Six Characteristics of Bureaucracy

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Max Weber was a Renaissance man in a changing world. Educated in law, history, philosophy and economics, he became one of the founders of the modern science of sociology – the study of society and its institutions. Weber defined modern bureaucracies as goal-oriented organizations that shared six characteristics. All were hierarchies with written rules and a specialized division of labor, where advancement was based on achievement, resulting in an efficient and impersonal organization.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Max Weber defined the six characteristics of bureaucracy as a formal hierarchical structure, management by rules, division of labor, achivement-focused advancement, efficient organization and impersonality.

A Formal Hierarchical Authority

Weber's theories, developed at the turn of the 20th century, helped define the economic and political systems emerging from the highly concentrated authority of hereditary rulers and their supporters. They defined many 20th-century institutions. Power in bureaucracies is vested in position, not person, and authority travels through the levels of the hierarchy based on agreed-upon functions.

Management By Rules

Bureaucracies depend upon written rules and communication. Effective bureaucracies depend on rules based on rational examination of problems and development of the most effective method of accomplishing objectives. Successful bureaucracies regularly review organization charts, employee policies, memos and methodologies – such as lean production techniques – to refine procedures and policies and improve efficiency and consistency of result.

Division of Labor

Ideally, organizational tasks are assigned in bureaucracies according to the specialized skills of the employees and the most efficient method of accomplishing goals. That's a lot of “ideality,” and in many bureaucracies, rules and structures become rigid and employees end up defending their job functions the way animals defend their turf. A well-designed organization develops realistic job descriptions and evaluative practices to guide employees and encourage collaboration rather than empire building.

Achievement-Based Advancement

As 20th century Europe urbanized, failures, such as the series of miscues following the assassination of the Austrian archduke that led to World War I, contributed to the rise of hierarchies based on competency. Advancement within or between the levels of bureaucracies were based on achievement and competency rather than influence or favor, as in traditional hierarchies. Meeting organizational and production goals benefit not just the bureaucracy but also its customers, clients or those otherwise dependent on its work. The “publish or perish” imperative, for example, measures achievement only when what is published enlarges knowledge or aids the cause.

Efficient Operations

Efficiency was, Weber insisted, one of the hallmarks of a bureaucracy. This might include harnessing technology in the office or factory, but it also applied to allocating resources and determining the most efficient way of producing products, delivering services or otherwise achieving the organization's goals. Regular evaluation of written rules and procedures, employee effectiveness and job function are all parts of forging an efficient bureaucracy.

Impersonal Environment

Bureaucracies depend on job descriptions and merit-based advancement, which is an improvement over feudal hereditary or charismatic absolutism. The emphasis on achievement and efficiency, however, can lead to the inability to respond to individual situations or needs and can concentrate power in the positions at the top of the hierarchy. Vigilance against limitations caused by “red tape” help keep a bureaucracy efficient, and involving employees in decision-making, evaluation and goal-setting at each level helps them become committed to creating a responsive organization.

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About the Author

An avid perennial gardener and old house owner, Laura Reynolds has had careers in teaching and juvenile justice. A retired municipal judgem Reynolds holds a degree in communications from Northern Illinois University. Her six children and stepchildren served as subjects of editorials during her tenure as a local newspaper editor.