The Definitive Guide To Productively Fighting Bureaucracy

There are many lovely conveniences of large groups of individuals congregating together. Without the mass congregation of human knowledge we wouldn’t have the convenience and benefits of automotives, affordable building materials or mass-produced computers.

Unfortunately, with all of the imperfections that we all contend with, one of the most keenly obvious downsides to assembling many people into a large organization is the incessant paperwork, legislation and overall slowdown of getting anything done.

In principle, this makes sense by each individual in the system. To avoid human error and immorality, there need to be controls in place to regulate the flow of processes, ideas and results.

Bureaucracy is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be unavoidable. Most bureaucracy can be circumvented if you know how to work the system:

Bureaucracy Everywhere

In general, you must abide by the following rules to keep the ball rolling, no matter where you go:

  1. Don’t get mad. Anyone who doesn’t care about the people they’re working for will care even less about an impatient person they’re working for that happens to be throwing a tantrum with them. In fact, when the responsibility doesn’t fall fully back on them many of them find ways to go even slower or make “mistakes” that will haunt you later!
  2. Remember each person is their own individual. It’s true that an organization represents a brand and image, but every single person working in that organization has their own uniquely different motivations, and it’s wise to keep that in mind when they seem to pass off the work to someone else.
  3. Take full responsibility for yourself. If you’re willing to accept that you may have done something wrong, that vulnerability can demonstrate that you’re willing to relent, and that apathetic unhappy person behind the desk is still human as well.
  4. Don’t be afraid to be charming (when you can). Some people are inveterately unwilling to accept that humor exists, but for the rest of us a small joke or a harmless comment can go a long way to making that worker feel they’re working with a human instead of a case number. However, remember that every comment you make might get logged somewhere.
  5. Don’t expect every comment to be logged somewhere. You’re going to repeat yourself frequently in a large system. The unfortunate aspect of human communication is that it’s messy, language contains many informalities that lead to vagueness, and the important data points to take away from a conversation will vary based on personality and background. Just be grateful if anyone took any notes at all about your 2-hour conversation!
  6. Dot your i’s, cross your t’s, and remember your Oxford commas. Some of the longest forays into gigantic systems started with someone mistyping a number, misremembering a key fact or misstating something on record. If someone else makes a mistake that’s their business, but it’s your own personal duty to enunciate clearly, write neatly and repeat any details you believe to be pertinent to the organization.

Government Bureaucracy

Government systems are by far the most complex and circuitous, and if you happen to exist in a country like India or the US, you’re guaranteed to have more than several departments working on the same issue you have with them.

The systems are rigid and user-unfriendly, and you will lose your mind if you start asking why the systems work the way they do. Their offices often use computer systems built on Boolean logic made obsolete by AskJeeves 18 years ago and will many times still use paper for most of their work. The newer websites can get flashier and prettier, but they still seem to run the same.

It’s often quicker and easier just to talk to someone, so don’t even bother emailing. The newest systems like to ask you to fill out the forms online, but talk to a person before you get to that stage. Keep paper copies of everything for the off-chance you need to prove to another department or another worker that you already have a case running. The longer your case runs the better your chances of moving faster through it.

Be careful what you say. Sometimes by expressing a detail you had forgotten you’ll self-incriminate yourself by giving a loophole for the worker to hand off the task. Instead, it’s better to treat conversations like you’re talking to a police officer: answer questions only, don’t volunteer irrelevant information, keep all your information out in the open, and stay on point.

Most of the work will involve acquiring specific rights and documents that you weren’t even aware were needed for the first thing you wanted. If you need the document in 6 months, start ASAP just in case you’ll have to wait 2 weeks for the document to come in to get another document that will take 2 months to process to get certified to attain the item you want after a 3-month holding period.

Corporate Bureaucracy

The most profitable companies (UPS, Walmart, etc.) work very hard at shaving down processes, and they usually have an entire department devoted largely to the happiness of you, the consumer.

If you’ve spent plenty of time in government bureaucracy, corporate bureaucracy will feel like a breath of fresh air comparatively (usually). Most organizations respond quickly to emails, and it’s usually with qualified marketing professionals. However, be aware of the generalized structure of any technical or customer support:

  1. Bottom-level support — Many of these people will operate off of a script, and they are often bilingual with varying degrees of an accent. Their job isn’t to investigate as much as it is to answer basic questions. Anything that can’t be answered from their experience level gets routed to the appropriate department or their supervisor. Instead of going on a tirade about the matter, tell them your problem and then ask to speak to the person or department responsible for the problem.
  2. Actual technical support — These people are likely pursuing a career in their respective role, and will often have all of the knowledge you seek but little to none of the power. If you’re asking to speak to a manager, this person is technically a manager, though that term is thrown around a bit loosely these days. Being amicable and professional will take you a long way with these people, and if they’re capable enough it’s absolutely worth making one of them a long-term point of contact.
  3. Nerd-level technical support — The people in this role are only bothered by the most severe cases, and their competence and apparent hastiness in resolving your problem will make it feel like you’re talking to a doctor. Don’t waste time with them, since they’re probably paid more than you and likely have a huge task list in front of them.
  4. C-level staff — This job title sounds a lot like Chief [something cool] and you will rarely if ever receive a reply from them. If you want to file a complaint you’d do much better sending a strongly worded letter directly to the complaints department. Don’t get too offended, though, since it probably takes some full-time work to manage a multi-billion-dollar corporation, right?

Managing Bureaucracy

If you’ve found yourself directing a group of apathetic workers, you can fight their decisions to force intentional slowdown or poorly allocate their resources:

  1. Give the right incentives — Whether you’re doling out raises for performance, direct performance bonuses, promotions to the more efficient workers or catching them doing something right, anything that motivates a culture towards the ultimate goal of building meaning through engaging relationships and stellar service will not go without results.
  2. Avoid perverse incentives — Often, the things you use to motivate them to succeed will motivate them to game that system. Processing more paperwork will make them ignore phone calls, giving raises based on customer satisfaction will inspire them to ask their friends for reviews, providing latitude for them to reward other workers will often create a nightmarish political arena. The only cure to this is to force a virtue-based culture, and doing that goes beyond the scope of this article!
  3. Show it by example — Everyone above and below you sees you much more than you can see yourself or think anyone sees you. If you want to inspire others to do better, you need to work on yourself first.

And There You Are

Being amicable and patient with an entire organization can be daunting, but I can absolutely guarantee you’ll be happier for it! Instead of dreading the experience, find ways to make the time more productive: bring a book, bring work or just brainstorm while you wait.

In many ways, navigating a large system is maintaining multiple interpersonal relationships on your way to your destination. If you see the time as opportunities to make friends instead of the means to an end, you’re far more likely to make friends in the process and far less likely to lose hair over it!

If you like this article, you’ll love the compiled repository of self-help wisdom at the Philosopher Accountant.