Where Does Bureaucracy Come From?

By our 20s, most of us have experienced bureaucracy in some way, shape, or form. We've lived it at large corporations, seen it cripple decision-making within organizations and government, or at the very least, watched it play out on primetime television. Now, bureaucracy to some degree isn't always bad, though we've certainly assigned it a negative connotation in recent history. In its traditional sense, bureaucracy is just a body of decision-makers, but that's not the kind we care about today. Wikipedia defines our modern version of bureaucracy to be the "complex, inefficient, and inflexible" administrative procedures that come along with organizing human activity. Now that's the kind of bureaucracy we live and breathe every day. Now the only question is, where does bureaucracy come from? Even in organizations that tout employee ownership, flat structures, and holacracy, bureaucracy still prevails. We cannot shake it. Plus, even when we try to shake it, it doesn't always work. If we know that bureaucracy is almost everywhere, maybe it helps to explore where we are sure bureaucracy is not present. There is no bureaucracy at my 3-person startup. There is no time for inefficiencies, too few people to create complexities, and absolutely no room for inflexibility. We simply could not survive with a hobbling hierarchy. Sometimes, we even do each other's work when any one of us can't dedicate enough time to it. It is certainly a flat structure, in that we are all equal yet have diverse responsibilities. It works because it is a 2-dimensional triangle. Plus, we are evenly splitting a pie of $0. Ah, startup life.

The way I see it, bureaucracy must be caused by one (or a combination) of the following: # of employees, # of years in business, or the culture of upper management. We know that Unfettered Socks has no bureaucracy, and we have few employees, are very new, and have fantastic upper management culture (if I do say so myself). We know that bureaucracy is most common in large companies that have been in business for a long time (and who knows anything about the culture of their upper management). But what's the main driving factor here? If it's # of employees, we have to assume that Facebook and Google are now as bureaucratic as Ford or General Motors, despite being much younger companies. If it's time, the car manufacturers take the cake. Perhaps it is, in fact, a combination.

My friend says that if you read any of the works by Franz Kafka (most notably The Trial), "bureaucracy is a deeply intertwined force of nature that entraps everyone, and is not something that is established, but rather develops over time and requires participation of everyone in order to sustain." His opinion? # of employees.

I think I have to agree. At the end of the day, bureaucracy is like the prisoner's dilemma of human interaction within organizations, and therefore it cannot exist without people. Bureaucracy is catching up on emails over the weekend, because if you don't, you're the one whose inbox gets jammed. Bureaucracy is asking permission instead of forgiveness. Bureaucracy is never being able to get anything done because you're sitting around waiting for others to get things done so that you can do more things and they can do more things and look like we're all doing things to earn a paycheck in a world of things.