Welcome to the Machine: How Structure Shapes Your Tribe in Life after the Military


Welcome my son . . . Welcome to the machine - Roger Waters

Organizations are a lot like people. They are born out of passion. They embody a hope for the future. They start out small with great energy and innocence. Unlike people, organizations are manifested from an idea. That idea attracts others. A leader provides the energy that inspires followers. People connect with the idea or mission because it honors their values and calling to make a difference. As it matures, the organization may have the opportunity to grow. It becomes more sophisticated, refined, and complex in order to reach even more people. In an effort to ensure conformity, quality, and standards throughout the organization, we create systems, rules, and procedures. The idea becomes hard-wired into a machine. That machine has a name, and its name is bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy is a system of administration distinguished by its (1) clear hierarchy of authority, (2) rigid division of labor, (3) written and inflexible rules, regulations, and procedures, and (4) impersonal relationships.

The factors that influence the culture of your new tribe by order of precedence include the leaders (Part 2), the mission (Part 3), the people (Part 4), and finally, the structure. As leaders, we are looking for more than just a paycheck when we leave the military. As the final article on understanding culture, this article will review how structure can smother the other factors that shape the culture and offer some questions you might ask during your interview and networking process to ascertain who (or what) retains control in the organization. Given a military leader's desire to continue making an impact, recognizing how the vision for an organization can become bolted down and hard-wired into the impersonal processes of the bureaucracy is an important factor to determine your new tribe in life after the military.

How Organizations Give Power to the Machine

Bureaucracy is born out of a desire for quality, conformity, and compliance. When the size and scope of an organization begins to outpace the leader's capacity to maintain the intimacy from the conception of the small business, the organization builds systems to fill voids and cover the blind spots. We forge structure. We mold compliance. These things are intended to augment the leaders, mission, and people that shape the culture. With the best of intentions, this structure is a good thing.

Unfortunately, the quest for short-term results tempts us to focus more systems and process at the expense of the people. Intimacy and trust across large or international organizations becomes more difficult, so we substitute rules of compliance in the place of inspiration through the leader. As we build this machine, the leader's identity becomes indistinguishable from the institution, and the bureaucracy becomes the master that the people serve. The mission, or the WHY for the organization, becomes a talking point, and the leaders are reduced to mere managers whose very survival is dependent upon keeping the machine running.

We consider the idea of being part of a 'well-oiled machine' a positive, but there is a difference between being a valued member of the team and replaceable part of the machine

What Happens to the Culture When the Machine Assumes Control

In these organizations, the bureaucracy is the most dominant force shaping the culture. Just as a machine is cold, hard, apathetic, and impersonal, so too is the organization at the mercy of its bureaucracy. As the machine becomes more self-aware, it creates more bureaucracy to protect the status quo. Leaders rely on human resources instead of connection and compassion. Notice how we reduce human beings into resources to be managed like any other asset on the balance sheet. Leaders are not empowered. Decisions are cycled through various departments for consensus. Schedules are occupied with inspections and meetings to monitor compliance to the system. The original passion, creativity, and intended impact of the organization is buried under the abstractions of business metrics that merely infer success.

This evolution leads to a phenomenon known as passive micromanagement to create a culture of control through task saturation. Management control comes from requiring people to complete more tasks than they could possibly accomplish in the time given to accomplish them. Think about the army mandates more annual training requirements than any unit could conceivably accomplish in a given year. Structural control is derived from the cycle of reviews, inspections, and surveys that force managers to spend their time focused on how to instill compliance. Psychological control comes from the fear of exposure to the inadequacies and possible blame for areas of non-compliance and out-of-parameter conditions. As managers (not leaders) become slaves to these forms of control in the bureaucracy, they become connected to the machine and disconnected from the people.

The worst part of passive micromanagement is that managers are expected to 'lead' even though every aspect of the culture has them scrambling for their own survival based on the next review, revenue forecast, or earnings report

Once you abstract the human qualities from the organization, you create a culture that is toxic for human beings. Morality is framed through discussions of profit and loss. Ethics become an instrument of convenience instead of foundation for operations. Instead of a team, the organization devolves into an aggregation of self-interested individuals who coexist in common places making transactions no different from the people in a crowded mall who exchange goods and services for their personal gain. Anxiety replaces inspiration as managers spend long hours scrambling in the Orwellian pursuit of compliance at the expense of the original mission, the individual's health, and the well-being of the people.

How to Determine Who - or What - You are Working for

As leaders, we complain about the bureaucracy and seek a greater freedom in life beyond the military. Unfortunately, many potential employers have structure and bureaucracy that rivals any from the Department of Defense. Your challenge through the networking and interview process is to find out who or what is really driving the culture of the organization. Here are three questions to help uncover how the structure and bureaucracy frame the culture in your search for the next tribe in life beyond the military:

Question 1. How much control do you have of your schedule? This question reveals how much passive micromanagement exists in the organization. If the manager has task saturation and worries about an endless cycle of inspections, meetings, and reports, then you could reasonably expect the same lack of control and focus on out-of-tolerance conditions should you decide to work there.

Question 2. How are decisions made in this organization? In smaller, horizontal organizations, leaders are empowered to make decisions. Senior leaders and managers trust and back the decisions of junior leaders. This is less true for larger, vertically structured hierarchies. In a structured bureaucracy, decisions are routed through departments to attain consensus in a process that could take days, weeks, or even months. If you see yourself as someone used to taking decisive action, this could reveal a potential challenge to how you might fit in an organization. Pay attention to how people interact with their management. Is it through personal, routine engagement, or is it through meetings? This will reveal the level of connection (or lack thereof) between managers and their staff.

Question 3. How do you ensure compliance to standards and procedures in this organization? Do you remember what it was like to live under the specter of the command inspection process in the military? If you didn't like it then, you probably won't like it in the corporate world either. Consider the level of fear and anxiety associated with meeting the numbers. The requirement to prepare and present metrics could consume more hours than you feasibly have in a week, and you have to decide whether or not that is the best use of your potential as a leader in life beyond the military.

Why Would Anyone Want to Work for the Machine?

The lure of bureaucratic organizations is the promise of security. For the person who worries about paying the bills, security seems worth the price of admission to join the machine. Robust compensation and retirement packages typically accompany management positions within the machine, and once you become a part of the bureaucracy, it is hard for anyone to remove you from the collective. Not all bureaucracies are bad, but it takes a dynamic visionary to wrest control from the machine and return the power to the people. The good news is that you've probably worked for some of these leaders in the military. You just need to find these kinds of leaders in the corporate sector.

Trust your intuition to recognize the leaders who seek a return to the innocence and intimacy that fuels compassion and inspiration for the organization. Some leaders are willing to establish priorities and protect the people to overcome the inertia of machine to make meaningful connections for high performance teams. In these cases, the leader sets the conditions for the culture, not the bureaucracy. Your challenge is to determine who is serving who in finding your new tribe in life beyond the military.