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Working to rule?

Updated Friday 2nd October 2009


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Questions such as these have fascinated sociologists for more than a century. The German sociologist Max Weber identified what he described as the formal rationality of rule-based bureaucratic organizations - i.e. the predictability of organizational outcomes as a result of expertly trained people following established organisational rules as a key element of their increasing success.

These ideas and a series of studies led many organizational theorists to argue that the ‘bureaucratisation’ of our society was both increasing and inevitable. For example over 50 years ago, Alvin Gouldner carried out an extensive study of the below and above-ground management operations of a gypsum mine. His work suggested that there were a number of different types of bureaucracy:

  • representative bureaucracy
  • punishment-centred bureaucracy
  • mock bureaucracy

Each of these exhibited different attitudes to rule-following.

Office blocks at night Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Charles Crosbie, under Creative Commons licence.

Office blocks at night.

[Image: Charles Crosbie, under Creative Commons licence.]

Although in a mock bureaucracy a rule might exist, nobody paid much attention to it. Gouldner, writing of 50s America discussed the attitudes at the mine to the ‘no smoking’ rule. Despite a plethora of signs, one miner is quoted as saying

‘We can smoke as much as we want. When the fire inspector comes around, everybody is warned earlier… The Company doesn’t mind’.

This attitude was in stark contrast to that towards safety. Perhaps for reasons of enlightened self-interest, people here adhered closely to the rules. Safety systems supported by paperwork were devised and relevant statistics collated carefully. In the third bureaucratic type Gouldner identified, not following a rule resulted in direct punishment. Perhaps times have changed. Gouldner found who initiated the rules, whose values were enforced, explanation of why rules were ‘broken’ and how they affected peoples’ organizational status differed markedly between these three organizational types.

In mock bureaucracies, Gouldner found no-one paid much attention to the rules, there was little conflict between different interest groups and joint ‘rule-breaking’ served to reinforce community spirit.

In representative bureaucracies, however, everyone enforced the rules. This might create some tension, but, since there was general agreement on what the rules ought to be, there was little conflict. Indeed, there was a sense in which everyone pulled together to ensure that rules were followed.

The situation in punishment-centered bureaucracies, however, was rather different. Rules set by one group were evaded by others, tension and conflict were rife and rule-breaking led to punishment that reinforced the entrenched (and often negative) attitudes of one group about the other. So what, if any, lessons can be applied from these ideas and historical studies to the present day?

The ‘formal rationality’ described by Max Weber referred to procedures that determine, in numerical or legal terms, how the efficiency of bureaucratic rule-following can be measured. As Weber was at pains to point out, however, just because we can quantify and monitor something, doesn’t guarantee that the rules produce efficiency. Recent evidence- not least from the English National Health and police services - suggest that bureaucratic performance targets can become something of a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Targets may divert peoples’ attention away from other, perhaps more important, concerns. Rule-following and target-achievement can become displacement activities which become ends in themselves. This phenomenon is referred to as bureaucratic dysfunction.

Although there is a lot of quantitative data available about public sector performance, and as such, it provides an easy target, clearly dysfunctional behaviour is not a public sector preserve. Private sector investment bankers’ remuneration provides a topical, if now rather well-worn, example of just how badly wrong things can go for everyone if highly-motivated and talented people zealously apply particular rules.

Given the tumultuous economic and social changes such ‘rule-following’ has bought about, perhaps this is a good time to re-think whether or not tighter control is the only, or indeed the right, solution to achieving the sustainable and efficient socio-economic organisation of work.

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