“Bureaucracies Run on Fear.” Mickey Glantz. September 9, 2010

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies, Capacity Building

Published on September 09, 2010 with 1 Comment

Bureaucracies Run on Fear

My desk is bigger than yours: Size matters

Mickey Glantz
September 9, 2010

Degrees of freedom for an individual to make decisions in an organization seem to increase as s/he moves upwards in a bureaucratic structure. s/he is boxed in by higher levels of authority as well as by the jurisdictional units at the same level in the organization. There is almost no degree of freedom at the lowest levels, while there is an increasing freedom of movement in terms of decision-making as one moves higher up the organization chart. The only one that has the most flexibility in making decisions, with less outspoken opposition are the leaders of the organization; though even they may not be totally free to act with abandon, as they in theory are often overseen by the equivalent of a board of directors.

Those at a level below another level in the organization act in fear of stepping out of bounds, that is, violating the jurisdictional boundaries of neighboring units above or at the same level in the line and staff organizational chart. Boundaries are not just structural. The constraints are also functional which includes not just official work responsibilities but also the views (including idiosyncratic whims) of the leaders above him or her.

see any similarities with bureaucracies today?

The following is an illustrative list of some of the bureaucratic fears a worker may face:

• Fear of angering an immediate boss
• Fear of violating another bureaucratic unit’s boundaries
• Fear of a displeasing a higher level of authority
• Fear of not being favorably reviewed
• Fear of losing one’s job
• Fear of making wrong or unpopular decisions
• Pressure to be BC, that is, “bureaucratically correct”
• Reluctance to “speak truth to power”
• Fear of exposing one’s own limitations
•Reluctance to make waves because, as is well known, to challenge the status quo is to threaten authority

The fear factor keeps the bureaucratic machine running but stifles creativity, out-of-the-box thinking and risk-taking. In the old days (a few decades ago), people who challenged the way things were done in their organizations were considered malcontents and were seen as disruptive to the organization. They were harassed or fired. But, later, it was realized by several but not even most organizations that those so-called malcontents, who challenged the status quo and the organization’s modus operandi, should be listened to with regard to their complaints.


They were the ones whose comments, when correct, kept the organization operating more effectively. They were then neither rewarded nor fired but actually listened to and their comments and concerns evaluated.

Sadly this is not the case in most bureaucracies in government and in society at large. The crowd mentality rules, and that mentality has been constrained by fear, the fear of losing one’s job. In a bureaucracy the adage is: To get along you have to go along, even if going along meant not pointing at problems in need or attention. Could it be that the “fear factor” in the workplace is responsible for survey results that show most Americans are unhappy in their jobs? Or, as noted in a USA Today report on a survey in the workplace that showed that 89% of one’s co-workers would not speak up on her or his behalf to support a co-worker in a dispute with management. Dare to speak truth to power in the workplace and you are most likely going to be on your own

This is a sad state of affairs that must be corrected. The progress made a few decades ago about those with strong personalities critiquing and chiding management to improve efficiency in the workspace has been lost in current difficult financial times.

What organizations need now is not fewer workers with backbone who speak their mind but more “directors” who have thicker skin.

Post Script: for a glimpse of lessons learned working in a science bureaucracy as well as in universities and in industry, please visit PowerPoint presentation “A Perfect Job in an Imperfect Place.”

1 Comment

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  1. Is “bureaucratically correct” an oxymoron?

    See also Huxley’s novel “Brave New World”. The creative individuals who stood out and spoke out were exiled to islands. That made them happy, because they were isolated amongst their peers and could enjoy life being creative and outspoken. That also made everyone else happy, because they were no longer being disrupted by the strange thoughts of creative individuals.

    If everyone is happy, why worry?

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