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The Optimistic Bureaucracy

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Long-established bureaucracies can, sometimes, appear to be a little cynical. Toward their mission, toward their work routines, toward their staff, toward their chances of success. This cynicism can damage morale and become a self-fulfilling hypothesis. So it doesn’t hurt when bureaucratic organizations get an infusion of optimism from time to time that lets them rethink goals, capacities, and strategies.

In a study from 1998, Gerald Gabris, Stephen Maclin, and Douglas Ihrke write about organizational optimism. They argue that skepticism is the dominant paradigm in bureaucracies. Skepticism is, broadly, doubt about the ability of the organization to work efficiently and fulfill its goals. It also means that employees and leadership doubt each other. The result is minimal trust and a tendency toward mediocre performance.

Optimism, according to Gabris and colleagues, is the belief that through responsible use of rationality and knowledge, existing conditions can be improved: “Naive as it may seem, it is here presumed that people will try to do good when given genuine opportunities to do so” (p. 336). Organizational optimism is not about accepting the status quo; it’s about asking how things can be improved. It’s not “we’re doing a good job”, it’s “we can do a better job.” 

According to the authors, the dominant model in most bureaucracies since the 1950s has been moderate skepticism. The basic attributes of such organizations includes short-term incremental purpose, limited rationality, neo-classic bureaucratic administration, top-down hierarchy, outcomes are based on rules, controls, and compliance, conservative leadership preserving the status quo, and a bureaucratic worldview. Those organization produce results, but the cost for producing them may be high. A small shift to moderate optimism would mean long-term thinking, a focus on human relations, flat hierarchies, outcomes being based on cooperation, competence, and teamwork, organizational leaders as innovators, transformers, change agents. An optimistic approach to bureaucracy assumed that employees want to work, enjoy meaningful responsibility, can accomplish goals, and require only minimal supervision.

An optimistic organization is very much an issue of leadership. Conservative leadership, which is typical for public bureaucracies, is risk-averse. You survive by not standing out. Gabris, Maclin, and Ihrke argue, however, that public organizations “need leaders who will challenge the process, develop strategic visions, motivate employees, and aggressively pursue their common goals” (p. 341). The optimistic leader is about creating change. From the article: “From our perspective, leaders are change agents … who challenge the status quo, rock the boat, and are intrigued by adaptive puzzles posed by organizational environments (or internal processes within organizations). Importantly, optimistic leaders feel they can frame solutions to puzzles and subsequently influence the success of the organization” (p. 344).

There seems to be, then, a close relationship between optimistic organizations with optimistic leadership and the ability of organizations to effectively achieve long-term goals and to be a responsible actor in the market, in society, in the public system, or wherever the organization is active. Why am I bringing this up? Well, if you work in a development agency, or in any large bureaucracy engaged in developing countries, working toward the improvement of the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable, what kind of organization do you want to be in?

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Picture: Flickr user Troy B. Thompson