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Free Yourself From the Shackles of Bureaucracy

May 10, 2021 by Twan van de Kerkhof

I consider Gary Hamel one of the greatest thinkers about management and leadership, but I am mixed about his latest book. The core message of Humanocracy is that bureaucracy doesn’t allow people to be human in their work; “bureaucracy makes assholes of us all”. Instead we need to create organizations that are as amazing as the people inside them, Hamel and co-author Zanini state. They say that the question should be: “What sort of organization elicits and merits the best that human beings can give?” instead of “How do we get human beings to better serve the organization”.

Hamel and Zanini keep whining about all the wrongs of bureaucracies. Page after boring page they go on and on, leaving the reader with the impression that all large organizations are mind-numbing and full of unhappy people. “The typical medium- or large-scale organization infantalizes employees, enforces dull conformity, and discourages entrepreneurship; it wedges people into narrow rules, stymies personal growth, and treats human beings as mere resources. (…) Worst of all, bureaucracies are soul-crushing.” Work is too often “a Monday through Friday kind of dying”. Maybe this is true for some or even many organizations, but I personally know many leaders and managers who love what they are doing and are dedicated to creating an inspiring environment.

They write that most of us have two distinct selves. “There is the professional self that shows up at work each day, and the private self that sticks its head out in the company of family and friends.” I don’t buy that. I have discussed this often with executives and at least for the Netherlands I don’t believe this is true. It might be more common in parts of the US and the City of London, but most people that I know don’t show much of a difference in their behavior at home or at work.

Despite their criticism the authors come up with many examples of traditional companies that have found innovative ways to revitalize their organizations. These examples prove that “it’s possible to build organizations that are big and fast, disciplined and empowering, efficient and entrepreurial, and bold and prudent.” They give examples like Southwest Airlines, Nucor (steel) and Morning Star (tomatoes) in the US, Buurtzorg (healthcare) in the Netherlands, Michelin (tires) in France, Haier (appliances) in China and Svenska Handelsbanken in Sweden. The great thing about this book is that their examples are very well-researched and detailed and full of practical examples that many leaders can start to use tomorrow, although the authors add that humanocracy is more about belief systems than about practices.

At Nucor for example blue-collar workers are trained in commercial skills, enabling them to participate in decisions about working capital management, hiring people and investing in new equipment. Production teams also make regular customer visits, helping them understand how customers use the products that they make. At W.L. Gore, compensation is divorced from rank, but is based on an annual rating of your contribution by peers. At Southwest Airlines frontline teams know that they have the freedom to do whatever it takes to serve the customer, like helping a couple arrange a midair wedding.

One of Hamel’s and Zanini’s primary goals is to turn every job into a good job, to “elicit the everyday genius of every human being”, to “free the human spirit from the shackles of bureaucracy”. For those who are willing to dig through the tiresome denouncements a plethora of workable ideas can be reclaimed.

Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini. Humanocracy. Creating organizations as amazing as the people inside them. Harvard Business Review Press, 2020