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Bureaucracy and the Workplace

Updated: Apr 5, 2021


Lockdown = Cookdown! As I spend more and more time at home, my interest in cooking has grown exponentially. I really enjoy cooking in the evening and have become obsessed with making the perfect roast potato! - crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside. There is a precision to the cooking process which I like, peeling the potato into the right shape, being aware of the time it takes to boil the potato, basting the potatoes with just enough oil, timing how long it takes to oven bake to perfection and then the joy of the cooked meal. The lockdown seems to be awakening some creativity in me. I was born in Uganda, from a very young age, my family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where I spent my early childhood. We returned to Uganda for a short time just after the government of Idi Amin was overthrown in a bloody military coup. There were still large swathes of the army who remained loyal to Idi Amin and they attempted to reinstate his power through occasional armed incursions into the capital city Kampala. Warning sirens would go off during the sudden attacks, prompting everyone to return home from school and work for lockdowns that lasted days. We lived in an affluent part of Kampala in a walled off residential area on one of the many hills overlooking the capital city. I remember seeing gunfire smoke from the lofty heights of our garden. It was a frightening experience but I also remember it for the good times the lockdown brought to my life. My entire family would spend a lot of time together which I enjoyed. The lockdown would often result in electricity failures so we would spend our evenings cooking by fire and eating by candlelight. There was something romantic about it, the darkness and flickering lights, the delicious food and togetherness as a family. The armed conflict was difficult and scary, at the same time, it brought my family together even if it was for a brief moment in time. This experience of COVID-19 evokes long forgotten memories which are helping me to experience it in a positive and creative way.


This edition of #JungianBitsofInformation was inspired a few weeks ago by my reflections on bureacracy whether in a company, country, shop or cafe. I don't know about you, I don't tend see the world only in it's wonderful goodness, I also see it in its pathological state. This blog is not intended to reinforce our human capacity for goodness but to explore the wider more complex behaviour of individuals in the workplace from the perspective of analytical psychology. The timing of this blog is uncanny. The COVID-19 crisis is bringing so much suffering and also unimaginable change to workplaces. Free bikes for Key Workers? Something unimaginable a few weeks ago. Virgin Atlantic cabin crew supporting the NHS? Again, totally unimaginable a few weeks ago. Out of the COVID-19 crisis, we're seeing incredible transformation arising from the impenetrable blocks of bureaucracy that fill our workplaces. It is great to see pioneering initiatives like Freebikes for Key Workers emerge from the crisis. Why didn't we think of this before? Well, we did, it's just that bureacracy stops innovative ideas from emerging in the first place or from coming into fruition. I therefore wanted to explore bureacracy from the perspective of the psyche of the bureaucrat: what does the bureaucrat think or feel about the innovative changes taking place in our workplaces as a result of COVID-19?

For starters, the changes are very uncomfortable for the bureaucrat. Relatively helpless from the confines of their home due to mandatory home working, the bureaucrat cannot exert their bureaucracy from afar however their emotions will tell a different story. Jungian or analytical psychology focuses on the individual. As a Jungian Analyst in training, I am therefore using this type of psychology as way to gain a deeper understanding of the bureaucrat and their behaviour in the workplace. You might be wondering why the behaviour of the bureaucrat is important. Their behaviour is important because companies or organisations are like a nation-state. The nation-state exists to further the interests of the state or society and therefore being a “good” citizen is part of the deal you enter with the state in return for certain benefits e.g. a health and welfare system and laws and customs which bind everyone together.

Employees carry out a similar role in relation to their company or organisation. In return for being a “good” employee, your employer offers you a job, a good salary, a pension, annual leave and any number of benefits. The behaviour of the bureaucrat therefore has an impact on the effectiveness of the company or organisation. Now don’t get me wrong. I think the bureaucrat has a place in an organisation as a “good” employee. The bureaucrat puts in place processes, systems, customs, ways of working and policies which enable the organisation to function effectively. For example, organisations must meet certain legislative obligations and it is the role of the bureaucrat to ensure the organisation meets its obligations. However, some bureaucrats take things much further than that, entrenching the organisation is tightly coiled administrative processes which cannot be fathomed or undone easily.

Bureaucracy can be described in its simplest terms as excessively complicated administrative procedures. The bureaucrat works through a rigid guiding principle of order which may, on the face of it, sound logical but it isn’t. The bureaucrat will create a system of working which is complex and labyrinthine which forces the end user to give in to the demands of the bureaucrat; mostly do so willingly because one thinks one has no choice or forced to do so but one is frustrated with the levels of bureaucracy. The bureaucrat inadvertently creates unrest within the “orderly” organisation they are so keen to maintain.

The Bureaucrat as a Complex Figure

The psychological state of the bureaucrat is easily illuminated when we look at their attitude to change. Every company or organisation must change if it is to survive. FTSE 100 companies rarely survive beyond an average age of 50 to 100 years. Companies and organisations continually struggle with changing technologies, global competition and the formation of new industries, but they also show a remarkable propensity to mount an adaptive response. The bureaucrat is unable to mount the adaptive response and instead prefers to resist change. From a psychological perspective, companies and organisations are like a living system. A living system must oscillate between chaos and order to remain stable. Every organisation needs some chaos to be able to adapt to change and equally it needs some order, to weather the storm of a chaotic period. If a company or organisation is too stable or too chaotic, as an organisation consultant, I often ask myself, where is the missing piece i.e. chaos or order? It is usually hidden in deep pockets around the organisation. Often these pockets are represented by disenchanted or disengaged employees who have a greater awareness and insight about the company. They see the organisation for what it is, too chaotic, too orderly, too bureaucratic. Forget staff surveys, climate surveys, feedback questionnaires, the true nature of the organisation can be better understood by speaking to these informal voices in the corridors of the workplace.

Amidst a call for change, the bureaucrat has two choices: resist or embrace. No prizes for guessing which choice the bureaucrat makes. The bureaucrat wants to avoid chaos brought about by change and therefore their response is to create even more order. Even if there is no call for change, over time, the bureaucrat becomes old and wilfully blind. Old because by avoiding change, they decline, get tired, slow and stagnate. Wilfully blind because they are conscious of their choice not to change and choose not to know. From a psychological perspective, their consciousness remains narrow and never expands to embrace new knowledge, new ways of working or new skills. The bureaucrat fundamentally opposes what it perceives as the negative elements of chaos. In contrast, the bureaucrat who embraces change, effectively extends their consciousness, they learn something new, new insights and innovate. A transformation happens which restores the balance between chaos and order. The bureaucrat stretches to the occasion. The oscillation between chaos and order is never easy but it is an important cycle for both the organisation and its employees.

In analytical psychology terms, the bureaucrat’s unwillingness to tolerate chaos is seen as neurotic. Neuroticism is a term used to describe the symptoms of an inner psychological conflict. The conflict is characterised by a complex. The notion of a complex rests on the psychological belief that we have many selves. We are not just one monolithic personality. Analytical psychology views complexes as autonomous entities, they actually behave like independent beings. A complex is a collection of images and ideas clustered around a core from one or more archetypes (structured patterns of psychological performance linked to instinct) and characterised by an emotional tone. When a complex comes into play i.e. become constellated, complexes contribute to behaviour and are marked by affect whether a person is conscious of them or not. The idea was so important to Carl Jung, he considered calling his psychology “Complex Psychology”. Complexes are useful in the analysis of an individual with neurotic symptoms. The ego itself sits on a complex, ego-complex, which contains the personalised history of the individual. The ego-complex is liable to get into a conflict with the other inner complexes and may identify or become possessed by them. When the individual is possessed by the complex, they act it out into the world. The bureaucrat’s excessive need for order characterises a person possessed by a complex. Any attempt to deal with bureaucracy or a change that eliminates bureacracy will have a corresponding effect on the bureaucrat. There is an affect which is emotional in tone. The bureaucrat will justify their ways of working to a point where the highly charged emotional tone becomes apparent - “This change cannot happen, it won’t work, we must continue as we are because it means this and that, we must maintain order!”. With all of that said, a complex is not necessarily a negative thing. A person may be psychologically driven by a hero or heroine complex and may go out in the world carrying out incredible feats of charity. Things take a negative turn when the individual strives to create excessive order but instead creates a bureaucracy.

No doubt the bureaucrat is feeling very uncomfortable with the changes taking place in our workplaces. At this point in time, there is simply no excuse for bureaucracy. The bureaucrat will try to maintain order during the crisis but every company and organisation is sharing a myth right now. Bureaucratic thinking is sidelined, at least for now.

The Bureaucrat in relationship to the Company or Organisation

Every company or organisation needs a myth. What do I mean by this? Let me give an example. The United States was founded by a frontier myth. Immigration to the Americas was promoted by the authorities as a way to bring order to what was considered a savage wilderness. The myth propelled people to abandon poverty i.e. chaos for a more economically better life. A company with a viable myth will unconsciously motivate its employees to achieve its vision and goals. People will be motivated by a real opportunity, a goal that anyone can reach. An organisational myth drives employee behaviour > employee behaviour creates culture > the organisation uses its culture to propel itself forward and to reach its goals. If an organisation does not have a guiding myth then chaos ensues and inevitably the bureaucrat will seize control - there is no compelling organisational myth, a balance of chaos and order, which will override the bureaucrat’s neuroticism. The one-sided company or organisation eventually declines, becomes slow, stagnates and we know what happens next. The dynamics between the bureaucrat and organisation must be in balance. The bureaucrat might be acting in compensation to the organisation rather than as a neurotic symptom. In this case, the bureaucrat is compensating for the lack of order in the organisation i.e. there is too much chaos. It also goes without saying that bureaucrats and bureaucracy is a symptom of an organisation which does not like change.

The COVID-19 crisis has shaken up workplaces especially those with no myth or are too one sided. Companies and organisations right now are oscillating wildly between chaos and order but if they get the balance right, a transformation will occur. Freebikes for NHS workers, a universal income for those out of work, airline cabin crew supporting the NHS: flexing our skills to meet the demands of our national services, proper flexible working. It will be interesting to see what happens to our workplaces post COVID-19. One of the biggest lessons learned for me as an organisational change consultant is the need to do a microanalysis or organisational review before you implement change. Is the bureaucracy of the organisation going to impede your progress? Does the organisation have a living myth which will forthrightly disarm the bureaucrat when change is being implemented? How do you support bureaucrats during period of change? We can learn lessons from analytical psychology which attempts to heal neurotic symptoms by enabling the individual to gain the insight that “what happens out there” is because of “what happens in here” through analysis, counselling or psychotherapy. Will there be organisational counselling for bureaucrats? Well, like the Freebikes for Key Workers why the hell not? If there is no support then there is a risk that the bureaucrat will return to their old ways. A regressive restoration of the bureaucrat’s neuroticism.

I hope you enjoyed reading this edition of #JungianBitsofInformation. As we lockdown / self-isolate / remote-work for a few more weeks to come, the next edition will explore Self-isolation / Remote-Working and Personality Type. I will be looking at how we cope with the lockdown from a psychological type perspective. How are you coping? Are you going inwards, meditating, contemplating, intuiting, taking notice of your sense impressions? Or are you going outwards, perhaps creating new relationships, taking notice of others and their needs?

If you would like to explore your personality or find out more about your personality type in relation to work or outside of work feel free to contact me for an assessment.

Until next time, stay safe.



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