Wednesday 20:54, Old Bethnal Green Road, London
One of the most painful and rigid ways of exerting control over someone else is through rules and regulations. This form of control can suck the life out of anyone, leaving you powerless, incapacitated to do anything, and takes a little bite off your humanity until what’s left is an empty shell of meaningless motions and actions.
Another word for this form of control is bureaucracy, and whilst most of us associate this with the inefficient administration of public bodies its original meaning from a management perspective evokes images of an optimally structured organisation where rules and regulations allow for a fair way of conducting business.
Bureaucratic control is also defined as an indirect form of control and whilst initially it didn’t seem like we really used bureaucratic control at FSG, it suddenly dawned upon me that I was wrong. I just hadn’t seen it for what it was.
How many of you have a staff handbook, for example? At work we call it the Company Reference Manual (sounds inviting, right?) and it consists of 29 pages of do’s and dont’s. It’s an awfully tedious read and if I had to take guess I’d say that very few people have read it. And if they have, very few actually remember its content.
One of the more fascinating methods of bureaucratic control is the concept of the panopticon, devised by this dead guy I use to see on my way to the library at UCL. Let me explain before I continue the main story. Upon his death, Bentham donated his body to science and wanted it publicly dissected. What’s spooky is that his head ended up perched on top of his auto-icon, which was located at the end of the South Cloisters. So every time I went to the library, you saw this mummified dead guy looking out into the void.
Ok, back to the panopticon. In this type of institutional building those being indirectly supervised conform to the desired behaviour through the potential of direct supervision. Imagine a prison block designed in such a way that all inmates were under the impression that the prison guards could observe any of them directly but they didn’t know if or when this could occur.
Sounds familiar? No? Think again.
Think of your behaviour when you see a speed camera. Does it make you slow down a little? Probably. What about if they were fake or broken but you couldn’t tell? Would you slow down? I think you probably would.
In sales we use these things called Customer Relationship Tools, or CRMs. The most popular one is Salesforce and it is the bane of most sales people’s and sales managers’ life alike. In a nutshell it allows individuals to organise their work and manage their sales pipelines. It also allows managers to run reports at any given time without anyone knowing. The problem though is that the system can very quickly fill up with ‘bad data’ if it’s not kept up-to-date. At its best, Salesforce has the potential to make a significant improvement in all sales peoples’ lives and allow managers to produce realistic forecasts. At its worst, it’s a lose-lose situation and brings out a nagging and frustrated manager and a sales person that no longer cares.
While bureaucratic control has a place in organisations, I don’t feel it’s a particularly efficient way of getting people at work to do what you want them to do. Often, you get unintended consequences like exaggerated and unrealistic pipelines.
Another downside of bureaucratic control is something called rational instrumentality. It’s where individuals adhere to rules and regulations no matter what and fail to understand the value of a situation. An example of this lead to the death of Alison Hume in 2009, as firefighters were told they were not allowed to rescue her from the mineshaft she had fallen in to and ultimately became a death trap. The opposite of rational instrumentality is knows as substantial instrumentality and took place as firefighters ran to the rescue of those that were trapped in the World Trade Center towers in New York in 2001. Here, people lost their lives because they cared and wanted to help.
I think it’s fair to say that a little bit of bureaucratic control is necessary as it outlines the basic rules and regulations associated with employment. However, too much usually leads to a whole heap of unintended consequences, and as managers we have the responsibility to identify those unintended consequences and prevent them from happening.