“What will I tell my boss?”: Why leaders should understand the worldview of bureaucrats

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“This is the policy.”

When someone cites policy on you, it’s hard to push back. It’s a strong frame because the person uttering these four little words has the power of an entire organization behind them. Who are you, a mere mortal, to challenge policy?

Never mind if the policy doesn’t make sense in your situation. Policy is policy.

When you’re a startup founder or forward-thinking leader trying to build something new, you need people to give you money, give you support, or give you their word not to block you. In your quest to sell your ideas, you might have to deal with the most dreadful kind of person: a bureaucrat.

You might think bureaucrats only work at large organizations or at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles), but don’t be fooled. Bureaucrats come in all shapes and sizes and forms, and they’re hiding in plain sight ready to block your work as much as they can.

So what can you do to increase your chances of success?

1. Start by understanding the bureaucrat’s psychographics and mindset.

Many bureaucrats have comfortable positions at established organizations. They don’t benefit AT ALL from shaking things up. Shaking things up might be the worst thing that could happen to their current situation.

For example, why aren’t the executives at Mercedes Benz, Ford, or BMW panicking about electric vehicles eating their market share? If you use the lens of a bureaucrat, it’s easy to see why they aren’t eager to take action.

Where’s the upside in embracing change for a bureaucrat?

A Vice President at BMW has a great salary and title, and just needs to maintain the status quo. If they rocked the boat, there’s little upside. They’re going to retire within five years… so some hotshot new VP is going to get all the credit when their work comes to fruition years later.

If the executive at BMW just stays the course, they’ll continue to reap the benefits of the status they’ve already earned. Why risk that for an idea that might not work?

One of my clients won a competition and received a prize award, but it came with a lot of strings attached. We tried every tactic to get power back. But in the end, the bureaucratic frame was too strong. The prize organizers were risk averse and each person didn’t want to get in trouble with their boss.

You must remember this: A bureaucrat doesn’t care about good results, investing in a long-term solution, or the ROI of your product. They only care about keeping their job and not getting in trouble.

2. “New” could either be the best or worst thing you tell someone.

Roger Moore’s Technology Adoption Curve, “Crossing the Chasm”

Bureaucrats prioritize how defensible their actions are. What does this mean for you as a change agent? First, try to avoid bureaucrats. It’s much easier to sell to someone with a worldview that matches yours.

While you might be an early adopter, a bureaucrat is probably part of the early majority, late majority, or laggards. To them, cutting-edge anything is fraught with risk, unexpected errors, and mistakes waiting to happen.

The bureaucrat thinks, “Why should I be your guinea pig for your new idea? I’ll just have to clean up the mess when things go wrong.”

You can spend months trying to convince someone to embrace newness–but they’ve spent YEARS with that mindset. So asking them to change 180 degrees will be unlikely.

Be careful how much you play up newness with a bureaucrat. It’s better to emphasize how safe, proven, reliable, and normal your product is.

“What will I tell my boss?”

We know that shaking things up threatens the bureaucrat’s sense of security and equilibrium. Just like newness feels dangerous, so do ideas that might be hard to explain to a superior.

Remember: There’s a big difference between wanting to be right, and wanting to avoid being wrong. Bureaucrats want to avoid being wrong. This means they’re optimizing for having a foolproof answer when the boss asks, “Why did you (or didn’t you) do this?”

This answer usually works well: “This is the way we’ve always done it.”

Those are dreaded words for an entrepreneur to hear. But you have to admit, if a bureaucrat is optimizing for deniability, that response checks the mark.

So how will you, a change agent, undermine the bureaucrat’s frame?

3. Use social proof. Lots of it.

If you must sell to bureaucrats, you need to make your solution feel as safe as possible. How?

Social proof makes an idea feel safe because it shows that other people have already taken the leap. It shows that you won’t be ostracized or laughed at for making the wrong move. A bureaucrat got this far by playing it safe. It would be foolish to let you, a change agent, ruin everything.

Proactively help the bureaucrat answer this question, “What will I tell my boss?” You can use this for non-bureaucrats, too. Re-framed, it’s this question: “What will I tell my friends, family, or coworkers?”

Wanting to look good to our peers drives most of what we do. If you leave it up to them, they will do the safest thing, which is to ignore that you exist and continue with the status quo.

Here are examples of social proof, and what the bureaucrat thinks when they see it.

Investors: “VCs were willing to put cash money in them. This company must be up-and-coming.”
Press: “A famous magazine thought they were good enough to write about.”
Word of mouth: “A friend I trust is saying this is worthwhile.”
Halo effect: “She went to MIT. She must be legit.”
Good design: “Their website looks good. They must be a real company.”
Testimonials: “Other people like me have liked this.”
Advisory board: “These people were willing to lend their names and faces. This must be credible.”
Customers: “They have lots of other customers. X number of people can’t be wrong.”

4. Create a situation where it’s more dangerous to say no (than to say yes)

Another strategy to overcome bureaucrats is to make it better for them to say yes than to say no. In other words, if refusing you could put their job at risk, then they’ll have to say yes.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to get past a gatekeeper to get to the decision maker. If you met the decision maker at an event and they told you to reach out, you’d want to mention that.

Why is this effective? Because the gatekeeper is now thinking they have two choices:

  1. “If I don’t forward the note, and she really did meet my boss, my boss would be mad that I didn’t forward it. Might as well forward just to be safe.”
  2. “If I do forward the note, and my boss knows her, that’s great. If my boss doesn’t know her, she’ll just ignore the note and it won’t take too much of her time. I should forward the note.”

In the situation above, it’s better for the gatekeeper to forward the note.

Note that the gatekeeper didn’t forward your note because your product was better, you eloquently described your solution, or they realized your idea was golden.

No, the gatekeeper simply made the mental calculation of ,“How defensible is my decision? What will I tell my boss?” And they decided the most defensible (safest) thing to do was to forward your note.

5. Beware of faux early adopters.

Even people who say they are renegades or mavericks can secretly be bureaucrats in denial. You’ve probably met a number of senior leaders who claim to be risk-takers… only to defer or deflect the moment you actually need them to take a risk.

These people are the worst. They’re faux allies and you can’t depend on them to be internal champions. Make sure your internal champion is actually open-minded and willing to try something new. Otherwise you’re wasting your time, and should find a non-bureaucrat to help you gain traction internally.

Being a bureaucrat is a mentality, not a title.

Even venture capitalists can be bureaucrats. That’s why getting your first investor is the hardest. Once you have a lead investor, everyone else is much more willing to join in.

“What will I tell my boss?” That is the only question a bureaucrat cares about. Whether subconsciously or consciously, that is the one rule that drives their worldview and behavior.

As a change agent, you have limited emotional bandwidth, time, and resources. You must proactively answer this question both verbally and non-verbally, explicitly and implicitly in your copy, images, and design.

6. Don’t judge your customers for being risk-averse.

Most people love talking about how they are early adopters.

Here’s the thing: You’re probably not an early adopter in every aspect of your life and work. You’re probably an innovator in some areas of your life, but not others. You might be an early adopter for tech gadgets, but a late majority for fashion. Or an early adopter in entertainment and music, but an early majority for food trends.

Sometimes you’re the change agent, sometimes you’re the gate keeper, and sometimes you’re the bureaucrat.

Roles aren’t static. They’re fluid. Sometimes you’re the change agent, sometimes you’re the gate keeper, sometimes you’re the bureaucrat. It’s okay, and there’s no judgement. It is useful, though, to know which role you’re playing and which your audience is playing.

Each of us decides what we feel is worth taking a risk for. If you see yourself as the kind of person who takes risks for ideas you believe in, make decisions that reflect that. If you don’t ever feel like you’re putting your neck on the line for an idea, you’re probably not as much of a change agent as you think.

Here’s to all the change agents working inside and outside organizations who stick their neck out trying to make a difference. I hope these insights on how to appeal to bureaucrats helps you advance your work and make smarter decisions about your messaging strategy.


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