Is Bureaucracy Bad for Employee Creativity?

Bureaucracy and creativity. They might seem like mortal enemies—we often think of red tape and paper work as the killer of creative thinking—but it doesn’t have to be! In reality, it depends on your employees. When we talk about goal orientation (why people do what they do), we usually take about three types of people. First, you have your learning-oriented workers. These are the ones who do what they do for sheer enjoyment of the work. They are intrinsically motivated. Second, you have your performance-prove-oriented employees. These workers want to show you how good they are. Third and finally, you have your performance-avoid workers. These are your risk-adverse employees—the rule followers. They all respond to bureaucracy differently, particularly when it comes to creativity.


We can divide bureaucracy into two dimensions—centralization and formalization. Centralization deals with the amount of decision making ability team members have. The more centralized decision making is, the less team members have opportunity to add their input. Formalization deals with the paperwork. It’s the policies and procedures employees have to adhere to in their job. Like centralization, the more formal the procedure, the less wiggle-room there is for workers.


So what is the relationship between bureaucracy and creativity? As with everything in psychology, it depends. When it comes to centralization, less centralization (more team input) helps employees who work for the shear enjoyment of it (learning-oriented individuals) to be more creative. It also helped employees who might be scared to take risks (performance-avoid individuals), perhaps because it indicates a culture of exploration (less risk for mistakes). However, those risk-averse employees also do better with more formalization (more rules to follow and, therefore, less grey area in which to make a mistake). Unfortunately, more rules and procedures are bad for people who want to show how good they are (performance-prove oriented individuals). 


So what can organizations do? The important thing is to know what kind of workers you have so that you can tailor bureaucracy to them (which doesn’t have to be a contradiction in terms!). Allowing team members the ability to assist with decision making seems to be universally positive, or at least it doesn’t hurt. As for formalization, some people like a little red tape and some don’t.


Hirst, G., Van Knippenberg, D., Chen, C.-H., & Sacramento, C. A. (2011). How does bureaucracy impact individual creativity? A cross-level investigation of team contextual influences on goal orientation-creativity relationships. Academy of Management Journal, 54, 624-641.

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