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20 Characteristics of a Bureaucracy

A bureaucracy is a system that is largely controlled by unelected administrators without direct accountability to stakeholders. This is a common arrangement for government departments or entire governments. It is also common for international governance bodies, non-profit organizations, standards organizations, government monopolies and academic institutions to resemble a bureaucracy. Less commonly, private commercial entities such as large companies have a bureaucratic structure. The following are the basic characteristics of a bureaucracy.


A bureaucracy lacks direct accountability to stakeholders such as the public, taxpayers, customers, employees and donors. For example, a government department that is run by administrators as opposed to elected officials. Such a department may ultimately answer to elected officials providing some level of indirect accountability to the society or community they serve.


A bureaucracy may be monitored and governed by an oversight body that accepts complaints from stakeholders. This may provide some level of accountability if the oversight body has fully authority to remove leadership and takes an active and adversarial stance.

Professional Competence

The primary characteristic of a bureaucracy is that it is a system of formal authority based on competency. In a bureaucracy, you are promoted when a system deems you competent. This can be contrasted with formal authority granted by an election, meritocracy, family membership, social connections or revolution.


A bureaucracy provides stability as compared with an elected office. This may be efficient as compared to a system where strategy can completely reverse with every election.

Division of Labor

A bureaucracy is run by experts with detailed specifications for every job role that includes a checklist of mandatory requirements for each position. Promotions are assigned based on seniority and an ability to check off mandatory requirements. As such, a very different type of talent rises in a bureaucracy as opposed to a meritocracy that is based on results and potential. For example, a brilliant young engineer with exceptional creative talents, high personal resilience and well developed influencing abilities would tend to rise much faster in a meritocratic organization.

Not My Job

Due to the highly specialized division of labor in a bureaucracy, they may develop a culture of "not my job" whereby employees are primarily concerned with clearing issues from their specific area with little concern for the success or failure of programs, projects and operations.


Bureaucracies value formality including policy, procedure, rules and processes.


Due to their embrace of formal processes, bureaucracies embrace automation and attempt to systemize everything.


A technocracy is a bureaucracy that is dominated by technologists and focused on automation. This has become so common that it is essentially a more modern term for bureaucracy.

Excluded Middle

Due to their strict adherence to formality, bureaucracies are prone to black and white thinking whereby they don't make exceptions even when it makes sense. This is a form of logic known as excluded middle that deals with true or false as opposed to degrees of truth.


Bureaucracies are organized into hierarchies based on formal authority. Informal authority plays little or no role in decision making and strategy.


Bureaucracies tend to be slow to change and are prone to defense of the status quo. They might implement change on long road maps of 5 years or more where a small commercial entity would execute the same change in a month.

Big Thinking

Due to a preference for long term planning, bureaucracies are prone to developing huge projects as opposed to quick incremental changes.


Bureaucracies tend to overthink, overplan and overanalyze every problem and opportunity.

Organizational Maturity

Bureaucracies are often organizationally mature such that they pour significant resources into managing compliance, risk and quality. They attempt to follow every standard and best practice they can find.

Employee Entrenchment

Most bureaucracies have relatively high job security whereby it is uncommon for employees to be terminated. It may also be uncommon for employees to leave. This leads to a static culture whereby employees may remain entrenched in a position for many years.

Red Tape

Red tape is a high level of administrative burden. Bureaucracies are known for their red tape. This extends from other characteristics of a bureaucracy such as overthinking, formality and a lack of accountability to stakeholders.

Petty Authority

Petty authority is the use of formal authority to enjoy a sense of personal power. For example, the use of authority to punish others to enjoy a feeling of social dominance. This may be common in bureaucracies due to their reliance on formal authority over informal authority.

Malicious Compliance

Malicious compliance is the irrational application of formal rules and processes that has negative motivations. This may be common in bureaucracies due to the powerlessness of employees who lack formal authority such that discover ways to use the system against itself.


Bureaucracies are commonly perceived as being inefficient but this isn't always the case. Bureaucracies promote only experts, automate things and adhere to formal processes. This can theoretically be efficient. However, without oversight and accountability a bureaucracy may simply become efficient at making life miserable.
Overview: Bureaucracy
Definition (1)
An administrative system run by unelected officials.
Definition (2)
A system of strict formal authority where authority is assigned based on professional competence.
Positive Characteristics
Professional competence
High organizational maturity
Efficient where there is sufficient oversight
Negative Characteristics
Resists change
High overhead
Black & White thinking
Red tape
Petty authority
Malicious compliance
Lacks direct accountability
May be inefficient or destructive without sufficient oversight.
Related Concepts

Organizational Culture

This is the complete list of articles we have written about organizational culture.
Adaptive Performance
Bias For Action
Business Strategy
Catfish Management
Change Fatigue
Change Management
Corporate Governance
Corporate Identity
Corporate Image
Corporate Memory
Corporate Narcissism
Creativity Of Constraints
Culture Fit
Culture Of Fear
Curiosity Drive
Decision Making
Digital Maturity
Disability Etiquette
Employee Behavior
Employee Dissatisfaction
Employee Expectations
Ethical Climate
Expert Culture
Failing Upwards
Failure Is Not An Option
Genchi Genbutsu
Goal Setting
Heliotropic Effect
Human Error
Human Factors
Humble Leadership
Hygiene Factors
Internal Branding
Internal Environment
Intrinsic Motivation
Knowledge Loss
Knowledge Management
Leadership Style
Lessons Learned
Malicious Compliance
Management By Absence
Management By Walking Around
Market Culture
Matrix Management
Negative Culture
Negative Selection
Nudge Theory
Office Politics
Organizational Capital
Organizational Complexity
Organizational Culture
Organizational Resilience
Organizational Structure
Organizing Principle
Performance Management
Petty Authority
Political Correctness
Professional Conduct
Quality Of Life
Red Tape
Resistance To Change
Satellite Office
Self-Organizing Team
Shadow Of The Leader
Strong Culture
Team Culture
Tolerance For Disagreement
Trained Incapacity
Unspoken Rule
Work Culture
Work Environment
Work Ethic
Work-Life Balance
Working Conditions
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