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This article explains the bureaucratic theory of the management principles by Max Weber in a practical way. After reading you will understand the basics of this powerful management tool.
At the end of the 19th century, it was German sociologist Max Weber who was the first to use and describe the term bureaucracy. This is also known as the bureaucratic theory of management or the Max Weber theory. He believed bureaucracy was the most efficient way to set up an organisation, administration and organizations. Max Weber believed it was a better than traditional structures. In a bureaucracy, everyone is treated equal and the division of labour is clearly described for each employee.
Bureaucracy definition: what is bureaucracy?
Bureaucracy definition: “Bureaucracy is an organisational structure that is characterised by many rules, standardised processes, procedures and requirements, number of desks, meticulous division of labour and responsibility, clear hierarchies and professional, almost impersonal interactions between employees”.
According to the bureaucratic theory of Max Weber, such a structure was indispensable in large organizations in structurally performing all tasks by a great number of employees. In addition, in a bureaucracy, selection and promotion only occur on the basis of technical qualifications.
According to the bureaucratic theory of Max Weber, three types of power can be found in organizations; traditional power, charismatic power and legal power. He refers in his bureaucratic theory to the latter as a bureaucracy. All aspects of a democracy are organised on the basis of rules and laws, making the principle of established jurisdiction prevail.
The following three elements support bureaucratic management:
- All regular activities within a bureaucracy can be regarded as official duties;
- Management has the authority to impose rules;
- Rules can easily be respected on the basis of established methods.
Max Weber’s management principles
According to the bureaucratic theory of Max Weber, bureaucracy is the basis for the systematic formation of any organisation and is designed to ensure efficiency and economic effectiveness. It is an ideal model for management and its administration to bring an organisation’s power structure into focus. With these observations, he lays down the basic principles of bureaucracy and emphasises the division of labour, hierarchy, rules and impersonal relationship.
Below is a more detailed explanation of the 6 management principles of a bureaucracy:
1. Task specialisation
Tasks are divided into simple, routine categories on the basis of competencies and functional specialisations. Every employee is responsible for what he/she does best and knows exactly what is expected of him/her. By dividing work on the basis of specialisation, the organisation directly benefits. Each department has specific powers. As a result, there is a delineation of tasks and managers can approach their employees more easily when they do not stick to their tasks. Every employee knows exactly what is expected of him/ her and what his/ her powers are within the organisation. Every employee has a specific place within the organisation and is expected to solely focus on his/ her area of expertise. Going beyond your responsibilities and taking on tasks of colleagues is not permitted within a bureaucracy.
2. Hierarchical authority
Managers are organised into hierarchical layers, where each layer of management is responsible for its staff and overall performance. In a bureaucracy, there are many hierarchical positions. This is essentially the trademark and foundation of a bureaucracy. Hierarchy is a system in which different positions are related in order of precedence and in which the highest rung on the ladder has the greatest power. The bottom layers are always subject to supervision and control of higher layers. This hierarchy reflects lines of communication and the degree of delegation and clearly lays out how powers and responsibilities are divided.
3. Formal selection
All employees are selected on the basis of technical skills and competences, which have been acquired through training, education and experience. One of the basic principles is that employees are paid for their services and that level of their salary is dependent on their position. Their contract terms are determined by organisational rules and requirements and the employee has no ownership interest in the company.
4. Rules and requirements
Formal rules and requirements are required to ensure uniformity, so that employees know exactly what is expected of them. In this sense, the rules and requirements can be considered predictable. All administrative processes are defined in the official rules. By enforcing strict rules, the organisation can more easily achieve uniformity and all employee efforts can be better coordinated. The rules and requirements are more or less stable and always formalised in so-called official reports. Should new rules and requirements be introduced, then senior management or directors are responsible for this.
Regulations and clear requirements create distant and impersonal relationships between employees, with the additional advantage of preventing nepotism or involvement from outsiders or politics. These impersonal relationship are a prominent feature of bureaucracies. Interpersonal relationships are solely characterised by a system of public law and rules and requirements. Official views are free from any personal involvement, emotions and feelings. Decisions are solely made on the basis of rational factors, rather than personal factors.
6. Career orientation
Employees are selected on the basis of their expertise. This helps in the deployment of the right people in the right positions and thereby optimally utilising human capital. In a bureaucracy, it is possible to build a career on the basis of experience and expertise. As a result, it offers lifetime employment. The rigid division of labour also allows employees to specialise themselves further, so that they may become experts in their own field and significantly improve their performance.
Generally speaking, the term bureaucracy has a negative connotation and is often linked to government agencies and large organisations. Nevertheless, the great benefit of a bureacracy is that large organisations with many hierarchical layers can become structured and work effectively. It is precisely the established rules and procedures that allows for high efficiency and consistent execution of work by all employees.
All this makes it easier for management to maintain control and make adjustments when necessary. Bureaucracy is especially inevitable in organisations where legislation plays an important role in delivering a consistent output.
Bureaucracy is characterised by a large amount of red tape, paperwork, many desks, certain office culture and slow communication due to its many hierarchical layers. This is the system’s biggest disadvantage. It is also unfortunate that employees remain fairly distanced from each other and the organisation, making them less loyal.
Bureaucracy is also extremely dependent on regulatory and policy compliance. This restricts employees to come up with innovative ideas, making them feel like just a number instead of an individual. Later research (the human relations theory) demonstrated that employees appreciate attention and want to have a voice in decision making.
Because employees have no opportunity to voice their opinion or influence decision making, a bureaucracy may demotivate employees in the long run.
Moreover, over the course of time, employees may start to get annoyed at the various rules and requirements, with the risk that they may start boycotting and/ or abusing these rules and standing up to the established order. It is therefore very important that bureaucratic organisations properly inform employees well in advance about their approach to work and requires them to accept this. Only employees who agree to this approach are suitable to work within a bureaucratic organisation.
It’s Your Turn
What do you think? Is the bureaucratic theory of Max Weber still applicable in today’s modern organizations? Do these management principles and business ethics work in every organisation or are there exceptions? And if so, what are the exceptions and what can we learn from them?
- Katz, D. & Kahn, R. L. (1978). The social psychology of organizations. Wiley.
- Udy Jr, S. H. (1959). Bureaucracy and Rationality in Weber’s Organization Theory: An Empirical Study. American Sociological Review, 791-795.
- Weber, M. (1978). Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. Univ of California Press.
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