Bureaucracy in Business: How to Deal With Red Tape at Work

Bureaucracy in Business: How to Deal With Red Tape at Work

Have you ever gotten locked out of your computer while you’re at work? The good news, according to IT, is that support is available on their website-which you have no way to access since, well, you’re locked out of your computer. 

If you work in an office, you might be able to relate to this example from Martin Lindstrom’s book, The Ministry of Common Sense. This is just one example of red tape and bureaucracy in business. So, what are the causes of red tape and, more importantly, what can be done to reduce it? 

Focused woman working from home, on a call and reviewing documents with her laptop open.

To help understand the cause, consider another illustration the psychologist Barry Schwartz uses in his TED talk titled “Our Loss of Wisdom”. He shows a job description of a hospital janitor and points out that “all of the items on it are unremarkable. They’re the things you would expect: mop the floors, sweep them, empty the trash, restock the cabinets. It may be a little surprising how many things there are, but it’s not surprising what they are. But the one thing I want you to notice about them is this: even though this is a very long list, there isn’t a single thing on it that involves other human beings. Not one.”

How to Deal with Red Tape at Work 

What does this have to do with red tape and bureaucracy in business? The leading cause of red tap in business, according to Lindstrom, is a lack of empathy. As he puts it, companies need to remember that, “their customers are human, not numbers and their employees are too. (This sounds incredibly obvious. It’s not.)” To see why this point is important, consider the example of the janitor’s job description in light of what Schwartz goes on to discuss in his talk:

“When some psychologists interviewed hospital janitors to get a sense of what they thought their jobs were like, they encountered Mike, who told them about how he stopped mopping the floor because Mr. Jones was out of his bed getting a little exercise, trying to build up his strength, walking slowly up and down the hall. And Charlene told them about how she ignored her supervisor’s admonition and didn’t vacuum the visitor’s lounge because there were some family members who were there all day, every day who, at this moment, happened to be taking a nap. Behavior like this doesn’t just make people feel a little better, it actually improves the quality of patient care and enables hospitals to run well.”

These are people who saw their job in terms of one human being having an impact on other human beings. They saw beyond their job description and the rules that governed it and treated people like people. They saw that there was a job that needed to be done, but it was no one’s job to do. They took it upon themselves to do it.

Bureaucracy in business exists because it is no one’s job to reduce it or eliminate it. Many people’s jobs involve following the rules. No one’s job is to ask whether the rule makes sense or not. If you want to deal with red tape at work, it has to be someone’s job to deal with it. It has to be someone’s job to ask how these rules and procedures impact other employees, customers, clients, and other stakeholders in the organization. 

An important step in this process is to empower employees in the organization. Encouraging employees to consider the impact of rules, and allowing them to bend those rules would result in a better outcome. 

Other important steps to take to deal with red tape would include hiring people who can exercise good judgment and then giving them the autonomy to use that judgment. This is sometimes referred to as “lateral leadership”. 

Ultimately, it takes an organizational culture that focuses on human-to-human interactions and a willingness to support learning through the inevitable mistakes that will occur as the people in the organization learn to use good judgment. 

As Barry Schwartz concludes in his Ted talk, “If you run an organization, you should be sure that none of the jobs-none of the jobs-have job descriptions like the job descriptions of the janitors. Because the truth is that any work that you do that involves interaction with other people is moral work. And any moral work depends upon practical wisdom.” 


Red tape is primarily caused by a lack of empathy. In order to reduce red tape, it is important to remember the impact that rules and policies will have on employees.

Two ways to achieve this are to empower employees in the organization to make judgments about how rules and policies are applied, and to make it someone’s job to ensure that common sense is used in the creation and implementation of those policies.  Sign up for a free demo of our leadership and management training program to learn more.  

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