Bureaucracy vs. Humanocracy: Interview with Gary Hamel (Part 1)

September 24, 2020 Sarah Mulcahy

7-minute read

HumanocracyHas 2020 finally brought us to a breaking point when it comes to how we run our organizations? According to management consultant and author Gary Hamel, yes – and no.

On the heels of his new book, “Humanocracy,” which he co-wrote with Michele Zanini, Workhuman® sat down with Gary to get his thoughts on the most pressing issues facing HR and business leaders today. We dig into the key differences between bureaucracies and humanocracies, why remote work does not replace human connection, and the drastic steps leaders need to take truly become people-first.

Read the first part of our interview below.

Workhuman: What is the main difference between a humanocracy and a bureaucracy?

Gary: In a bureaucracy, the organization comes first. It hires people to produce products, services, and profits. Human beings are instruments, which is why we call them human resources or human capital. When we treat people like instruments, they seldom give us their best. If you are married or have a partner in your life and you see them primarily as the person who takes out the garbage, picks up the kids, and mows the lawn, that may not be the best possible relationship. And yet, that is how we see people at work, and I think that largely explains the very depressing data on employee engagement.

Humanocracy reverses that. Humanocracy starts with the individual, and it says, people join organizations as free agents. They join them because they realize that our organizations are great multipliers. They help us have an impact that we couldn’t have on our own. 

If you look at the most progressive and most successful organizations, they start with the employee.

That difference is crucial, because if your implicit worldview is that people are a resource, you’re going to find it difficult to build a truly capable organization. That belief system will haunt you, and limit you, and put brakes on your ability to mobilize those capabilities.

Why do we have organizations in the first place? In a bureaucracy, the purpose of the organization is to achieve compliance and control at scale – to turn human beings into semi-programmable robots, to get them to follow rules with respect to how their job is done, quality standards, reporting relationships, budgetary constraints.

Humanocracy says the goal is not to maximize control; the goal is to maximize contribution.

Workhuman: Do you think the challenges we’re facing could be a forcing function for change?

Gary: Yes and no. I think the challenge of COVID-19 will be a significant nudge toward what we would describe as humanocracy, but is unlikely to be catalytic.

In a small crisis, power tends to go to the center. So, for example, if you’re an auto company and you find a faulty component and people are dying, that quickly becomes an issue that’s driven from the center. ‘Let’s do a product recall. Let’s get in front of this from a PR standpoint. Let’s review our quality standards.’

In a big crisis, power goes out to the periphery, because the crisis overwhelms the ability of any small number of people at the center to understand and respond.

What is deeply challenging about COVID-19 is, first, it’s a new problem. We haven’t had a pandemic in anybody’s living memory. Second, it’s a fast-moving phenomenon. It is also very uncertain. What we know is in any one of those conditions, bureaucracies struggle. Bureaucracies are replication machines. They’re designed to do the same thing over and over again. There is a logic to doing that, but when they’re presented with something that is new, unfamiliar, and fast-moving, they completely fail. Once it was clear to healthcare providers, to mayors, to civic authorities, and even to ordinary individuals, that the FDA, the CDC, or anyone else, did not have the answers, we started to do the best we could.

Healthcare providers started to build lateral learning networks. All these networks of hospital CEOs, epidemiologists, ICU hospitalists, started talking, sharing documents, looking at the same research, advancing protocols. They started to solve the problem, and the real answers started to emerge. 

While COVID-19 is the most pressing problem we face, it is certainly not the only problem that humanity faces – think about ethnic tensions, racial inequality, income inequality, cyber threats, the political manipulation of social media. Individually and collectively, they are overwhelming the limits of top-down power structures, where a lot of evidence has to be accumulated and work its way slowly up the power structure. People at the top have to absorb that information, engineer a solution, roll it back down, and hope it gets implemented. That’s just too slow in this kind of a world.

One Italian healthcare leader said, ‘The virus moves faster than our bureaucracy.’ And, of course, I wanted to say, ‘Yes, but so does everything else.’ It will add more weight to the argument that top-down power structures are an enormous liability in an uncertain and hyperkinetic world.

Workhuman: And what makes you skeptical that this challenging time will bring about change?

Gary: What we’ve seen in the past is once the crisis wanes, bureaucracy reinstitutes itself. And people, who under force gave up some of their prerogatives, are eager to reclaim their lost power. The bureaucracy will say, ‘Well, yes, that was a crisis, but now we have to go back, and we have to follow the rules and all the approval processes.’

If you look at the growth in the bureaucratic class in the United States – the number of supervisors, managers, and administrators in practice for the last almost 40 years – it has grown twice as fast as all other categories of employment. After the financial crisis of 2008, there was a little downturn in the growth of managers, supervisors, administrators, and so on. Under enormous financial duress, organizations took out a layer or two of management.

But what’s interesting is, within two years, it was back on the same growth curve. The growth of bureaucracy is on the same long-term trend. I suspect that will happen now. 

Workhuman: Does the prevalence of remote work give you hope?

Gary: I am very skeptical that remote work is going to change anything very important in the nature of work.

First of all, thousands and thousands of people were already working remotely. There’s little evidence that suggests those people, on average, thought their jobs were better by virtue of working from home. Now, you could ask, ‘Would you rather avoid a 2-hour commute every day?’ There are many people who’d say, ‘I want that time back for my own life.’ I think that’s true. There was a lot of work that was done in large offices, needlessly, and some proportion of that work will never come back.

Here are my caveats. One is, technology is still a very, very poor substitute for face-to-face relationships. It is not spontaneous. It is not truly intimate. It is not unscripted. It does not allow for serendipity. I’ve never seen a Zoom screen that is filled with 50 sticky notes that you’d find plastered in a brainstorming room. It doesn’t happen that way. 

I seldom see a Zoom meeting where, after the meeting, people say, ‘Hey, let’s just hang on. I had a couple of other questions,’ or, ‘How are you doing?’ It puts all these human interactions in a very scripted, prescriptive box. I think people are going to long for the real human connection. And there’s a substantial class of work, creative work, that simply cannot happen yet in a completely technology intermediated way. 

People are going to long for a different sort of work relationship – one that is not as distant and, in some sense, as cold as we have through technology. 

Working remotely does not give you any bigger voice in setting your company strategy. Working remotely doesn’t make it any more likely that your idea is going to get funded. Working remotely doesn’t mean you can spend more of your workday working on things that truly fit your skills and competencies. It doesn’t allow you to design your own job. And in many senses, it doesn’t make any difference in how closely supervised you are. And we are already learning that with technology, we can exercise more oversight than anytime before. People know when you’re logged on. They know when you’re logged off.  


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About the Author

Sarah Mulcahy

Sarah is senior content marketing manager at Workhuman. When not writing and reading about all things culture, leadership, recognition, and appreciation, she enjoys iced coffee, running, and spending time with her daughters, Mabel and Eva.

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