How to Succeed in Bureaucracy without Really Trying – Part 1


Bureaucracies in contemporary U.S. society are as American as apple pie. Those who think they are wasteful, inefficient, unproductive, and incomprehensible, should just get over it, because they are here to stay. Almost everyone in professional life has worked, at one time or another, in a bureaucracy either in the public or private sector.  With a few adaptations to ordinary forms of human interaction, all of us can learn not only to survive, but to thrive in bureaucratic culture.

After working for over thirty years in a state university, I have developed a list of simple rules that anyone can follow to become a successful bureaucrat. Although these rules were developed in an academic environment, they should apply to any bureaucratic situation, but will have special validity for university life. Itemized below you will find the four most basic rules for bureaucratic success. (Feel free to add more as you wish.) In a subsequent posting I will pass along essential rules in the areas of budgeting, communication skills, and personnel management.

The 4 Basic Rules:

1. Always cover your rear.1 This is the most important rule, especially if you are incompetent and don’t really know what you’re doing. When things go wrong, protecting your posterior will shift the blame to someone else, but will not prevent you from taking credit when things go right.

2. Never embarrass a superior (especially your boss) in public, no matter how stupid or incompetent he or she might be.

3. As a corollary to the rule immediately above, never give those who report to you an opportunity to speak in public without first scripting their responses. It is essential to have your staff on “the same page” as you if you are to appear competent to your superiors, even if you aren’t. Staff who object to this practice can be dealt with by noting several of the techniques listed in a subsequent post under personnel management.

4. If for some reason you commit some egregious error and actually embarrass your boss, never defend yourself by saying it was an accident. Never admit a mistake. That will indicate to others that you are unqualified for your position (causing mirth and glee among those who might wish you harm). Instead, claim your action (folly) was a deliberate choice necessary for the good of the organization. If that approach seems inadvisable, then lie. Simply deny that what you did ever happened. Your immediate superior may well support your falsehood as he or she will likely suffer just as much as you for your incompetence.

The are the most basic rules. They are necessary for survival in bureaucratic life. In a subsequent post I will focus on those practices which, if mastered, will lead to higher levels of achievement in any bureaucracy. Feel free with your comments to contribute  any rules you have discovered for navigating bureaucratic organizations.

1 Less genteel language is often used to reference this essential bureaucratic practice.

2 thoughts on “How to Succeed in Bureaucracy without Really Trying – Part 1

  1. Thank you for this entry. I am late/mid career coming out of operations into my first role in the bureaucracy. In all of my first roles, the only thing that mattered was costs going down while quality and OTD go up. This new role in the bureaucracy is very ‘through the looking glass’ for me and I really appreciate what you posted. PLEASE do some follow up entries!

    Liked by 1 person

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