Navigating Bureaucracy


It’s satisfying to be a part of a streamlined professional operation and to see your efforts come to meaningful fruition. On the other hand, if your workplace seems like an exercise in red tape navigation, you may feel like Sisyphus, endlessly pushing your boulder uphill, only to see it crumble before you crest.

Some institutions are so bogged down in unwieldy processes or cumbersome procedures that it’s difficult to get work done. Perhaps company policies are disconnected from daily operations, frustrating staff, and the populations they serve. Maybe the institution’s leaders micromanage or they don’t have a clear sense of the big picture, so they assign work that absorbs staff attention to no meaningful end. Examples abound, but the common thread is that some professional cultures seem, by their very design, to impede productivity.

If you are positioned in such an environment, your day-to-day may feel frozen and frustrating. Here’s how to get some perspective on your dilemma and move yourself forward:

Communication is key:
When you are assigned an ongoing project your role is two-fold: you are responsible for producing the deliverables associated with the project and you oversee the process that governs the work. If you are able to refine that process, then kudos to you. That shows that you take ownership of your role, which most managers invite and encourage.

Assume that your manager, like most, appreciates a diligent staff person who upgrades an unwieldy process. To that end, evaluate the current process and articulate your observations in writing, creating a document for your manager to review and share.

Suppose, for example, that three people have to review every piece of writing that you prepare on behalf of your team. On the team level this isn’t so taxing. Your boss is pretty quick to turn around drafts. But the two managers above her are hard to pin down. Securing their approval adds three to four weeks to your project timeline.

Use your document to first tout your success as the team voice, showing your manager that she can trust your expertise; for example, “I’ve written more than 20 correspondences for our team and they are routinely returned with minimal changes.” Next, demonstrate the amount of time the current process takes so that your supervisor can clearly see what’s at stake. Finally, propose a revised process, perhaps one in which only your supervisor reviews most documents while all three managers only review content that is going to the trustees or the highest-level donors.

This document gives you space to demonstrate your expertise, articulate the limitations of the current process, and propose an alternative.

You essentially ask: has the current process been approved by design or by default? Your manager and her supervisors may reject your proposal, but at least you know you are methodically challenging a flawed system.

But we’ve always done it this way:
Some institutions get bogged down in the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality, where outdated processes don’t get an audit they badly need simply because they’ve traditionally been used. This may include overburdening high-level managers instead of empowering their staff, thus creating a productivity bottleneck.

Allowing staff members independence in their roles helps them own their work. This can lead to increased productivity and greater job satisfaction. So why does this get hung up, and how do you dislodge yourself if you find your manager seems unwilling to allow you autonomy in your work?

Laura MacLeod, licensed social worker and founder of From the Inside Out Project, notes: “You need to make your manager aware of what he/she is doing … Use statements/observations to do this in a professional manner.” MacLeod suggests an approach like this: “I’d like to do the best job possible. Please let me know how I can improve so you would feel comfortable assigning more tasks to me.”

You deserve a voice when it comes to planning, shaping, and advancing the work for which you are responsible, so request that.

Identify fixed points:
Some cultures won’t change regardless of your efforts. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It’s in your best interest to do everything you can to make this role your own. But knowing when to cut your losses is important too. It will protect you from burnout and fatigue. If the leadership at your institution has chosen to implement and perpetuate unwieldy processes that you can’t alter or impact, then you have to decide if you can live with that.

Can you make your peace with an environment that is too set in its ways to change? Is there enough there that suits you? Are other parts of your job functional, dynamic, and satisfying?

MacLeod notes: “You’ll need to find a way to let go of your work … you’ll need to find other things in your life that you can pursue and enjoy. The job can’t be the focus or a source of much satisfaction (if you continue to be usurped).”

One of the wonderful aspects of university employment is that there is often room to move within the university. Is that a possibility in your case or does the dysfunction run too deep? If you have discovered that the environment won’t change, it becomes all about your ability to focus on what you enjoy about your workplace and to work around the productivity obstacles.

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