Differences in Motivation Between Bureaucracies and Business Organizations

Vic Napier

November 2009


Motivation is much different in bureaucratic settings than business organizations because the structure, role, and operations of bureaucracy are much different from that of other kinds of organizations. The role of bureaucracy is not to produce things or deliver services. Instead, the role of bureaucracy is to administer laws, rules, and regulations. This is obvious when examining government agencies, like the local tax assessor’s office, but harder to see in other organizations. The first duty of schools is not education, but compliance with local and federal laws concerning education. Human resource departments, even if they exist within a business, are largely limited to the administration of employment law, although they may be ostensibly responsible for hiring, training, and discipline of a workforce.  

The roles and goals of bureaucracy are unlike that of business, whose legal mandate is creating wealth for investors rather than social good (Dodge v. Ford). In business settings, there is a need for creativity and innovation from employees who are motivated by factors described in our textbook. None of this is true in bureaucracies, however, who are oriented around procedure and repetition, organized along a hierarchy of authorities, driven by rules, and are unconcerned with outcome. These features theoretically ensure rationality, lack of discrimination or favoritism, and predictability and impersonality (Weber 1958a: 196-244, cited in Danzinger 2007). 

These are necessary and legitimate organizational features. Bureaucracies emerged at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries when political corruption was at its highest. Bureaucracy promised to bring accountability to pubic administration by imposing transparency, (using established procedures and documentation), and delegating small amounts of autonomy to large numbers of authorities scattered throughout bureaucratic organizations. This eliminated the ability of one or two persons to engage in the kind of wholesale political corruption that was common at the time.    

However, because bureaucracies divide duties into very narrow specialties, there is little opportunity for task variety. Further, the nature of these tasks is often so narrow that they have little relevance to social good or order, and outcome is by definition not a concern. Consider a case manager who does little more than organize papers within file folders, fill out forms, and occasionally participate in an interdisciplinary team, or a teacher who is so constrained by both macro and micro scheduling and management dictates that student learning results from the intellectual gifts of the students rather than the nature of the teaching. In these settings, there is very little opportunity for engaging a range of skills, using tasks that have intrinsic social value or to observe a final outcome. 

What motivates employees of bureaucracies, particularly social service bureaucracies that most of the students in this class will find themselves? The orthodox answer is a need to make social contributions (Bornstein 1989; Everett 1995). That may be true to an extent, but I think there is another motivator that is more widespread, obvious, and relevant in bureaucratic organizations. 

If bureaucracies are rules driven organizations, organized by a hierarchy of authorities with little concern for outcome, it makes sense that coercion is the major form of motivation. Because outcome is not monitored, employees cannot be rewarded when a particular level of production or customer satisfaction is achieved, nor is it reasonable to expect to reward employees because of a particular level of compliance with rules or procedures because uniform compliance is expected. In fact, the theoretical foundations of bureaucracy – impersonality and lack of favoritism and individuality – work against any sort of recognition of individual accomplishment. Bureaucratic employees are defined by their job description and nothing more. 

The only expectation for bureaucratic employees is compliance with rules and procedure, and the chief motivational tool is the threat of aversive treatment. This is why businesses can offer employee bonuses, promotions, stock options, and similar motivators and bureaucracy cannot. It can only threaten disciplinary action, and a vague hope for promotion at some distant future date. 

A personal example might help illustrate what I mean. Years ago, I was interviewing for a case management job in a county mental health department – a unit of public administration. At the end of the interview, I asked how I would know I was doing a good job if I were hired. The interviewer gave me a lengthy and detailed description of how she, the training officer, and I would review all sorts of documents to make sure that I was following procedures, observing rules and conforming to expectations. I thought she was kidding and said so. She got a bit irate and asked if I had a better idea. Sure, it is quite simple – clients arrive in one condition, we do something, and as a result, they should leave in an improved condition. Measure the difference and you know how good a job you are doing. I was not hired, but the reduction to speechlessness and the shocked look on the interviewers face was priceless. 

This brings up another important issue. Personality traits are very important, not just for hiring and recruitment but for motivation, also. We know that personality traits play a significant role in the success of entrepreneurs and CEOS, and we have a good idea that they are also important in bureaucracy (Fisher and Kock 2008). Unlike entrepreneurs, employees in bureaucratic organizations would do best with a high respect for authority, tolerance for structure, be detail oriented, and find security in predictability and maintenance of the status quo. A reward for one would be a punishment for another.  

(For an amusing personal experience about how punishment in the eyes of human resources can be a heaven sent reward for a worker check out this link: http://www.vicnapier.com/MyArticles/JobsLaborMarketEcon/disciplinaryactions.htm) 

Vic Napier




Bornstein, R. 1989. Exposure and affect: Overview and metaanalysis of research, 1968–1987. Psychological Bulletin, 106: 265–289.  

Dodge v. Ford Motor Company, 204 Mich. 459, 170 N.W. 668. Available at: http://law.vanderbilt.edu/faculty/thompson/corpcasebook/dodge.htm 

Danziger, J. N. (2007). Understanding the political world : a comparative introduction to political science (8th ed.). New York: Pearson Education, Inc. 

Everett, M. 1995. Making a living while making a difference: A guide to creating careers with a conscience. New York: Bantam Books  

Fisher, J. L., & Koch, J. V. (2008). Born, not made : the entrepreneurial personality. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.









Jobs & Econony History & Politics Org Psych MiscThoughts Risk and Sensation Skydiving Adler & Behaviorism Twitter Digg Reddit