The dictionary defines bureaucracy as follows:

a system of government in which most of the important decisions are made by state officials rather than by elected representatives.
  • a state or organization governed or managed as a bureaucracy.
    plural noun: bureaucracies
  • the officials in a bureaucracy, considered as a group or hierarchy.
  • excessively complicated administrative procedure, seen as characteristic of bureaucracy.
    “the unnecessary bureaucracy in local government”

It is the last bullet point that I am most interested in talking about today, but I guess they are sort of part and parcel of the same.  Regardless of where you work, if you work in an organization that has a hierarchy you have faced some degree of bureaucracy.   We’ve likely all felt frustrated at times, and it seems every time you’ve figured it all out, or at least gotten used to a certain level of bureaucracy the game changes and you go back to being frustrated.

Bureaucracy can seem like a giant monster you have to contend with everyday and I’ve often wondered is this the intention, or is it more like Frankenstein’s monster.  We didn’t intend to create this dangerous creature, but well it’s out there now and we just have to live with it.  I think the answer is that likely both types of situations are true.  One can see how a bureaucracy might build innocently enough.  When things are small in a company the interface might just be a few employees directly to a boss.  Then as the business grows and there are more and more employees, the number of people in between the top and bottom grows.  It seems also possible that this middle serves important functions and if working efficiently can actually allow that organization to achieve a lot and improve everybody’s happiness in the workplace.  More often than not this middle takes on a life of it’s own, has it’s own hierarchy and over time becomes a nightmare. Here are some of my favorite people in a bureaucracy…perhaps you’ve met them.  Be aware there is much overlap in character here…it’s possible that all these people could exist in one person and these people are especially painful! 🙂

The Immortal – Every bureaucracy seems to have the one person who never seems to age.  They stay in the exact same position.  They aren’t particularly good at their job, but usually competent enough to not justify firing them.  You retire and somehow they are still there, even though they were there before you started.  When combined with one of the other types of bureaucrats, they become a nightmare that never ends.

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The Soulless – These bureaucrats are typically the type that work for immigration, embassies or consulates, but you find them elsewhere also.  They don’t care about your particular situation.  They don’t care if the rules don’t make sense.  They just don’t care.  They can’t even offer a sincere, “I’m sorry, I understand this must be difficult, but you are going to need to come tomorrow with the long form of your birth certificate.”  In fact they’ll usually let you know that you should have read the instructions more carefully regardless of how confusing and unhelpful those instructions are.

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The Follower – This person’s attention is only on their boss at all times.  Maybe they are sycophant, maybe they just live in fear of getting fired, either way they don’t see themselves as any type of authority even when their job grants them some authority.  It’s also possible that they are one of the soulless, who just like to use their boss as an excuse for why they can’t process your paperwork or help you in any way.  If a rule doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t matter.  They are just doing what they are told.  They don’t say things like “You make an excellent point, I’ll bring this up to my superior to see if we can’t design a more sensible process.”  They don’t show any signs of independent thought.  If you point out that something doesn’t make sense, they simply can’t agree with you.  They just point you in the direction of people above them.  These bureaucrats are often demeaning to those who work for them especially if they seem brighter than they are, and are presenting ideas of how to make things better.  They hate to look less competent than people under them to their boss, so they often lie to their superiors about the competence of those below them.

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The Not-My-Problem Stickler – These are some of the worse people.  They can be any of the above types as well.  These are people who know every rule, expect no boxes to be unchecked.  Anything missing in your paperwork or any rule not followed to a T according to their interpretation will lead them to refuse to help you.  Furthermore they may not even tell you that you haven’t followed the rules properly or filled out a form incorrectly.  It will simply sit on their desk, waiting for you to spend the time tracking down your paperwork as it moves through various offices, only to discover it is sitting on this person’s desk and so when you send a polite inquiry as to when they will process your paperwork, they respond to you as if you just reached your dirty hand in their bag of chips (crisps for you English types). “You had a date wrong here that didn’t match the date on page 3.” is a response you might get.  No explanation as to why they didn’t just call you and ask for clarification.  You made a mistake, you shouldn’t have made a mistake, and it’s really not their problem that you made a mistake.

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The Big Fish in a Small Pond – This is the worst of the lot, and also quite common.  Combined with any other types, which is usually the case, this is the type of person who makes you consider whether you should have hope for humanity as long as such people exist.  This bureaucrat is poster child of middle management.  They wield incredible amounts of power over their very small area.  The reason they are so powerful is because their position is important.  This is the type of person who might be the head of purchasing through which all parts of an organization must go through at some point.  While there are some upper management might like to have these kinds of people about, most of the time nobody likes them, and nobody can get rid of them because they technically do their job.  But they are so unhelpful in every way that the organization’s efficiency is reduced, because they have this incredible belief that they are the safeguard to the integrity of the organization like some Samurai Warrior uphold some ancient code of honor.   They are quite aware that they are untouchable and relish in the power they have.  They have authority to bend the rules, but they won’t.  They also will make up rules if they are in a bad mood, just to ruin your day too, and they do it with the utmost confidence that you have no recourse to them just deciding that you are not someone they feel like helping.  You’ve never seen them smile, except sardonically.  You wonder whether they’ve experienced anything good in their lives.  You wonder if they actually can’t even find joy in eating a cookie fresh out of the oven.  You wonder if maybe they just need some good sex and maybe then they’d become a reasonable human being.

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Whether the intent of the bureaucracy is to actually make it harder to get things done, or whether it’s just some accidental beast that grows out of control, the people who make up the bureaucracy cause a great deal of pain.  I’ll leave it up to you to decide if they are villains, or just people of less than average ability who were unemployable anywhere else.