The Bureaucracy of Self

April 2011

Most of us are familiar with bureaucracy. We run into it everyday when we interact with an organization, particularly governmental ones.

My definition of bureaucracy is quite simple: it’s when a system puts greater importance on its internal policies and priorities than on its customers or constituents. In systems thinking, we call this a “closed system,” where input from outside the system is unwanted, deflected or repelled. It could be summed up by this: “I was really getting lots of work done until a customer interrupted me.”

Some bureaucracy is certainly required. After all, infrastructure is essential for any established organization. But when people inside the organization become focused on internal matters at the expense of the external business, the system bogs down in a bureaucratic quagmire. It becomes dysfunctional.

Do bureaucracies only exist in organizations? Can they exist in individuals? I suggest they do occur and probably more than we’d like to admit.

When we become so internally focused that we ignore or disinvite feedback, consciously or unconsciously, we are being bureaucratic. When our primary interest lies in our routines, our habits, our thinking, our “organization of one” becomes bureaucratic. This “bureaucracy of self” can be just as intractable as the most bureaucratic government organization.

One of the ways personal bureaucracy shows up is by resisting change of all kinds. Closed systems are heavily-defended fortresses, committed to fighting any attempts to make changes, introduce new ideas or new ways of doing things. All attempts to change are seen as assaults on the staunchly defended status quo.


We see lots of this with older people, and we call it being “set in their ways.” But what about those of us who are still in the game and engaged in the world, not ready for the retirement home? I know plenty of individuals who fit this bill. How about you?

Some of my corporate consultant friends deal with busting organizational bureaucracies for a living, but how do we seek help in busting our individual bureaucracies? Remembering that closed systems are symptomatic of all bureaucracies, both individual and organizational, where are the consultants for individuals? And who are they?

Personal coaches and therapists are people to whom many turn when they feel bogged down. But if these people are not familiar with systems and how they work, they can be barely more than cheerleaders or simply “someone who will listen to me.”

So how do we bust our individual bureaucracies, our own closed system approach to living and working? The first step is to recognize whether or not we suffer from this inner-bureaucracy. Recognition confronts denial. Second, look at what effect this close system behavior has had on the people we love and the people with whom we live and work. What consequences have we caused? Then, it is time to assess our willingness to change. All of three steps require significant self-examination. Only after internal searching are we ready to engage in curing our individual dysfunctions.

Many of us can start making the changes we need to make. Once we’ve seen those characteristics we no longer wish to possess, we might be able to make the changes in our routines and habits on our own. A downside risk for this going-it-alone approach is that the process remains an internal one and there is great risk of self-deception, another characteristic of bureaucracy of self.

If we want help, we can interview coaches and therapists to see which ones work systemically, are familiar with systems dynamics and possess the skill to help us achieve permanent change. There are also the 12 Step approaches where one turns the problem over to a higher power or the support group approach of a trusted peers. All of these involve a relationship with someone outside of oneself which opens the previously-defended closed system.

My own approach to personal development is to remain open to learning, to embrace change and to welcome new relationships. And even with that, I sometimes find myself getting caught up in my own personal bureaucracy, my own dysfunctions, my own attachments and my own closed system.

I’d like to end with a quote I included in my blog this month over at the Global Dialogue Center CLICK HERE. It is by Scottish psychiatrist, Ronald Laing: “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change, until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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