Characteristics of a Bureaucracy

According to Weber, a bureaucracy has several characteristics that distinguish it from other formal organizations.

  1. A bureaucracy is characterized by a division of labor. In a bureaucracy, people specialize in the performance of one type of work. Using the phone company as an example, there are people who handle customers’ bills, others who provide directory information, and others who climb the poles and repair the wires. The people who repair the wires do not handle customers’ bills and vice versa.
  2. In a bureaucracy, there are written rules for how jobs are to be performed. All jobs in a certain category must be performed exactly the same way, regardless of who is doing the work. All of the people who perform a specific job receive similar training, and the same standards for job performance are applied equally to everyone.
  3. Jobs are arranged in a hierarchy. If the workplace were a pyramid, the top levels would represent upper management and the bottom levels would represent the rank-and-file workers. The top spot is usually occupied by a single person, while the bottom levels are occupied by an increasing number of jobs. Each level assigns tasks to the level below it, and each level reports to the level above it.
  4. Official communication is written down to minimize confusion and to facilitate the organization and maintenance of records. Keeping written or electronic records documents the performance of individuals, departments, and the corporation as a whole. Communication is also written because it is more reliable and not susceptible to an individual’s memory lapses or inaccurate interpretation of information.
  5. Employees have an impersonal relationship with the organization. The most important factors of a bureaucracy are the office and the job, not the individual doing the job. Each employee’s loyalty should be to the organization, and not to the individual to whom they report.

Ideal Type

Weber’s original concept of a bureaucracy represented an ideal type. An ideal type is a description of how an organization should ideally be run and is often very different from how it operates in reality. In Weber’s view, if everyone did exactly as they were supposed to and no one deviated from their assigned tasks in any way, the bureaucracy would operate perfectly, and all goals would be accomplished. But in a complex bureaucracy, what exists on paper may bear little resemblance to reality.

Bureaucratic Goals

All bureaucracies have officially stated goals, which are sometimes called missions or objectives. One of the most common goals of all bureaucracies—usually unstated—is simply self-perpetuation. No bureaucratic organization wants to face extinction. When a bureaucracy’s stated goals are met or prove to be unrealizable, the organization must come up with new goals in order to continue to exist. This is called goal displacement (sometimes called goal replacement). Goal displacement occurs when an organization displaces one goal with another in order to continue to exist.

Example: The National Foundation for the March of Dimes was organized in the 1930s with the specific goal of eradicating polio. Approximately twenty years later, Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for the crippling disease, and the March of Dimes was faced with the bittersweet reality of having to admit that its mission had been accomplished. Rather than face extinction, however, the nonprofit organization displaced their original goal with a new one: the eradication of birth defects. Birth defects, in all their myriad forms, will probably never be totally eliminated, so the National Foundation for the March of Dimes will continue to exist for many years to come.


Bureaucracies and other formal organizations are often large and impersonal. Newcomers may be daunted when other members are unfamiliar, and the sheer size and complexity of the company can be disconcerting. In a vast organization, successful navigation requires the formation of networks. A network is a series of social ties that can be important sources of information, contacts, and assistance for its members.

Example: Mary joins a large corporation as an accountant. At first, she feels like an outsider because she seems to have little in common with anybody, and she is one of only two female accountants in the company. She introduces herself to that accountant and they start having lunch together once a week. Soon, other female executives join in, and the size of the group increases. Eventually, female executives from other companies join the group, and an effective network emerges. They talk about changes in accounting law, workplace problems, and job opportunities. As time goes on, new members might be added to the network, and existing members might drop out. However, the network will continue to exist as long as there is a need for the information, contacts, and assistance it can provide.

Problems with Bureaucracies

Though bureaucracies can be efficient, many problems can hinder them.

On paper, bureaucracies appear to be the most rational approach to accomplishing stated goals, but human beings are not always rational.

  • In formulating the ideal type bureaucracy, Weber did not allow for the inevitable formation of primary relationships, which are antithetical to the stated goals of a bureaucracy because loyalty shifts from the organization to the individual. Primary relationships tend to develop in bureaucracies because people feel a sense of alienation, or feelings that they are being treated as objects rather than people.

Sometimes the rules and regulations in a bureaucracy grow rigid to the point of inefficiency.

  • If a person with a Ph.D. applies for a job as a college professor and is told to present his or her high school diploma as part of the required paperwork, the bureaucracy’s regulations are too rigid and may hurt that bureaucracy’s chances of hiring a quality employee.

In some bureaucracies, so much literal and figurative distance exists between the highest and the lowest ranks that the bureaucracy is rendered ineffective.

  • In many corporations, those making the decisions have never actually done the work of the people their decisions affect, so their directives are either insufficient to solve the problems at hand or are ignored altogether. In an ideal bureaucracy, all directives are carried out exactly as they are issued. To do otherwise contributes to inefficiency.

Iron Law of Oligarchy

Sociologist Robert Michels theorized that bureaucracies tend to be run by a small group of people at the top, who he believed acted primarily out of self-interest, and who carefully controlled outsiders’ access to power and resources. He called this the Iron Law of Oligarchy. The term oligarchy means the rule of many by the few.

Michels believed that top bureaucrats had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, which benefited them most of all. He said that positions of power, as well as access to resources such as money, were passed among the members of the group, thereby excluding outsiders. When a U.S. president takes office, he usually awards top cabinet posts to people he knows or to those who have been loyal to him in the past. Though policies such as term limits and checks and balances are supposed to prevent an oligarchy from developing at the highest levels of government, a close examination of a sitting president’s cabinet lends partial credence to Michels’s theory. If oligarchies go too far, however, they run the risk of provoking a backlash among the very people they are trying to govern.

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