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Chicken or Egg

Chicken Or Egg &Raquo; Notes To Self By Mark Obrien

I was recently in a conversation with a client. We’ll call her Petunia (not her real name; although, I wish it were). Petunia happens to work in a very large (as in global), very dysfunctional (as in no responsibility or accountability) company that has her beyond frustrated. Part of her frustration is that she’s very responsible and very willing to be accountable. But her responsibility and accountability aren’t acknowledged, rewarded, or reciprocated. During the conversation, I asked a question it had never occurred to me to ask before:

Do companies like that breed irresponsibility and unaccountability, or do they attract it? To put that question another way, are they incubators or magnets?

I don’t know the answer. But I do know about bureaucracies. Bureaucracies are where initiative, creativity, ambition, and fulfillment (other than power-hunger) go to die.

I can’t decide what’s worse about bureaucracies — that they compel us to toil in rote, anonymous invisibility (unless we’re power-hungry) or that effecting change in them is the rough equivalent of turning an aircraft carrier by sticking your hand in the water: You might be able to do it, but it’ll take a hell of a long time. And what is it about bureaucracies that saps our souls such that we become their willing (if unwitting) agents? How is it that they can make us demean ourselves in the act of demeaning others?

One of the things that damaged my chances of bureaucratic success in my corporate days was my refusal to go to strip clubs with my co-workers. My response to such suggestions was standard: “I spend all day watching people degrade themselves for salary plus bonus. Why would I pay to watch people degrade themselves for hourly wages plus tips?”

The Nature of the Beast

Because the only things bureaucracies want to do is grow and sustain themselves, they manifest uniform characteristics. They love complexity and red tape because that makes them unfathomable and unfixable. With ever more layers of hierarchy; ever-growing volumes of rules, regulations, policies, and procedures; and ever-proliferating degrees of inefficiency, delays, dysfunction, and unresponsiveness, they ensure their survival because no one has the vaguest inkling how to dismantle them.

With all those rules, regulations, policies, and procedures is it any surprise bureaucracies tend to be rigid and to resist change? Intentionally adaptable? Not so much. Nimbly adept at responding to emerging challenges? Nope. Conducive or receptive to creative thinking or deliberate innovation? Fuhgeddaboudit. And if bureaucracies were ever intended to be flexible, fluidly functional, openly communicative, smoothly coordinated, and committedly collaborative organizations, why do they build more silos than grain farms do?

As for accountability, try diffusing responsibilities across and through multiple layers of hierarchy. Then try determining where the buck stops. It’s like squeezing a water balloon: Whatever you squeeze here is just going to pop out there, ad infinitum. And if you think politics has anything to do with that, trust your judgment. As long as the chief concern of people in the organization is for the people on the next rungs above them on the ladder, sycophancy and ass-covering become the rule of the day.

Full Circle

So, here we are. Back to square one: Do bureaucracies breed torpor, complacence, silence, invisibility, anonymity, or compliance? Or do they attract those things? Does it matter? The effect is the same.

If you doubt that — and while it’s not a company, per se — there’s a city on the Potomac River between Alexandria, Virginia, and Annapolis, Maryland, you ought to take a look at. Nothing of coherent substance has been accomplished there for quite a while now. The only thing it does is grow more unwieldy (and expensive), more oppressive, and less penetrable every year, continuing to crank out blatant pandering tactics or attempts at blatant pandering tactics. (Anyone for unintended consequences?)

In contemplating the question — do bureaucracies breed torpor, complacence, silence, invisibility, anonymity, or compliance, or do they attract those things? — let’s remember this: Whether we’re talking about business or government, bureaucracies of any kind, we don’t have to be torpid or complacent. We don’t have to be silent, invisible, anonymous, or compliant. Those are choices. If those choices don’t suit us, we can make different ones.

And speaking of chickens, eggs, and making different choices, thank God it’s 2024.

An election is coming. Universal peace is declared, and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry. (George Eliot)

Originally Published on https://www.bizcatalyst360.com/category/lifecolumns/notes-to-self/

Mark O'Brien Writer, Blogger

I'm the founder and principal of O'Brien Communications Group (obriencg.com) and the co-founder and President of EinSource (einsource.com). I'm a lifelong writer. My wife, Anne, and I have two married sons and four grandchildren. I'm having the time of my life.

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