From USPS to Uber
I recently found myself in the backseat of an Uber with a retired postal worker as my driver. The woman who was ferrying me from my hotel to the airport indicated that she worked for USPS for 29 years. Her retirement was not quite enough to make ends meet, so she drove Uber on the side to make some extra cash. I asked whether she would ever consider going back to work for USPS, and she quickly snapped back, "No! I've already done my time," a subtle reference to working for USPS being like serving time in prison. But as I asked her more questions about her time at USPS, her ambivalence began to show through. She was very proud of USPS's accomplishments as an institutional pillar of U.S. society. But it was also clear that the three decades this woman spent working for USPS had imprinted some trauma on her. Working for Uber, my driver seemed quite content—she was her own boss.
My retired USPS Uber driver, let's call her Janet, regaled me with one anecdote of when operating a mail sorting machine, an individual who was many levels higher than her in the USPS chain of command approached her about operating the machine differently in a way he thought would be more efficient. Janet recounted how she retorted, "Excuse me, sir. Have you ever used this sorting machine?" He had not. It turned out that what the individual was asking of Janet was not even possible, given the constraints of what the mail sorting machine could do. Janet used this as an example of a culture at USPS where individuals at the top of the bureaucracy made decisions that were out of touch with front-line employees and often impractical because organizational leaders had little to no practical understanding of how the gears of the organization turned on the front-line. As Janet told it, USPS leaders made decisions in the abstract that were incompatible and inconsistent with concrete operational realities on the front-lines of the organization. This disconnect between the leaders who wanted to bring more efficiency and effectiveness to USPS and the lack of know-how required to do this had a significant and lasting negative impact on Janet's morale as an employee.
USPS: America's Punching Bag
While Janet's experience at USPS is just one data point, it is representative of a deeper perception of USPS. The pejorative phrase "going postal" has become commonplace in American vernacular. Unpleasant experiences at a U.S. post office are an almost universal experience, with people complaining about poor customer service, long lines, and sometimes unusual working hours. My local post office, for example, is closed every day Monday through Friday from 12:55 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., which reminds me of food kiosks in Russia that used to close during the lunch hour so their staffs could take a lunch break.
It is not only USPS that is considered a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy. Consider the U.S. Armed Forces. The Pentagon has an annual budget in the 2018 omnibus bill of close to $700 billion, which accounts for the majority of the U.S. government's annual budget. Defense projects such as the massive F-35 program have had enormous budget overruns in the billions of dollars for decades. In fact, the Pentagon's budget is so large and complex that it cannot even keep an accurate accounting of all its finances. Forget an army of soldiers; it would take an army of forensic accountants to make sense of the U.S. military's expenditures.
A Paradox: Bureaucracy Works
USPS's unofficial motto is "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." While versions of this slogan are sometimes used sarcastically to disparage USPS, there would appear to be a lot of truth to it. In 2013, Oxford Strategic Consulting (OSC) ranked USPS the best postal service in the world, citing the fact that the service delivered 268,894 letters and 2,633 parcels per carrier to 151 million addresses in 2013. Not only was this more than any other country in 2013, according to the OSC study, but it represented an astounding 40 percent of total mail volume for the world that year. We think nothing of the technology and logistics needed to process and track 506.4 million pieces of mail every day. Yet, the cost of a stamp is only 49¢ (what else can you get for 49¢?). You can pay for and print shipping labels at home and have letters and parcels picked up on demand from your front porch and track them every step of their journey. U.S. Post offices exist in even the most remote and inhospitable places, and mail service is virtually ubiquitous throughout the U.S.
Where the U.S. Department of Defense is concerned, despite its bloat, it is widely considered the most superior and capable in the world, with fleets of hyper-advanced fifth-generation fighter jets and more aircraft carriers (the single most advanced and sophisticated piece of military hardware ever created) than any other country on earth.
So how do we square these poster children of U.S. government bureaucracy with a postal service that is rated the best on earth and the world's most advanced military? The answer is that bureaucracy works. To be more specific, bureaucracy works, but eventually reaches a plateau filled with usually very small ups and downs, unless an intervention is undertaken to de-bureaucratize the organization. Fixed efficiencies and inefficiencies together with static effectiveness and ineffectiveness tend to dominate this plateau landscape of a bureaucracy. This state is frequently accompanied by efforts at micro-improvements in efficiencies and effectiveness, which result in the kind of out-of-touch attempts that Janet experienced. Because these efforts are often on the margins, they usually result neither in substantial harm nor significant good to the organization.
In the aggregate, too many clumsy efforts at micro-improvements can negatively impact employee morale, as can ill-executed attempts at large-scale change. But in their plateau phase, bureaucracies can depend on their fixed efficiencies and effectiveness to act almost like perpetual motion machines, with wide margins for error. This can go on for decades until a viral disruption takes place, usually in the external environment, against which the Lehman Brothers, Blockbusters, and Circuit Cities of the world have no immunity, despite sometimes frantic efforts at last-minute self-inoculation. For all its flaws, to say that bureaucracy is inherently bad ignores the obvious successes that bureaucracies have experienced. To put it simply, bureaucracy is neither absolutely bad nor absolutely good.
The Costs of Bureaucracy and Adhocracy
Postmodernism holds that many things are social constructs, including bureaucracy. Biology dictates that humans will attempt to self-organize as social creatures. But the post-modernist worldview holds that the ways in which we organize ourselves—including in the workplace—are mostly socially constructed. For example, having a C-Suit of executives run an organization from the top down is a social construct and not necessarily based in biology born out of human evolution. Organizing into hierarchies may be biologically based, but it does not necessarily follow that hierarchies biologically immutably dictate that we will organize into the traditional bureaucratic corporate structures of the 20th and 21st centuries. In fact, there are millennia of history that show other models of successful self-organizing. Bureaucracy is simply a way we have come up with as humans to organize ourselves into hierarchical, pyramidal units where the few at the top direct the efforts of the many below, all of which is supported and perpetuated by elaborate internal and external power structures. These power structures are not innately bad; they simply come at a cost for the value they add.
Hierarchical power structures together with the bureaucracies they create and support have become standard operating models for many workplaces. The gravitational pull towards bureaucracy is strong because bureaucracies do some things very well. For example, bureaucracies are good at providing predictability, consistency, and perhaps most importantly, order. Bureaucracy is also perpetuated because individuals with a high level of conscientiousness tend to be rewarded for their industriousness with ever-increasing amounts of authority. However, individuals with high conscientiousness also tend to have low ambiguity tolerance, which creates a perfect storm for funneling people up bureaucracies' ranks of power who have trait ambiguity intolerance (i.e., a preference for order over openness), thus leading them to perpetuate, reinforce, and expand the bureaucracy. Conscientiousness is considered one of the key indicators of professional success (Jackson, Wood, Bogg, Walton, & Harms, 2010). But it may very well be that this is the case not so much because conscientiousness is in and of itself inherently good, but because it simply is a trait that benefits and is, therefore, rewarded by bureaucracy. In sum, their flaws notwithstanding, bureaucracies have a good track record of being successful. But this success comes at a price, and history shows that bureaucracies are unsustainable if unchecked.
Like Janet, many others and I have experienced how bureaucracies can be difficult places to work. At their best, bureaucracies can be places where people are humanely-treated cogs in a well-oiled and effective machine with the chance of eventually moving up the ranks and being given the privilege of turning the cranks themselves (think GE and Procter & Gamble). At their worst, bureaucracies can be arbitrary and clunky slow-motion train wrecks that are hellish places to work (think Kmart and Radio Shack, which were rated among the worst places to work on Glassdoor since 2012). While bureaucracies are generally able to extract some value out of most cogs, this can take a toll on the condition of the humans who are those cogs. This is one of the costs of bureaucracies. The other cost of bureaucratic organizations is the tremendous amount of human potential that remains untapped within them. What might take two or three people to do in a flat organization with low order and high ambiguity and fluidity (i.e., an adhocracy) could take 20 or 30 people to do in a hierarchical system with high order and rigidity and low ambiguity.
To be sure, there are costs and benefits to bureaucracies and adhocracies. However, if an organization falls on the extremes of either end of the spectrum, existential problems can begin to surface. On the extreme of high order and rigidity and low ambiguity exists the inability of an organization to be responsive to environmental signals, missing out on key market opportunities. Furthermore, there is a significant risk of low morale, cynicism, and attrition among the workforce if they remain excluded from and unengaged in setting the direction of the organization, which employees are craving more and more. On the extreme end of organizations with low order and high ambiguity and fluidity, there is the risk of chaos, confusion, and low morale, cynicism, and attrition as well, if people feel the organization has no clear and consistent mission, vision, and values. Neither extreme is an effective model for sustainable organizational success.
The Consequences of Incongruence
So what of Janet and her decades of purgatory at USPS? Whether an organization is a bureaucracy or adhocracy, the most important thing is for individuals within the organization to understand what type of organization they are a part of and to exercise their agency accordingly. Under most conditions, people have options. As a friend and colleague of mine, Bethany Jones, points out, individuals within organizations can exercise their agency to do one of three things. First, they can choose to embrace the nature of the organization and exercise personal responsibility to commit to the structure of the organization. Secondly, they can leave the organization if it is not a good fit for them. Or third, they can make a conscious decision to influence the organization (i.e., behave as mavericks), accepting the risks and rewards that come with that. Each person needs to calculate the costs s/he is willing to pay when deciding which of these three paths to take. Many choose to opt out of all the above options and resort to living an unhappy existence because their workplace is not a good fit for them. This regularly results in people unproductively complaining and being resentful, all while staying put in their comfortable hells. This is neither good for the individual nor the organization. Move. Make a choice. Exercise your agency by deciding to take action.
But for individuals to actuate their agency in an informed way, they must first understand the lived identity of the organization in which they work. For example, if Janet, working for USPS, recognized that the organization was hierarchical and orderly by design and that the organization explicitly accepted the costs of this, she would have had the opportunity to embrace that environment, remove herself from it, or try to influence it from a position of awareness. If she accepted it, embraced it, and remained, this would have likely given Janet a higher tolerance for the organization's sometimes uninformed and clumsy attempts and micro-improvements in efficiency and effectiveness, buffering her against low morale. However, when an organization perpetuates an imaginary narrative and pretends to be something it is not, problems follow.
When I worked for one organization in the federal government, the narrative that the leaders perpetuated was that it was innovative, that everything was open to questioning, that cross-functional interaction was encouraged, etc. In other words, the leaders were marketing the organization, internally and externally, as a place that was a fluid environment with a low amount of order, minimal hierarchy, and a small amount of red tape. However, the reality was 180 degrees different. Others and I took our cue from the espoused organizational identity and ended up finding out just how much the reality was different from what was advertised when we hit the bureaucracy like a brick wall and paid a high price, being cast aside as "rogue." The organization was, in fact, very orderly, hierarchical, and bureaucratic. The real problem is not so much whether an organization is an adhocracy or bureaucracy, orderly or disorderly, low in ambiguity or high in ambiguity. The opportunity for organizations is to resolve the incongruence that exists between their espoused organizational identity and their lived organizational identity. It is this incongruence that primarily leads to low employee morale, cynicism, and attrition.
More and more, organizational leaders are buying into the thinking that their workplaces need to be flatter and provide more personal autonomy and trust to individuals on the frontlines. Indeed, there are significant advantages and benefits to these things, and I personally passionately advocate for them. However, a disconnect between reality and the false or incomplete narrative organizational leaders think they need to push is far more damaging than the bureaucracy itself.
The U.S. military is a good example of an organization with low incongruence between its lived and espoused identity. People enter the military understanding (or very quickly realizing) that it is a command-and-control organization by design. The expectations and implications of that are made abundantly clear and continuously reinforced. If you are a junior enlisted member of the U.S. Marines, for example, and you fail to salute a senior officer, chances are good that you are going to be corrected and reprimanded on the spot. But this generally does not have a negative impact on morale, because it is expected and is often literally what people self-select for by voluntarily signing up. And, for most of us in the developed world, we are volunteers at work. Work is only our prison if we refuse to use the keys already in our hands to open the door and leave.
Consistency between expectations and actions within organizations can, in fact, create and reinforce high levels of morale, engagement, and retention. I am not advocating for draconian work environments. Serving in the military is very different from working in a civilian organization. But the two rules of using awareness and agency to navigate your work environment and maintaining congruence between an organization's espoused and lived organizational identity are relevant, regardless of the organization.
There are fewer examples of adhocracies that pretend to be highly bureaucratic. Nevertheless, the same rules hold true. If an organization is culturally an adhocracy, it is important that individuals understand this. If things change, and the culture turns towards more order and bureaucracy (which is not uncommon for companies that become financially successful quickly and grow rapidly), then this shift should be transparent to the workforce, so people can vote with their feet before they start exhibiting signs of low morale and become toxic to the organizational environment. Some tech companies that become hyper-successful very often face this dilemma. Such organizations often start out as loosely structured ragtag groups of entrepreneurs with environments bordering on chaos. As big money starts to flow in from investors, and as IPOs loom and go public, these organizations can start to bend towards order over chaos and hierarchy over flatness. It is not so much that this change is inherently bad. However, the cost associated with this is that as the organization becomes more bureaucratic, those with higher trait openness (i.e., lower tolerance for order and higher tolerance for ambiguity) will self-select out of the organization—e.g., Steve Wozniak leaving Apple.
On the surface, highly bureaucratic organizations seem like a paradox. Both from the inside and the outside, such organizations seem calcified, ineffective, and dehumanizing. Yet examples such as USPS and U.S. Armed Forces defy these stereotypes, as both are very bureaucratic yet considered among the best in their respective classes worldwide. Nevertheless, there are numerous examples of organizations that have eventually succumbed to the suffocating weight of bureaucracy, including nation-states such as the Soviet Union. There are significant risks and costs associated with unchecked bureaucracy, and it is easy for an organization to fall into a self-perpetuating cycle of ever-increasing bureaucracy if measures are not undertaken to tame it. At the same time, there are limits to what unorderly systems can produce. At their best, such organizations are excellent at innovation, prototyping, creating minimum viable products, and rapid time to market. But as demands for products and services of such organizations grow and the number of personnel increases, the desire for order and predictability can creep in.
Ultimately, both bureaucracies and adhocracies can be sustainably successful, provided they are not on the extremes of the spectrum. To do this, organizations must do three things. First, an organization must own and embrace its identity. If it is a bureaucracy, let it be bureaucracy. If it is a flat organization with low order and high ambiguity, let it be a flat organization with low order and high ambiguity. Second, there must be truth in advertising. People must know the lived identity of the organizations in which they work, instead of advertising an insincere narrative that invites people to behave in ways that are going to conflict with the implicit (but sometimes invisible) organizational norms. And third, organizations must mitigate against the risks associated with their lived organizational identity. All of this is not to say that organizations cannot undergo guided change to reshape their lived organizational cultures if the environment is calling for it, however.
There are too many examples of successful bureaucratic organizations to dismiss bureaucracy as an outmoded social construct that no longer has relevance. At the same time, there are emerging ways of working in environments with low order and high ambiguity that show viable alternatives to bureaucracies. It is crucial to understand that neither model is a panacea. Given the historical dominance of bureaucracies (especially in modern corporate culture), a movement of counter-dependency is afoot that I believe is bending the arc toward adhocracy. Given the strengths of such systems, which dovetail well with innovation, I expect to see more of this in the workplace, and it is highly likely that these organizations will be important 21st-century Petri dishes for innovation. However, given their established strengths, it is possible that these innovations will be absorbed by bureaucracies, or that the organizations that create these innovations will themselves become more orderly and hierarchal.
Can bureaucratic organizations be sustainable, especially in the 21st century? Can adhocracies become an increasingly viable organizational structure? To be sure, many will fail, but for those organizations that tell the truth about their lived identity, endorse it, reinforce it, and mitigate against the risks of perpetually growing bureaucracy or out of control chaos, the chances of long-term survival for both are good.
Jackson, J. J., Wood, D., Bogg, T., Walton, K. E., & Harms, P. D. (2010). What Do Conscientious People Do? Development and Validation of the Behavioral Indicators of Conscientiousness (BIC). Management Department Faculty Publications University of Nebraska - Lincoln., 501-511.