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Understanding the Dysfunctions of Bureaucratic Structures


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Organisations are enormously composite systems. As one observes them appear to be poised of human activities on various different levels of study. Personalities, inter groups, small group, customs, attitudes, values all appear to exist in an exceptionally complex multidimensional outline. Groups subsist in all organisations and are vital to their performance and working. Groups and Individuals act together within the structure of the formal organisation. Structure is produced by management to launch relationships between groups and individuals, to provide order and systems and to direct the efforts of the organisation into target-seeking activities. People carry out their organisational performance in order to accomplish aims and objectives through formal structure. Behaviour is affected by models of organisation structure, styles of leadership, technology, and systems of management through which organisational processes are planned, directed and controlled .According to Senior and Fleming "One of the best-known forms or organisation structure is the bureaucratic form".


Bureaucracy is defined by Gouldner as "a hierarchical division of staff who act on formal assignments" (Gouldner, 1954 as quoted in K. Srinivasan & Raka 2006). Following definition suggests five specific dimensions of bureaucracy namely hierarchical structure ,decision making, procedural devices, nature of work, and procedural bottlenecks have been measured in this order to comprehend the functioning of bureaucracy. These factors are predominantly appropriate to the understanding of bureaucratic functioning as indicated by previous studies that the magnitude of these attributes differs from one organisation to another .Functional complexities of any bureaucratic system largely rely upon the mixture of these attributes.

For instance, Hall as quoted in {K. Srinivasan and Raka (2006) }observed that definite organisational activities are associated to one or more of the above mentioned dimensions. Attributes such as hierarchical structure, division of labour and the type of decision making have been found to be closely correlated with one another. In the same way Lindblom {as quoted in K. Srinivasan and Raka (2006)} concluded that the choice of goals and appropriate means are generally interwoven. Good policy can be formulated when decision makers discover themselves in agreement.

Meyers finding have publicized that the nature of work and decision-making positions determines the nature of planning. Various studies have note that complexity of rules and procedures highly affect bureaucratic efficiency.


Following case study aims to establish the structure, functioning and dysfunctions of bureaucratic structure in health care organisation by taking management issue in a Radiography department.

Brenda smith (BS) is the head of department and Dennis Edwards (DE) is her deputy. . The organisational structure of the department is a conventional hierarchy, with BS and DE at the top and with a staff of 36 radiographers, technical, scientific, and administrative staff at different levels constituting a typical bureaucratic structure. BS is a 'strong personality' and is known by many as an autocratic control is a strong supporter in clear lines of responsibility. She has introduced plenty of written procedures in the last three years and anticipates everyone to attach to them strictly. She disagrees that, as the department continues to develop, the need for formal rules and procedures will become even more important and that they cannot afford to be informal and sloppy in the running of the service. BS insist that senior staff summarise progress reports and submit formal reports to her on a weekly basis. In addition, staffs are expected to become highly specialised in order to ensure a high degree of competence. BS aims to provide efficient and impersonal rules. Here the department represents typical characteristics of bureaucracy. However, Max Weber defined and expanded the meaning and indeed maintained that it was the only effective way to organize the work.

The Weber's model of bureaucracy is characterised as an ideal typical model suggested the desired features of bureaucratic structure on the basis of number of attributes.

Max Weber found four major attributes of bureaucracy that marked it out for its advantages. They are efficiency, predictability, impersonality and speed. As an ideal type, it could possess all those attributes and perhaps more, at one point of time or all times.

The main characteristics of bureaucracy according to weber are:

Fixed jurisdictional areas, areas, ordered by rules and regulations.

Regular activities required for the purposes of bureaucracy are distributed as official duties.

Authority to give commands required for discharge of these duties is distributed in a stable way.

Procedure is present for the regular and continuous fulfilment of these duties (i.e. a replacement plan for each position), and only persons qualified are employed (oxford University Press, 1946).

Similarly the four main features of bureaucracy are summarised by Stewart as specialisation, hierarchy of authority, System of rules, and impersonality.

Specialisation applies more to the job than to the person undertaking the job.

Hierarchy of authority makes for a sharp distinction between administrators and the administered or between management and workers. Within the management ranks there are clearly defined levels of authority.

System of rules aims to provide for an efficient and impersonal operation. The system of rules is generally stable. Knowledge of the rules is a requisite of holding a job in a bureaucracy.

Impersonality means that allocation of privileges and the exercise of authority should not be arbitrary, but in accordance with the laid down rules. Stewart sees the characteristics of impersonality as the feature of bureaucracy which most distinguishes it from other types of organisations. A bureaucracy should not be impersonal but seen to be impersonal (Mullins 2005, p 74-5).

An opportunity to bid for newly available funds from government was missed because BS has instigated a system whereby her written approval was required before any such bids could be submitted. She was away at a conference at the crucial time and an important opportunity was lost.

Secondly, two senior physicians in the hospital have recently expressed their dissatisfaction with some aspects of work of the department and phoned to demand to 'speak to someone with authority'. The message was left on BS's desk because no one felt confident enough to respond directly (in BS's absence) without risking her displeasure and again a slow response became a problem. The dissatisfied physician were angry about the slow response to their complaints and have taken the matter up with the hospital's chief executive and are now insisting that in future they wish to use the services of a private provider rather than use the hospital's 'hopeless' radiography department.

Numerous dysfunctions can be noted and results from this typical bureaucratic radiography department, including an overemphasis on specialised tasks, routine operating rules, and formal procedures of management. Department is characterized by numerous regulations, formal communications, centralized decision making and sharp distinctions among administrators and staff, lack of responsibility among the staff. Here rules are used to reduce the visibility of power relations, the need for close supervision, and the level of interpersonal tension and conflict. Instead by defining minimally acceptable behaviour, rules often inspire less than optimal employee performance, leading to increased personal supervision, more visible power relations, increased interpersonal conflict and goal displacement. While bureaucratic behaviour might produce stability, it also creates a dependent relationship between administration and staff and eliminates flexibility, creativity, productiveness and work. Communication problems are exacerbated. The complexity and professional discretion involved in running healthcare organisation require an approach that maximizes staff ability and foster creative problem solving. There are lots of disadvantages in this typical bureaucratic structure of the department and can be stated. First theoretically, we can start with weber's concept of bureaucracy. Weber's concept of bureaucracy has a number of disadvantages and has been subject to severe criticisms.

The over emphasis on rules and procedures, record keeping and paper work may become more important in its own right than as a means to an end.

Officials may develop a dependence upon bureaucratic status, symbols and rules.

Initiative may be stifled and when a situation is not covered by a complete set of rules or procedures there may be a lack of flexibility or adaptation to changing circumstances.

Position and responsibilities in the organisation can lead to officious bureaucratic behaviour. They may also be a tendency to conceal administrative procedures from outsiders.

Impersonal relations can lead to stereotyped behaviour and a lack of responsiveness to individual incidents or problems.

One of the strongest critics of bureaucratic organisation, and the demands it makes on the worker, is Argyris. Argyris claims that bureaucratic organisation restricts psychological growth of the individual and cause feelings of failure, frustration and conflict. Argyris suggests that the organisational environment should provide:

A significant degree of responsibility and control

Commitment to the goals of the organisation

Productiveness and work

And an opportunity for individuals to apply their full abilities.

A similar criticism is made by Caulkin, who refers to the impersonal structure of bureaucracy as constructed round the post rather than the person and the ease with which it can be swung behind unsocial or even pathological ends. The over emphasis on process rather than purpose, fragmented responsibilities and hierarchical control means that it's all too easy for individuals to neglect the larger purposes to which their small effort is being put.

The growth of bureaucracy has come about the increasing size and complexity of organisations and the associated demand for effective administration. The work of the classical writers has given emphasis to the careful design and planning of organisation structure and the definition of individual duties and responsibilities. Effective organisation is based on structure and delegation through different layers of the hierarchy. Bureaucracy is founded on a formal, clearly defined and hierarchical structure. However, with rapid changes in external environment, de-layering of organisation, empowerment, and the greater attention to meeting the demands of customers, there is an increasing need to organise flexibility (Mullins 2005, 75-6).

Although no other form of social organisation has been found to be more efficient in the long run, Weber recognized his model accounts for only part of the characters of bureaucracy. They also have a dark side, and do not always operate smoothly. Let's look at some of the main bureaucratic dysfunctions that can be summarised from the above case study like-red tape (A Rule is a Rule), lack of communication, alienation, goal displacement, bureaucratic incompetence and Empowerment.

Red Tape: A rule Is a Rule

Here BS is very keen on the rules and very much particular to further reinforce the rules, BS's view is that the department's procedures and people's roles and lines of responsibility need to be absolutely clear. Rules here are seen to reduce power relations, reduce the need of close supervision, and reduce the level of interpersonal tension and conflict. However rules tend to define minimum acceptable behaviour. Defining minimum behaviour often leads to less than optimal performance on the part of employees, and this in turn leads to an increase in personal supervision, the very condition that the rules were intended to eliminate (Abbott & Caracheo, 1988 as cited in Duttweiler, Patricia, 1988).

The increase in closeness of supervision leads to an increase in visibility of power relations, which leads in turn to an increase in the level of interpersonal tension and conflict. In addition, adherence to rules also leads to rigidity on the part of administrators and employees.

Rules take an aura of compulsion, they become sacrosanct - they are to be followed, not questioned. What were intended to be means becomes ends, and unquestioning compliance with rules rather than their judicious enforcement become the norm. Too often rules are substituted for personal judgement. They tend to discourage creative efforts in responding to problems, to justify minimal performance, and to produce apathy (Anderson, 1969 as cited in Duttweiler, Patricia, 1988).

It is observed that the organisational set-up of this department is conventional hierarchy and it comprises of a centralized system. The delegation of power is absent, so the Department lost an opportunity for the government funds. At the individual (or personal) level delegation is the process of entrusting authority and responsibility to others throughout the various levels of the organisation. It is the authorisation to undertake activities that would otherwise be carried out by someone in a more senior position in the department. It is arguably to have delegation upwards-when a manager is temporarily takes over the work of a subordinate who is absent. It is also possible to delegate laterally to another manager on the same level (Mullins 2005 p 850-3).

Lack of Communication in the Units:

Each unit within a bureaucracy performs specialised tasks, which are designed to contribute to the organisation's overall goals. At times, these units fail to communicate with one another and end up working at cross purposes. Bureaucratic structure has a tendency to obstruct communication. This allows problems to compound and 'solutions' to develop that are not always the most effective. Information does not flow freely and easily throughout the system. In most cases, there are no mechanisms in place to report problems to superiors. People who consistently call superiors attentions to problems are accused of being "malcontents", of being "disloyal", or of "rocking the boats". The result of this is that important information is frequently withheld.

Often when problems are reported the underlying causes are not addressed. The information that is passed upwards is screened by successive layers in the hierarchy in order to protect the vested interests of those relaying it. Therefore, information needed to make appropriate decisions is often missing. Problems go undetected until they assume major proportions because subordinates are discouraged from identifying the sources.

Hierarchical authority allows administrators to restrict the possible solutions and approaches to those they feel competent in using. This often results in decisions of lowered quality in faulty problem solving, and a normative structure that the status quo (Bradford & Cohen, 1984 as cited in Duttweiler, Patricia, 1988).

In addition traditional bureaucratic managers like BS, who maintain control over all decisions and activities decrease the responsibility felt by subordinates for the success or failure of any effort. Staff abilities and voices are gone ignored or underutilised resulting in lowered staff motivation.

Bureaucratic Alienation:

Alienation refers to the detachment of the person from his or her work. Many workers find it disturbing to deal with others in terms of roles, rules and functions rather than as individuals. Similarly, they may dislike writing memos instead of talking to people face to face. It is not surprising then that workers in large organisations sometimes feel more like objects than people or as Weber (1978) put it, "only a small cog in a ceaselessly moving mechanism which prescribes to (them) an endlessly fixed routine". Because workers must deal with one another in such formal ways, and because they constantly perform routine tasks, some come to feel that no one cares about them and that they are misfits in their surroundings. A number of staff under BS are feeling increasingly disgruntled about what they see as petty rules, constant 'form filling' and a lack of autonomy in the way they plan and deliver their work. Most staff is highly qualified and many of them have many years' experience in radiography and related services in other hospitals, they feel that their expertise is not recognised by senior management (i.e. BS & DE). Morale is lower than it was 3 years ago when BS was appointed, absenteeism has become a problem and several key members of staff say they are job hunting.

Marx termed these reactions alienation and attributed them to the fact that workers are cut off from the finished product of their labour. Although assigning workers to repetitive tasks makes for efficient production, Marx argued that it also reduces their satisfaction by limiting their creativity and sense of contribution to the finished task. Underlying alienation is the 'workers' loss of control over their work because they no longer own their own tools.

The traditional bureaucrat like BS does not take initiative, will not do anything for the organisation beyond what he or she is absolutely required to do and uses rules to justify doing as little as possible.

Alienation, of course, is not a pleasant experience. Because workers want to feel valued and want to have a sense of control over their work, they resist alienation. In spite of poor attitude and performance, some alienated workers often retain their jobs, some are job hunting, either because they may have seniority, or know the written rules backward and forward, or threaten expensive, time-consuming, or embarrassing legal action if anyone tries to fire them. Some alienated workers are shunted off into small bureaucratic corners, where they do trivial tasks and have little chance of coming in contact with the public. This treatment, of course, only alienates them further.

Goal Displacement:

Goals have been defined by Simons as value premises which serve as inputs to decisions. In addition to performing some function, all organisations also have some incentive for their existence, and for their operations. The goals of an organisation are the reason for its existence. The activities of the organisations are directed to the attainment of its goals. A goal is a future expectation, some desired future state. It is something the organisation is striving to accomplish.

The concept of organisational goals is more specific than that of the function of an organisation. The goals of an organisation will determine the nature of its inputs and outputs, the series of activities through which the outputs are achieved, and interactions with its external environment. The extent to which an organisation is successful in attaining its goals is a basis for the evaluation of organisational performance and effectiveness.

Goals are therefore an important feature of work organisations. To be effective goals should be emphasised, stated clearly and communicated to all members of the organisation. Survival of the organisation depends upon its ability to adapt to changes and to the demands of its external environment. Commitment to the objectives and policies of the organisation, people's cognitive limitations and their uncertainties and fears, may mean a reluctance to accept change. Organisations may also find it difficult to make short-term, rapid changes in resource allocation. The very complexity of environmental influences may itself hinder rapid change. It is important, however, that the organisation does not restrict innovation but is ready to respond positively to changing circumstances and, increasingly, to anticipate future change. Management has to balance the needs for adaptability in meeting the challenges and opportunities presented by change with, at the same time, preserving an atmosphere of stability and continuity in the interests of members of the organisation (Mullins 2005 p145-6-9).

Bureaucratic Incompetence:

In an analysis of bureaucracies, Laurence Peter proposed what has become known as the Peter Principle: In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence (Peter and Hull 1970, Mullins 2005 p40). People who perform well in a bureaucracy come to the attention of those higher up the chain of command and are promoted. If they again perform well, they are again promoted. This process continues until finally they are promoted to a level at which they can no longer handle the responsibilities well; this is their level of incompetence. There they hide behind the work of others, taking credit for what those under their direction accomplish. Although the Peter Principle contains a grain of truth, if it were generally true, bureaucracies would be staffed entirely by incompetents like BS, and none of these organisations could succeed.

A serious error was made concerning the way in which some patients were treated and complaints have been made to the local TV station and local press: some damage to the department's reputation is likely to follow. One of the senior members of staff has 'blamed' the administrative supervisor for the error but the supervisor insists that all procedures were strictly followed and that the error was not his fault.

According to Cloke and Goldsmith, management and bureaucracy can be thought of as flip sides of the same coin here. Bureaucracies provide a safe heaven where managers can hide from responsibility and avoid being held accountable for errors of judgement or problems they created or failed to solve (Mullins 2005 p 77).

There is lack of Empowerment in the department. Empowerment generally explained in terms of allowing employees greater freedom, autonomy and self-control over their work, and responsibility for decision-making. Empowerment says that employees at all levels of an organisation are responsible for their own actions and should be given authority to make decisions about their work. Its popularity has been driven by the need to respond quickly to customer needs, to develop cross-functional links to take advantage of opportunities that are too local or too fleeting to be determined centrally. Better morale and compensation for limited career paths are other advantages. Potential difficulties include the scope of chaos and conflict, a lack of clarity about where responsibility lies, the breakdown of hierarchical control, and demoralization on the part of those who do not want additional authority. Successful empowerment will typically require feedback on performance from a variety of sources, rewards with some group component, an environment which is tolerant of mistakes, widely distributed information, and generalist managers and employees. The paradox is that the greater the need for empowerment in an organisation, the less likelihood of success. It has to be allowed to develop over time through the beliefs/attitudes of participants (Mullins, pg. 860-3).

In conclusion, different levels of managers should have different functional responsibilities but they are supposed to act in co-ordination. That is the senior level officer's should be free to accept their junior opinions with open communication or take decisions over riding them. Here, co-ordination becomes the basic ingredient of an efficient bureaucracy. The sense of powerlessness and consequent lack of responsibility found among the junior staff apparently affected the overall functioning of the organisation. The significant development of communication and Empowerment between the Head of Department and the staff will result in higher performance. The importance of delegation is to be kept in mind. However, it is feasible to think that organisations can constantly restructure as their environments move and change. Redesigning an organisation's structure has to be carefully planned with change taking place as current business performance has to be sustained. This implies a mixture of incremental and transformational change.

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