The New Management Style of the New Bureaucrat

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As the public service changes and let’s not doubt it is changing quite a bit, the need for a new management style emerges due to a much different set of employees to manage. I’ve argued before about the evolving public service from the point of view of an employee. Today, I’d like to address how a leader has to evolve in the public service to meet the new bureaucracy.

The following quote from Office Space represents the old system albeit a bit exaggerated but nonetheless one that resonates with many cubicle workers. It represents several age old problems that are stereotypical at this point including: pointless bureaucracy, micromanagement and a command and control management structure.

Office Space Quotes

Bill Lumbergh: Hello, Peter. What’s happening? Uh…we have sort of a problem here. Yeah. You apparently didn’t put one of the new coversheets on your TPS reports.
Peter Gibbons: Oh, yeah. I’m sorry about that. I, I forgot.
Bill Lumbergh: Mmmm…yeah. You see, we’re putting the coversheets on all TPS reports now before they go out. Did you see the memo about this?
Peter Gibbons: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I have the memo right here. I just uh…forgot. But, uh, it’s not shipping out till tomorrow, so there’s no problem.
Bill Lumbergh: Yeah. If you could just go ahead and make sure you do that from now on, that will be great. And uh, I’ll go ahead and make sure you get another copy of that memo. Mmmkay? Bye bye, Peter.
Peter Gibbons: No, I…I have the memo. I’ve got it. It’s right…
[Lumbergh isn’t listening and walks away from Peter’s cubicle]

In the old management system, the top down “command and control” structure used a paycheck and continued employment as motivation and incentive to do your work. Command and control management was derived from military style management, where orders were given and orders were followed and the only motivator was to serve. This management style was extremely popular and to this day is still prominent in many organizations if I am to believe the articles and blog posts I’ve read.

Tides are changing on what is considered the best management style. According to Harvard Business School,

Incorporating a command-and-control style is a sure-fire path to demotivation.

Similarly, Harvard Business Review, suggests a movement from control of processes and environment to one where people are free to share what they know. They go on to suggest:

“Command and control” is top-down, mean and nasty, and headed for extinction; “sharing” is bottom-up, nice and friendly, and the wave of the future.

So where does that leave the public service? The new bureaucrat manager needs to change to meet the new bureaucrat entering the public service. With the adoption of more open “social” tools, generation Y public servants expect more freedom, flexibility and openness than any generation before. To manage and motivate these employees, managers will need to adopt a bottom-up method of managing that recognizes the creativity and intelligence of their employees. If you are worried about giving freedom to your employees, then I suggest that you consider a new way of hiring your employees to make sure you get the best talent that instill the confidence you need to give the freedom they need to produce results and perform exceptionally.

Scott McNaughton, http://thenewbureaucrat.ca

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

Thanks, Scott. Got a link to that HBR article? I’d love to take a look at their overall assessment of management styles. I think “coaching” is en vogue these days.

Profile Photo Mark Addleson


Two points in response to a good piece. One is that we need to find a new language for work, period, including the work of government employees. Language is important. ‘Bureaucrat’ carries a whole lot of baggage from a century ago. Related to this, I hope you won’t mind a shameless plug for my book, Beyond Management: Taking Charge at Work (Palgrave Macmillan), because it deals, at length, with exactly the theme of your post. Government employees are knowledge workers. Though it has roots in military command structures, high-control management was invented for organizing factory-work, which was solitary, routine, repetitive, and mindless. Knowledge-work is none of these. Knowledge workers spend much of their time in conversation, organizing themselves. High-control management and knowledge-work are completely incompatible. Hence the need to ‘take charge at work’. ‘Taking charge’ includes replacing compliance with accountability. It’s a tough, long road ahead, but we need to take it.

Profile Photo Susan Pcola-Davis

WoW…I really am taken aback at this post. I am about 2.5 years to the ability to retire. I have actually left government serve once during my career, swearing I’d never come back, yet here I am. I certainly would like to see that a different management style emerge. No I am not a generation X or Y, I’m a baby boomer. I am the square peg that tried to fit in the round hole. I think that there are many of us still in federal service that do not appreciate the “command and control’ style, simplistic term as it may be. Most of us have experienced some of the subtleness, multifacted and complex nature of this style. This style does not appreciate that you came into the organization with a brain and knowledge. The fear is that someone will show someone else up because the “manager” has all the answers. If a subordinate speaks up then the manager has some sort of complex because he/she didn’t think of it first. A new style of management will emerge with the retirement of the command and control style. Until then, we will get put in our place, lose any creativity, forget about sharing, be reigned in, and then retire.

Profile Photo Scott McNaughton

Hi Mark and Susan,

I’m going to a bit of multi tasking here and address both your comments.

I understand that bureaucrat is seen as a “dirty word” and even the more modern “public servant” even has image issues. However, I’ve been a strong advocate for “opening the doors of the bureaucracy”. I sense that the public perception of bureaucrats is not positive, seeing us as lazy, unproductive and on Facebook all day. I’d prefer to change that perception to show that bureaucrats are hard working, smart, productive and truly and deeply care about the work they do. Instead of embracing the hatred of the word bureaucrat, let’s change the perception of the word and that can only begin if we open government and show off what we do. Words evolve over time and there is no reason bureaucrat can’t change!

Command and control is going away. Some personal experiences may vary among public servants but for the most part I see a new generation of managers coming up the ranks who sees things differently and understand that government workers are knowledge workers and that command and control cannot work.

I argue that the system itself is broken. For example, the fact that teleworking is not embraced or the fact that external facing social media have to go through communications approval. It is a systematic problem with the very culture of the public service. Individual managers are out there who do not embrace command and control but the very processes of the public service encourage command and control. Decisions in the public service are made by executives. Common sense from the public servant is often trumped by political concerns from above.

How do we solve this problem? We recognize the changing face of the public service. We recognize that employees don’t respond to the motivators they used to. We aim to start the dialogue about changing the processes and cultures.