Workplace Bureaucracy – Learn to Break Through the Red Tape!

What does your company value most, your employees or your processes?

Workplace Bureaucracy can leave your company stagnant & demotivated.  As a leader, a manager and an individual contributor, you should be looking to create a balance between creativity and consistency.  Each one of us has the responsibility to improve our work environment.

Procedures, systems, controls, processes….we all complain about them or hear complaining from others, but they serve a purpose.  Structure is good; it keeps our business consistent, helps us track our actions, maintains quality standards, and allows us to make universal changes.  So why do we still complain?  Ask yourself…if the structure and rules were working well, would you complain?  If you answer yes, then I can direct you to our recent article on dealing with difficult personalities…but if you answer no, this article is here to dissect examples of bureaucracy, how to identify them in your organization, what needs changing, and how to involve yourself and your employees in the process.

Examples of workplace bureaucracy, and how to identify them:

The harsh reality is that companies lose great employees because of workplace bureaucracy.   They also lose customers and profits.  Here are some examples where your company could be at risk:

Some obvious examples affecting the entire company can impact moral:

  • Expense report approvals…since when have employees become banks?
  • Vacation requests…does the entire company really need to agree?
  • Budget planning & forecasting…is the process more important than reality?
  • Capital expenditure approvals…wasn’t that already budgeted?
  • Weekly/monthly reports…does anyone even read them?

These examples are annoying for obvious reasons.  They are things out of your control, put in place by other departments, and impact the entire company.  Your best approach here is to adhere to them, be on time, and provide full, accurate information in the format that the information is needed.  The more efficient you are at these tasks, the less painful they will be.  It comes down to picking your battles. Sometimes your frustration stems from not understanding why the information is necessary.  The key is to understand who the process gatekeepers are and have them know you.  This mutual respect may reduce the pain.

Some not so obvious examples of workplace bureaucracy are hidden within localized areas, and can impact bottom line results:

  • The plant or shift manager that bypasses processes, inventory levels, or lead-times to get product out to customers.
  • The customer service representative that manages an order outside of the system in order to rectify a claim that is taking too long to process.
  • The sales person that is behind on expenses & reports because he or she is too busy visiting with customers generating new business.
  • The accounts receivable clerk that makes exceptions against policy based on their own relationships with key accounts.
  • The manager that creates their own review & rating structure for employees and does not utilize the one prepared by human resources.

The list can go on an on.  What makes these examples not so obvious?  They are examples of individuals doing what they feel is best for the business, acting proactively, and secretly, in the interest of positive results.  So if the intention is good, why do their actions lead to problems?

What needs to change and how to go about it.

Process gatekeepers often have their eye on the process, not the customer.  Processes are very important, but they should never lose focus of why they are needed in the first place…to make the customer experience more efficient.  Everything…I mean EVERYTING…in business leads back to the customer.  When individuals get distracted by maintaining structure, the people who keep their eye on the customer (often the best employees) get “caught” doing things wrong.  Sometimes they quit due to frustration, other times they are fired due to corporate ego.  In the end the business suffers.

So how should employees, managers, and business leaders balance creativity vs. consistency?  The answer itself is a process…called continuous improvement.

Continuous improvement has two meanings when it comes to the positive impact a process can have on business results.

First:  Continuous improvement can be defined by the trend shown when monitoring results from a current process in place.  For example:  rate of returns continuously decreasing due to a quality control procedure.

Second: The ability to proactively identify process improvements and implement those consistently across all stakeholders.

The first meaning measures the past; the second is a precursor to future results.  Both are important, but very few companies actively engage in the second meaning.  Instead, when they focus only on the first form of continuous improvement, customers can get lost in the bureaucracy, your best employees who stay focused on the customer get aggravated, and sometimes those employees get fired because they bypass the system.

If you are interested in managing processes that bring value to your customers and your bottom line…here is what you can do:

  • Train & retrain employees on your existing processes.  Sometimes workarounds happen because they don’t fully understand what needs to be done and why.
  • Hold your gatekeepers accountable for collecting feedback on the process, from the process users.  Insist on monthly or quarterly reports whereby gatekeepers have to present improvements they have made and ideas they are considering for the next review.
  • Instill a collective culture in your company, or in your own department, that the customer matters, that processes matter, and the merging of the two requires continuous improvement.
  • Encourage those silent workarounds to become vocalized.  The goal is to reduce employees working outside of the system, and increase the amount of universal improvements made across the entire system.  Workarounds should happen once or twice, until they can be incorporated.  They should no longer by the norm.

The result of this balanced approach to creativity and structure is a forward moving, customer centric organization with improved employee moral, stable, efficient processes used by all employees, and a raised bar of performance.  By encouraging your best employees to share their insights, and incorporating those ideas into your overall processes, you will be sharing best practice among your entire workforce.

Changes cost money…this may be true for some of the improvements you will need to make.  But so do opportunity costs that you are neglecting without creating a balanced approach.  These include lost customers, lost employees, and quality problems caused by work done outside of processes.

If you are a manager or business leader, it is your responsibility to lead this cultural change.  If you are an individual that finds the need to go outside of processes to break through red tape in order to do what is best for the customer…you have the ability to lead the charge as well.  Take the time to understand the process as it is today, document your need to make changes, plus the time and the impact your change has on the customer, then, take your case to the process gatekeeper and your manager.  Request a formal meeting, present your ideas, and make a positive impact within your company!

How does your company or your department handle this balance?   Are you one to drive continuous improvement or complain about it?  What can you do to make a positive change within your company?


Written by Lisa Woods, President Lisa Woods Consulting & Founder of

Lisa is a dynamic business leader & author located in Western New York with more than 20 years experience leading, managing and driving growth in the corporate world. Today she partners with business leaders to understand their vision, identify internal and external roadblocks, define a practical strategic path forward and guide a successful transformation. This work includes strategy definition & goal setting, organizational design, facilitating team buy-in, establishing visual metrics, internal and external research studies, business feasibility assessments, and investor insight into organizational strength, weakness & strategic opportunity. She helps business leaders drive growth & increase profits.

Strategic Consulting ǀ Management Consulting: Strategy Realized

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