Are you a leader adding value or a rule-enforcing bureaucrat?

Are you a leader adding value or a rule-enforcing bureaucrat?

The movie classic Office Space has a funny scene about a bureaucratic manager’s request for TPS reports.

It is funny in the movie but not funny when we face it in organizational life and so many of us do.

The bureaucrat believes in compliance whether or not the task before them provides any purpose. They are more concerned about being ‘buttoned up’ and that the appropriate boxes are checked than adding value. Appearances matter more than results. Their first question is ‘did you complete the form, adhere to policy, get ‘it’ in on time or cover the bullets on the power point’, not whether the intended outcomes were achieved. In fact, they might not be able to articulate the intended outcomes.

Before I became a partner in a large consulting firm, I was working with a client on a very complex and technical problem. I took a long time preparing a letter that explained the problem, the solutions, and my recommendation in painstaking yet very clear detail. I was quite proud of the document and sent it off. The client was thrilled and even called it ‘brilliant’. It wasn’t but that is beside the point. As an aspiring young partner- to -be, I was proud.

Shortly afterward, I received a call from the partner in charge of the account and he began the call with “ I was looking over the letter you just sent to____ __and wanted to know where the ‘re line’ was.” Confused, I said, “The re line? I don’t know what that means.” He said, “the re line is the reference line that we include in every letter, describing what the letter is all about. Your document has no ‘re line’.”   I said, ‘really? Did you read the letter?”

Sorry I sometimes can’t help myself.

Don’t get me wrong. There are reasons for laws, rules, policies and standards. But blindly following them without concern to the outcome or purpose is not leadership. The partner above didn’t really care as much about the content of the letter or whether it provided clarity for our client. It was his ‘gotcha’ moment.’

Holding peoples’ feet to the fire—did you complete the form? Is it done correctly? On time? –can, and often does, become a form of bullying. You become the parent responding with nothing more than ‘because I said so.”

Here are a list of questions to ask yourself to assess your bureaucratic tendencies:

  • Do you use forms, procedures, reports that take time and resources that add little to no value?
  • Do you gather data, forms and reports that no one reviews or care about?
  • Are the first questions you ask around compliance or outcomes?
  • Are you more concerned about being ‘buttoned up’ or the results achieved?
  • Do you look for opportunities to catch people doing something right or something wrong?
  • Do you first read documents for typos and grammatical errors or are you more concerned with how well the message was communicated?
  • Do you always follow the rules and get things done on time? Have you always ‘colored between the lines’ but are not considered to have leadership qualities or executive presence?  and do you wonder why?
  • Do you blindly follow the directives of your superiors even though you know what they are asking is wrong?

If you answered yes to most of these questions you are probably a bureaucrat adding little value. But don’t despair. There is hope. Start by thinking more about outcomes and results. Real results and outcomes, not checklists and adherence. Take a look at forms and reports that you are responsible for. Ask yourself do they add any value? Can they be streamlined to add more value for less time and fewer resources? Stop doing stupid stuff. If you don’t know, ask people around you, ‘what are the stupid things we do that add no value?’

People will be more than glad to tell you. All you have to do is listen and act on what you hear.




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