Whilst it may feel too early to talk about anything “post-COVD,” let alone the post-COVID workplace,  studies suggest that there are a few new normals that seem likely to emerge from our experiences in 2020.  Among them is the increased capacity, desire, and acceptance to work remotely.  And this is interesting because it “breaks” the model of physical organizing that has been used in workplaces for over a century and challenges models of leadership that have been in place for even longer.

Fundamental to both of these is the idea of bureaucracy.  Despite research that suggests the many benefits of autonomous work environments and leadership styles to both wellbeing and performance, most workplaces are built on the bureaucratic principles of standardization, specialization, stratification, formalization, and routinization.

“The primary reason organizations miss the future is not a matter of resources or investment,” explained Gary Hamel, a long-time faculty member of the London Business School, and recognized as one of the world’s most influential business thinkers, when we interviewed him recently, “but often because the leaders at the top are unwilling to write off their own depreciating intellectual capital.”

Gary’s latest book, Humanocracy, suggests that traditional models of organizing and leadership embedded in bureaucracy crush creativity and stifle the innovation organizations will need to navigate the COVID and post-COVID world. 

“The world is too complex for anybody that manages from the top.  What you need is a network of small teams learning, sharing information, adapting to the reality on the ground really fast, and leveling up their experience because they’re connected to each other,” Gary explained.

However, while bureaucracy is endemic, it is not inevitable, and we can challenge the belief that this is the only way to structure our workplaces. Gary suggests the following:

  • Look in your own heart – Studies across the world indicate that bureaucracy is growing, not shrinking, but it does not advance without human intention.  Those with power in bureaucracy tend to want more of it and are often good at getting it.  So, start by asking yourself, “Where and when at work am I acting out of that old frame?” It might be that you got ahead by hoarding resources, managing up, or deflecting blame.  Did you elbow a rival?  Did you make a decision that really didn’t take the human consequences into account?  Did you manipulate data or a budget?  Or soft-pedal something because you didn’t want to upset your boss’s fragile ego or preconceptions?  Chances are, you’ll probably find that you can behave at work in ways you probably wouldn’t with friends and family.  So, look at your own heart, your values, and the type of person you want to be, and ask your team to call you on it when they see you acting otherwise.
  • Take a systemic view – Recognize that it’s not just about individuals – we’re all inside a system that encourages certain kinds of behaviors.  It’s pretty hard to expect to stand up and change deeply if most of what’s around you is pushing you in a different direction.  When you notice yourself playing the bureaucracy game, ask yourself why you’re doing it, and what in the systems and processes is rewarding you for those actions.
  • Be an activist – You can start to hack the existing management processes and systems where you are by taking one of the seven principles of “humanocracy” and asking your team what you can do differently if, for example, you wanted to focus on openness or community, or perhaps ownership or market.  In this way, you can start with where you’re at.  You want to be an activist, not a terrorist, so you don’t want to blow the system or your career up by trying to change the whole enterprise at a corporate level.  But as an activist, you can conduct some experiments right where you are by trying something different and collecting some data.  If you care about the people around you, your customers, and your business, you start from where you are and, at the same time, have the radical aspiration that the system will change eventually.  Never underestimate the difference a human being can make.

What can you do today to help build more humanocracy in your workplace?

To discover more evidence-based practices for helping people to thrive at work, check out the Making Positive Psychology Work Podcast.