8.3 Bureaucracy checklists

Key Properties

Topic Bureaucratic syndrome Non-bureaucratic syndrome
Organizational goals Societal goals of the organization are only adhered in name, but neither understood nor clearly implemented Development of a broadly shared vision about the societal reason d’être of the organization and the way to realize it
Overall strategy Stimulating sameness and oneness through standardization and obedience Continual skilled improvisation on the basis of a shared vision and well-chosen procedures
Competence Ignoring, discouraging, and demoralizing competent “subordinates” Relying on and fostering all proven and budding competencies in the organization
Autonomy Subordinate autonomy is not an option. Obedience is more important than competence Autonomy and competence development of subordinates expected
Content Complete disregard of content while favoring form Content is leading, form a means
Organizational development Structures and procedures adapt to the lowest competence level Everyone is expected to learn and grow towards autonomous roles in organization

Main conflicts

Topic Bureaucratic syndrome Non-bureaucratic syndrome
Stability versus development Stability and other forms of high predictability leading. This defines the organization The workers in the organization are constantly developing their skills in order to improve all aspects of the societal role of the organization (i.e., quality and efficiency)
Form versus optimization Obsessed with form and formalisms. Centralized optimization of standard responsibilities Actively eliciting creative and decentralized optimization of organizational goals. Disregard of form when counter-productive
Standardization versus diversity Obsession with standardization and curtailing diversity, at the cost of quality if quality entails diversity. Concerned with the overall optimization of all work processes in context, of which both standardization and increasing diversity are options
Error versus learning Obsessed with preventing errors and mistakes. The organization redefines itself to produce what it can, not what it should; “race to the bottom” Error and correction after error part of continual creative optimization of work processes
Short versus long term Exclusively short-term (form) oriented, no care for or understanding of mid of long term goals Optimization on all time-scales and all dimensions of success

Structural properties

Topic Bureaucratic syndrome Non-bureaucratic syndrome
Role of hierarchy Hierarchy formalized and inflexible, based on assumed competence of superiors Hierarchy task dependent, and therefore flexible and competence-based
Perception of authorities Authorities never fundamentally questioned Incompetent authorities not accepted, but coached or dismissed.
Locus of control Formation of stable authoritarian cliques, who take control over the institutional change processes to prevent further complexity Loosely and varyingly linked libertarians at control positions.
Measures of success Performance measures redefined to what is delivered Performance measure based on what should be delivered (given reason d’être)
Accountability Suppression of all forms of accountability at the higher levels and prevention of errors and retribution in case of error at the lower levels Accountability part of normal institutional learning and competence building.


Topic Bureaucratic syndrome Non-bureaucratic syndrome
Overall role of emotions Rationality and “objectivity” leading. Emotions treated as irrelevant source of variation, to be suppressed Central role of positive emotions (compassion, enthusiasm, interest) as key motivators; pervasive negative emotions indicative of organizational failure
Emotion of workers Motivating emotion negative: activities guided by the fear of losing control Motivating emotion positive: activities aimed at realizing shared benefits
Emotions of co-workers (esp. lower in the hierarchy) Disregard of the feelings and emotional wellbeing of co-workers and clients Strong focus on the creation of optimal working condition in which coworkers feel optimally motivated to give their best

Red flags

Red flag
Vision The absence or insufficiency of a shared, living vision about the organization’s goals in a larger societal context
Leaders Leaders insensitive to reasoned arguments by competent individuals at any position in the organization
Leaders only sensitive to arguments related to goal achievement or procedure: realizable goals are preferred over desirable goals
Leaders preferring obedience over autonomy and who curtail work-floor autonomy
Competences Neglect of work-floor competences
Demotivation of highly autonomous, competent and committed co-workers
Gradual deterioration of quality of the working environment, the most competent and committed co-workers leaving
Standardization at the cost of curtailing of essential/useful diversity
Uniformization Strong focus on formalities while neglecting (or indefinitely) postponing content
Compartmentalization of information and plans


  • Stenner, K. (2005). The authoritarian dynamic (First Edition.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Stenner, K. (2009a). “Conservatism,” Context-Dependence, and Cognitive Incapacity. Psychological Inquiry, 20(2), 189–195.
  • Stenner, K. (2009b). Three Kinds of “Conservatism.” Psychological Inquiry, 20(2), 142–159. doi:10.1080/10478400903028615
  • van rossum, E. J., & Hamer, R. (2010, May 26). The Meaning of Learning and Knowing. (J. Vermunt, Ed.). University of Utrecht.