Want to Break the Bureaucracy at Your Company? Get Angry

October 5, 2016

Gary Hamel, a longtime management consultant, has a pretty simple first step to breaking bureaucracy at any organization – anger.

“Okay, you're thinking, I get it, bureaucracy has to die,” Hamel said in his LinkedIn Learning course, Busting Bureaucracy. “But what am I gonna do? Well start by getting angry. Not just mildly frustrated, but genuinely indignant.”

Hamel pointed out that many countries today are democracies, not monarchies, like they were before. While we still have work to do, race and gender relations are far better globally than they were 100 years ago, Hamel said. And many of us can now choose who and how to worship.

And those changes only happened because someone somewhere got angry, Hamel said.

While comparing those struggles to work bureaucracy is trivial, the lesson stands. The only way to change the status quo is for somebody to get fired up enough to say they aren’t going to take it anymore, Hamel said.

“As Thomas Paine put it in Common Sense, a tract that was pivotal to the American and French Revolutions, ‘A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right’,” Hamel said in his course. “So the first battle to be won here is against indifference.”

A real-life work example

Want a real-life work example of what Hamel is talking about? In his course, he told the story of a physician who worked at a hospital, which had a particularly cumbersome printer policy.

The hospital’s policy said that there could be no more than one printer bought for every eight employees. If anyone wanted an exception, they would have to make an appeal to a printer committee (yes, apparently such a thing exists).

The physician and her colleagues all agreed the policy was overly burdensome and generally terrible. And yet, nobody was willing to challenge it.

“When stymied by bureaucracy we don't protest, we acquiesce, and I get that,” Hamel said. “Tackling something as ubiquitous and as ingrained as bureaucracy can seem hopeless, but deeply embedded social systems can be changed.”

The key is you just need to be angry enough to demand it be changed. But if you accept something as ridiculous as a printer committee, it will continue to persist, Hamel said.

Of course, anger without action is useless. That’s why Hamel, in his course, does more than encourage you to be honest about your frustrations over needless bureaucracy. He also lays out a practical game plan for changing the status quo, starting with your own team. 

Bottom line, it’s not enough to whine, you have to step up and lead the fight against the overabundance of rules and bureaucratic busywork that saps creativity from your organization. But anger – or passion of some kind – is a necessary first step in that process.

Want to learn why and how to effectively bust bureaucracy at your organization? Watch Hamel’s free class, Busting Bureaucracy, on LinkedIn Learning.