Briefly identify the main features of Bureaucratic Organizations. Why has bureaucracy been accused of wiping out the individual responsibility of the employee?

with 25 comments

1 Hour to exam, and I have prepared the above question for it. Might as well publish it here in case I die in the examination hall because it never came out.


Every organization has a certain objective to achieve. However, members of the organizations do not necessarily share the same objectives, and therefore, a need for control over their activities arises so that the company is able to meet their objectives. Authority therefore is needed to advance and achieve the objective of an organization.

Bureaucracy is a form of authority using structures and sets of regulation in place to control activity. It is represented by standardized procedure (rule-following) that dictates the execution of most or all process within the body. It is one of the most efficient and fair way of control over an organization, but however, is often accused of wiping out individual responsibility of the members in the organization.

In this essay, I am going to discuss about bureaucracy and how it wipes out individual responsibility. First, I am going to talk about the main features of a Bureaucratic Organization and the advantages & disadvantages of it. After that, we will discuss on why bureaucracy has been accused of wiping out individual responsibility of the employee. We will then end off by addressing several ways organizations can improve themselves and return individual responsibility to the employees.

Bureaucratic Organization

Max Weber is one of the most influential proponents of bureaucracy. He sees bureaucracy as technically superior over other organizational forms in precision, speed, lack of ambiguity, continuity, unity & uniformity, effective discipline & objectivity. As he described:

“The decisive reason for the advance of bureaucratic organization has always been its purely technical superiority over any other form of organization. The fully developed bureaucratic mechanism compares with other organizations exactly as does the machine with the non-mechanical modes of production.”

He formed certain ideas on what an ideal bureaucracy would be like and defined. In this section, we shall discuss about Weber’s idea on the basic elements of the bureaucratic organization.

Basic Elements of Bureaucracy

The basic elements of the bureaucratic organizations are Written rights & responsibility, Hierarchical Order of Authority, Formal Appointment / Promotion, Expert / Technical Training, Fixed Monetary Salaries, Administration as a Full-time Occupation and the separation of Office & Person. We will discuss the following below:

Written Rights & Responsibility

In a bureaucratic organization, rules & guidelines are all written down on paper, and employees are expected to work within the confines of this rules & guidelines. Job & departmental responsibilities are also stated clearly, and employees are to work within their specified areas. It is a cardinal principal that the incumbent in this position should never overstep the bounds of his authority.

Hierarchical Order of Authority

The organization has a order of hierarchy and the division of power involves the ranking of offices to provide a clear chain of command. In bureaucracies, the hierarchy is also typically complex leading to many levels providing a highly differentiated structure of authority.

Formal Appointment / Promotion

Appointments & Promotion of officers are formal, with specific titles and power which come from the office assigned to them.

Expert / Technical Training

Employees are employed base on their technical competency in their position of employment. Factors like luck, favoritism or personal connection should play no part in the postion the officials attains; advancement should be decided by expertise and ability alone.

Fixed Monetary Salaries

Employees are paid on a pre-agreed salary between the employer and employee. Salaries are tied to a pay grade system, with all employees in a certain pay grade drawing similar amount of salary. As they are promoted, they move forward in the pay grade, drawing a fixed salary for that particular position.

Administration as a Full-time Occupation

Labor in the organization is divided into various portions, with a group of people doing fully administrative work.

Separation of Office and Person

All dealings within the bureaucracy and with clients should be conducted on the basis of equal treatment according to procedural routine. The objective conduct of business should be free from any personal feelings.

As Weber describe,

A Bureaucratic Officer

With the above elements of a bureaucratic organization spelled out, we can draw out that an ideal bureaucratic officer is personally free and appointed to his position on the basis of conduct & his technical qualification for the job. He exercises the authority delegated to him in accordance with impersonal rules, and his or her loyalty is enlisted on behalf of the faithful execution of his official duties. Administrative work would be his full-time career and work is rewarded by a regular salary and prospects of advancement in a lifetime career. A bureaucratic officer need to exercise his own judgment and skills, but his duty is to be place these at the service of a higher bureaucratic officer, who follows the same rule, place the product of his judgment and skills to the next higher officer and so on.

Accusation: Wiping out individual responsibility of employee

Bureaucracy has often been accused of wiping out individual responsibility of employee. We shall first examine the various critique of bureaucracy and then on practical observation of bureaucracy at work.

In my approach to this accusation of bureaucracy, we will first explore how bureaucracy dehumanize employees, how the core bureaucratic believe of rationality makes irrational people and finally, how bureaucracy causes goal displacement.


According to the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, rationality lies in daring to know, in having the courage to use one’s own reason rather than rely upon the authority of others.

However, rationality according to bureaucracy seems to be the exact opposite of how it is defined above. For an organization to be rational, it must eradicate irrational behavior that humans are likely to succumb to, and to do that, they would have to prohibit the capacity for discretion by ascertaining certain rules for people to follow. It is deemed important for a bureaucratic organization to maintain their structure, using rules to take out unpredictability of individual human beings. Human are not seen as individuals, they are like machines, predictability working together in harmony to achieve the goal of the organization. With everything recorded and written down, everyone following rules and regulation set out by the organization, it does rob people away from their responsibility, their freedom to use their own reasoning to work out situation placed upon them in the organization.

In bureaucracy, there is also a sharp divide in the division of labor. Information is also not fully available to all (due to the enormousity of organization or management control of information), and most people working in it will never see the full picture of the organization, and how certain decision made at one end of the organization will affect the other end of the organization, more so with globalization where the top management is usually far away from the production workers of the product. With many of the managers having insufficient information, how could they be responsible for certain actions that they carry out? This, too rob employees of their responsibility.

Formal & Substantive Rationality

Rationality, could also be seen as a dichotomy – Formal or Substantive rationality. The issue here is that whether we question the ends it serve, or the means to the ends. An example of this would be the Nazi Holocaust. The Nazi represents the extreme application of bureaucratic logic. With a system of rules, they are able to register and monitor the population of the Jews and other categories of people who they opposed to. They are able to systematically transport people from 1 camp to another, and then to exterminate them systematically. Are they Substantively Rational? According to my view, and I believe the ground soldiers carrying out this orders, they are not. Are they formally rational? Yes, with this systematic way of doing things, they are very efficient in what they do.

Many modern organizations are formally rational, but some of them could be substantively irrational. As we move away from the extreme case, it would be very difficult to define what is substantively rational.

Moving back to the discussion on individual responsibility of employees, the requirement for formal rationality could means that sometimes, they have to do things that seems substantively irrational to them. Take for example the recent case in Melamine poisoning of milk in China. In order to make milk to appear to have more protein in certain analysis test done by the regulatory body, they added in Melamine to make the milk appear to have a higher protein concentration. This is formally rational, as they could dilute the milk so as to sell more of it. However, looking at the number of babies that died, it is substantively irrational to everyone else. Knowing of the consequences to the consumer, substantively, the people involved in the whole production of the milk should raise the alarm and alert the authority of this misdeed. However, given that the workers are formally rational, they would prefer to keep their jobs and their belly filled then watch the company go down. It took great courage & moral standing for the executive in Fonterra, Sanlu business partner to blow the whistle on this. Is it substantively rational for them to do that? Yes. Formally rational? No, they lose their investment when the company goes down.

In the light of formal rationality, it does affect employees on their decision, looking at the consequences they would face if they were to stand up to their ethics and morals. If they do not voice out, nothing will happen to them as it is not them who make the decision, it is always someone higher up in the hierarchy that makes it. Thus in this modern case that we see, bureaucracy does rob employee of their personal responsibility, where many people choose to do nothing at an apparent wrong doing their organization is committing.

Other then Sanlu, there are various other organization that faces the same dichotomy, Nike & their sweatshops, Shell & their ties with Nigerian militant and DeBeers & their blood diamonds. For Sanlu, the “responsible” people have been punished, but for Nike, Shell & Debeers, no one is responsible for anything.

Goal Displacement

Merton (1940) argues that bureaucracy has an inbuilt tendency to focus on means and not ends, to degenerate to the situation where the means becomes an end in itself. Suppose a security guard at a factory is suppose to follow a rule, that no one without a pass could enter the factory. The purpose of this rule is to protect the factory, and the means is the security guard checking passes. One day, the Managing Director arrived early for a meeting. The factory is in trouble and the MD is supposed to meet the creditor on that day. The security guard recognized the MD, but will not let her enter without a pass. Rules are rules, he says. So the MD fails to make the meeting and the factory closes down. The security guard’s goal of protecting the factory has been displaced, so that the means of checking passes has become an end to itself.

Many employees would never see the goal of their job, but more of the description, the means of the organization which they are employed to carry out. If they employee are contracted to work in accordance to a set of rules, how could they be responsible for their actions if they work within the confine of the rules? This again robs employees of their responsibility.


We can see that Bureaucracy is an effective means of organization, but however, it does and is robbing people working in them of their responsibility by dehumanizing the employee by seeing them as part of the machine suppose to achieve a specific task, by having formal rationality being seen as more important as substantive responsibility, and by goal displacement, where employees see the means, but not the goals of the organization.

Modern organizations however are changing, and many are moving into Human Relations Theory & Job Redesign to empower their employees. Bureaucracy is a crude, ugly machine that is able to churn out products achieving goals of the organization. As it is seen and is already the way to manage organization, it is time to start beautifying and improving on the piece of machinery, to add in certain variable one at a time to see whether it will improve to be a better tool of management.

Written by weekoh

February 28, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

25 Responses

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  1. wonderfull piece of writing


    February 22, 2010 at 6:25 am

  2. 1.why do people have nagetive filling about bureaucracy.
    2. what responsible for the rad-tapes in bureaucracy.

    with all structure of bureau which is hancou on rule and regulations.

    isah friday

    September 24, 2010 at 6:44 pm

  3. That was really informative! Glad I stumbled upon it !


    April 10, 2011 at 10:56 pm

  4. I like your urgument.


    July 1, 2011 at 7:33 pm

  5. Thanks for your clear and wonderful explanation. Indeed you are another scholar.

    Dominic Too

    September 15, 2011 at 4:20 pm

  6. thanks for the clearance

    Shamin Iqbal

    November 3, 2011 at 1:17 pm

  7. Not what I want

    Okoye Izuchukwu John

    February 27, 2012 at 7:14 am

  8. What are the main advantages and disadvantages of the bureaucratic form organisation.


    July 24, 2012 at 7:01 pm

  9. Nice 1, am highly interested in dis writing.


    September 12, 2012 at 8:13 pm

  10. thanks u have really help alot


    November 13, 2012 at 6:56 pm

  11. Is it only on individual responsibilities being wiped out?can you make some clearance on the area of fixed salary payment.

    lawal olaniyi

    March 27, 2013 at 12:47 pm

  12. Asante kwa usaidizi

    Bauber Reagan

    April 8, 2013 at 4:20 pm

  13. It helpful

    Odusole anuoluwapo temitope

    May 3, 2013 at 4:42 pm

  14. Thank you


    May 17, 2013 at 5:19 pm

  15. Thanks

    Lawal yunusa

    September 4, 2013 at 8:01 pm

  16. Education have no limits, such a polite explanation of bureaucracy, beautiful and handsom to the ear of the wise.

    alpha nchandom

    August 6, 2014 at 4:17 pm

  17. could the features of bureaucracy be the same as the elements of bureaucracy?

    vivian viv

    August 22, 2014 at 10:34 pm

  18. What are features of non-bureacratic organisation

    Stanley njuguna nderitu

    October 23, 2014 at 2:26 am

  19. Is the bureacratic organization related to formal structure? And Is the non bureaucratic organization related to informal structure?

    April Ju

    January 31, 2015 at 3:43 pm

  20. why is school a bureaucratic organization


    July 9, 2015 at 3:20 pm

  21. u really break this topic to my uderstanding more power to ur elbow


    August 4, 2015 at 11:05 pm

  22. Was really helpful

    Andy Dean

    April 8, 2016 at 7:53 am

  23. tnks 4 ur support


    October 21, 2016 at 12:41 am

  24. Thanks so much for your detailed work on bureaucratic order. I find it helpful always.


    November 23, 2016 at 1:42 am

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