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“The Birth of Bureaucracy

“Ironically, in a society founded on individual self-sufficiency and the Jeffersonian sentiment that the best government is that which governs least, bureaucracy is fast becoming the prevailing organizational form.  Its essence is administrative hierarchies, standardized working procedures, elaborate timetables, rigid policies, central control, and—perhaps most insidious—an inexorable tendency to grow.  Large organizations are usually administered through mazes of departments and subdivisions managed by officials who, for the most part, follow impersonal and inflexible routines.  A look at the number of levels of management in modern corporations provides stark evidence of a teeming bureaucracy in action.   Many corporations have at least 8 levels of management, and some have 11 or 12.  The consequence is managers with a very narrow span of control and only a fraction of a job to perform.

“It is the rapidly expanding bureaucracy that has contributed most to a loss of autonomy.  There is, however, another kind of alienation, one that Karl Marx, the 19th-century German philosopher of history, envisioned and wrote about in his little known and even less read Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.  This alienation, an outgrowth of large-scale production and the bureaucratization that so frequently accompanies it, occurs when workers feel that they do not have an active and important role in the production process.  Marx believed that the special skills of each individual—and self-expression—had become insignificant in the maws of giant, and capitalist-owned, organizations. Work, he thought, would become, not an end unto itself, but merely a means to an end, no longer capable of providing the worker with any benefit save subsistence.

“Conformity versus Individualism

“As organizations overwhelm the individual, conformity becomes of society’s most cherished values.  From corporate dress codes to subtly imposed political views, agreement and consensus have become standard features of the Industrial Era.  Increasingly, “organization men” succumb.  Iconoclasts do not.  Challenging the conventional wisdom may be acceptable deportment for poets, dreamers, and an occasional entrepreneur; but it is behavior that, while given lip service, is rarely countenanced, and frequently penalized, in large organizations.  The unwillingness to countenance disagreement has adversely affected the quality of decision making, since consideration of alternatives—especially those that are at odds with the conventional wisdom—is a very necessary part of good decision making. So critical is this problem that some experts have recommended nothing less than a revival of one of mankind’s oldest forms of organized dissent, the “devil’s advocate.”  This person would occupy a newly created office of official “naysayer” and be charged with the responsibility of pointing out flaws in proposals.  This proposal that disagreement and constructive debate be institutionalized provides convincing evidence of the Industrial Era’s pervasive drive for conformity.”   Pp. 136-38

From   John Clemens & Douglas Mayer.  The Classic Touch:  Lessons in Leadership from Homer to Hemingway.  Dow Jones-Irwin, 1987.