may be unethical can be found in the bagel story in the book- Freakonimics. I relate the story here. A man left his job to pursue his passion, which was making bagels. His bagels tasted great and were popular in his former workplace. After quitting his job, he sold bagels through a honour system. They place bagels in the cafeteria of firms and expected people who took the bagels to leave money in a basket. Most people conformed with the arrangement. But the kicker in the story was that the rate of adherence reduced with increasing rank : there was more stealing on the top floors. The paradox is that those on the top floors are better paid than their bottom counterpart.

My hypothesis in the above story that the higher you go in organisations the higher the corruption is not water tight. Breaking rules is not necessarily evil. Sometimes it is necessary. My position is that success is not always predicated on competence. It can be based on the archetype of the trickster. Tricking people is not a good strategy because you will be found out. You can only persist in trying to trick people when you think they are fools. And people are no fools. The game most bureaucracies play is that of the trickster. Dishonest and cowardly. For individuals and companies to do real work, there is an obligation to tell the truth.

Thank you for reading.

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