When your team grows beyond 30 people, hierarchy is your friend. But at any and every stage, bureaucracy is your enemy. This is why confusing hierarchy and bureaucracy will lead to the same devastating results as confusing your friends and enemies. Keeping your friends close and your enemies closer is generally a good idea. But in this case, leverage your hierarchy and root out bureaucracy wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head. Embrace hierarchy and banish bureaucracy.

Let’s align our understanding of the words. According to Webster:

Hierarchy: a system in which people or things are placed in a series of levels with different importance or status

Bureaucracy: a system of administration marked by officialism, red tape, and proliferation

Of course they can merge. Some hierarchies are bureaucratic. The point is that they don’t have to.

When hierarchies work their best, the people at each level know what they are responsible for and how it fits into the levels above and below. Local account people interact with local customer groups, nested within regional account organizations interacting with accounts’ regional teams and so on. Different levels. Different scopes. All focused on serving customers or interacting with suppliers for mutual benefit.

When bureaucracies work their best, they proliferate, add red tape, policies and procedures to ensure their own survival. Its members have a bias not to disrupt things, to weed out any idea that could threaten the bureaucracy, to protect what they’ve got and maintain the status quo.

General Motors (GM) serves as a continuing poster-child for bureaucracy gone bad with a never-ending stream of issues, most recently including its failure to act on ignition switch issues.

The Valukas report concluded that information about the faulty ignition switches bounced around an “astonishing number of committees” inside GM. Meetings were filled with the “GM Nod,” where participants appeared to nod in agreement that action should be taken, then did nothing. Others deployed the “GM Salute,” crossing arms and pointing toward other employees to indicate that “responsibility belongs to someone else, not me.”

Don’t think this just happens in big companies. Bureaucracy can rear its ugly head anywhere people create red tape, policies and procedures more focused on protecting their turf than on serving customers. These organizations are marked by passive-aggressive behavior where people hide their fear of the new behind any excuse they can find to delay any and every action and decision that poses any risk to the status quo.

A BRAVE Approach To Fighting Bureaucracy

In his HBR article, Managing Change, One Day at a Time, Keith Ferrazzi makes the point that organizations become addicted to bureaucracy much like individuals become addicted to alcohol, drugs or other things. Banishing bureaucracy is not an easy task and requires a multi-step, multi-engagement program to create a readiness for change and reinforce new habits with peer support and pressure, sponsorship and community.

Let me suggest a BRAVE approach to fighting bureaucracy, building off the BRAVE leadership framework of behaviors, relationships, attitudes, values and the environment starting from the outside in:

Environment: Accept the need to change. No one is going to make any changes to anything anytime anywhere until they believe they must change.

Values: Align around what really matters. Call it mission. Call it vision. Call it a higher purpose. Even once people accept the need to change, they won’t start until they can envision themselves in a better place once the change is complete.

Attitude: Make choices around strategy, posture and culture and how you’re going to bridge the gap between the current unacceptable environment and that envisioned in the future.

Relationships: This is the heart of leadership and of change leadership. You must connect with others to bring them with you along the path of change.

Behaviors: It’s all theoretically useless until you turn it into actions. We are what we do. Change engrained habits and practices if you want the change to stick.

There’s more on this in First-Time Leader. (Request an executive summary.)

This is a battle worth fighting – to improve your organization, your results, and your future.