Bureaucracy sucks. Walmart CEO Doug McMillion refers to it as a “villain.” Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, Charlie Munger, said bureaucracy should be treated like “the cancers they so much resemble.” Jamie Dimon, CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase, calls it “a disease.” These leaders understand that bureaucracy “saps initiative, inhibits risk-taking, and crushes creativity. It’s a tax on human achievement.”
Due to the political nature of airlines and airports, it is hard to find a place where bureaucracy does not run rampant. By design, bureaucracy is primarily a function of political environments, which both undoubtedly approximate. Further, the more complex an organization becomes, the more layers you will likely encounter.
Dimon recalls an adviser once defending bureaucracy, stating that “necessary outcome of complex businesses operating in complex international and regulatory environments.” According to the article, since 1983, the number of managers, supervisors, and administrators in the U.S. workforce has grown by 100%. In that time, the growth of all other workers has only increased by 44%. Harvard Business Review performed a survey where over two-thirds of respondents reported rising bureaucracy within their organization.
An argument can be made that the ends justify the means if it makes organizations more productive, right? Well, the data does not support that assertion, either. Between 1948 and 2004, labor productivity from non-financial firms grew an average of 2.5% yearly. Since 2004, the growth has dropped to only 1.1% annually. In large companies with over 5,000 employees, organizational structures average eight levels of management.
A plethora of other statistics bolster the point that bureaucracy is evil, yet it seems to grow stronger by the day. Many look at start-ups as a possible antidote due to the ability to start fresh and build an ideal organization. Even large companies such as Uber, Airbnb, and Farfetch hold many ideals from their early days as tech startups. It seems to be much harder to tear down levels of bureaucracy than it is to build them up, so it is essential now to analyze and determine what we can do to mitigate the effects on our end.
Aviation startups are relatively rare, with such a high barrier to entry. In a highly-regulated environment like the United States, we went 14 years before new carriers Avelo Airlines and Breeze Airways launched scheduled commercial air service. The result is an overabundance of organizations set in their ways with little need to acclimate to survive.
What Can We Do?
Once I learned of the concept of bureaucracy and how toxic working in such an environment is, I started reading up on what I could do to help negate its effects as best as possible. One of the early leadership books I read is Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win, a joint effort between Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, discussing decentralized command.
A symptom of a bureaucratic environment is an organization that feels helpless. Decentralized command entrusts your employees while sustaining control over the team's direction. Jocko defines decentralized command as:
“Decentralized command simply means that everybody leads. That’s what you want as a leader. Not just for everybody on the team to be able to lead, but for everybody on the team to be actually leading. It’s often counterintuitive, but it’s also extremely powerful.”
The opposite of decentralized command is micromanagement. Yet, we must be careful with our application of this convention. An improper decentralized command may result in a group of people moving individually, which does not help the company. Effective teamwork is when output equals more than the sum of its parts.
However, giving employees the desired responsibility gives them a reason to devote themselves. The proper decentralized command will also free up more time for you to handle more critical tasks. According to Willink and Babin, there are various benefits to instituting this theory.
Lead with minimal force. At face value, this may seem like an excuse for leaders to do less, but this is a signal of successful leadership. Minimal power can only be exerted if everyone is on the same page, comprehends the mission, and understands their role and responsibilities. Your only direction is to execute.
If you find yourself constantly correcting others, over-delegating simple tasks, or are frustrated with non-critical outcomes, odds are you are micromanaging. The best solution is often to give an end goal and allow them to figure out how to get there.
I was initially stunned by how many employees were unsure of themselves when allowed to develop their plans. Suppose employees are conditioned only to do what they are told or feel like their actions are critiqued. In this environment, you will have to expend significantly more energy than usual - an unnecessary emotional investment.
Train people to take your job. Jocko often refers to how counterintuitive decentralized command can be, and this is certainly no exception. The biggest misconception with this idea is that training people as leaders will make you redundant, which is not the case.
You are not training people to cancel yourself out. This thought means you are preparing the next wave of leaders to handle subtasks and to help build a culture centered around the mission. If your team has an unclear purpose, members will not know how their actions impact the team's direction.
Further, you will not be buried in the minutiae of basic questions. The more others understand the goal, the more they will feel responsible for guiding other members. These people will not wait for directions to execute. If you find yourself telling people how they should act or feel, odds are the members do not understand the mission.
If you sense training others will threaten your validation, you also assume you hold all the answers. Invariably, people will specialize in areas you are weak in, which indeed exist. I believe I am very self-aware of my weaknesses and know best who covers those gaps best. If you do it correctly, you will learn from others and improve in those areas over time.
Put guardrails in place. It is okay to provide some guidance. Mindless directions are a recipe for failure, mainly if members perform a task for the first time. You want employees to feel adequately competent, which will not happen if they fail miserably. Employees should be able to “brush up against the guardrails of failure” before accomplishing their mission.
Approaching assignments somewhat Socratically can help employees figure out where boundaries lie. By asking questions, you both remain flexible enough to adjust your perspective while allowing others to see your thought process. This will enable them to think as leaders and correct their assumptions to accomplish their tasks, positively influencing future decisions.
For example, say we need to close a taxiway for aircraft parking. I will usually be asked how long the NOTAM should be issued, which I typically defer to the employee, but not without first articulating their reasoning. No harm, no foul.
Usually, the proposed period of validity is shorter than anticipated. So, I may respond with something like, “I understand. The mechanic said he was waiting for a part. It could be several days, so ensure we reissue it tomorrow.” This will usually be enough for them to discern that the NOTAM can be issued for a more extended period and canceled should it be over-estimated.
Noteworthy is the idea that there is no right or wrong answer; both are acceptable methods for accomplishing the task. However, one is notably more effective than the other. Likely, they won’t land on the most practical solution on the first try - if the task has relatively little operational impact, allow them to see the idea out for themselves. This is how people learn.
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.
As I mentioned, there are specific industries that are bureaucratic by nature. Several agencies regulate airports, such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Administration. Pilots are subject to F.A.A. and their company’s regulations when shooting an approach. A ground service team might have several different requirements set by airlines for servicing the same type of aircraft.
Most of these regulations are necessary for safety and are not going anywhere. This is an accepted fact, but we must not feel helpless. This is a classic example of how there needs to be balance, which is where we come in.
Like always, we must start by determining what we can and cannot control. Knowing the factors we influence over, the next step is challenging the process. A static organization will quash the employees with it, unbeknownst to them. There is always room for improvement, and we should not seek only to maintain the status quo. Especially in such a dynamic industry, the status quo changes daily.
There will inevitably be factors out of our control. Everything starts at the top, and we are all intrinsically motivated. It is easy to see how one individual’s power complex can grow out of control and affect everyone below them. Anyone perceived as a threat puts themselves in the crosshairs, usually with their motivation being squashed as best as possible to drive them away - the opposite of building the next leaders. Unfortunately, changing someone set in their ways is a tall order.
It is our responsibility to do what we can to alleviate the effects of bureaucracy we can control as best as possible. Decentralized command is a tool to influence the status quo positively, but it does not stop there. People will learn to act in their best interest for growth, contradictory to bureaucracy, and be able to identify the flaws in a poor culture and attribute personal responsibility to changing direction.
Odds are, if this resonates with you, that you are unhappy with where you work. But you likely also know the grass is not always greener on the other side. You will eventually find somewhere to thrive, that much I am sure of. However, in the meantime, just trying to build a culture conducive to personal development is often enough to provide a feeling of accomplishment in a sea of misery.
This is likely not the last time you will hear about this book or the concept of decentralized command. Stay tuned for more heartful content shortly. :)