The Many Faces of Bureaucratic Black Belts

We've written about Bureaucratic Black Belts over the years, and even distinguished one subtype--the benevolent bureaucratic black belt. But we're thinking there's a lot more to be said about BBB's and more subtypes to discover. We'll start by identifying three archetypes we've been thinking about but we know there's many more. We welcome your contributions. First, let's remind ourselves of who BBB's are and what they do. Bureaucratic Black Belts are those individuals in an organization who have mastered all the ins and outs of both its bureaucratic rules and bureaucratic culture. They are frequently the Professor Moriarty to the Rebel Sherlock, a clever operator, a bureaucratic mastermind, who understands the bureaucracy much better than the Rebel at Work. Asked to figure out how to accomplish a particular goal, they can, like an excellent navigation system, identify multiple routes through the bureaucracy. What they're usually not so good at is coming up with an original destination. Many BBB’s act as if maneuvering the bureaucracy is its own reward, like solving an English garden maze where, when you’re done, you’re right back where you started from. Most BBB's believe, almost without thinking, that preservation, sameness, and symmetry are the ultimate purposes of organizational life.

Three BBB archetypes we've been thinking about:

The Wind-Surfers. Wind-Surfers are somewhat rare, we think, because they pair strong personal ambition with bureaucratic finesse. Unlike many BBBs who are support/administrative specialists, Wind-Surfers usually directly execute the organization’s mission. Their strong personal ambitions have led them to figure out every possible angle to ascend the hierarchy. Although early in their careers they often held convictions about how the organization could improve, over time and usually, in our estimation, without conscious awareness, their instincts for climbing to the top sublimated their desire to improve mission execution. Of course, they would deny this if confronted and insist they are just playing for the right time and opportunity. But the opportunity clock never seems to strike. And in the meantime their views on what the organization needs to do shifts with the prevailing leadership winds.

The organizational astuteness of Wind-Surfers is always prized by more adventurous leaders in the organization, who need the support of BBBs to get their own initiatives implemented. Wind-Surfers are always happy to do the bidding of those above them in the hierarchy, but are reluctant to back any new ideas that came from below them in the organization.

The Tugboat Pilots. These BBB’s make their mark in the organization through their ability to navigate any difficult organizational terrain, whether it be new leadership, bad publicity, or new administrations.  Like mountain goats, their first step, i.e. their first bureaucratic response, is always spot-on. They can recall every detail of the organization’s history and leverage it to their advantage.

Tugboat Pilots are masters of context and of reading people. They seem to have recognized early on in their careers that their innate skills were best suited to guiding others, and they embraced that mission with enthusiasm and sincerity. Tugboat Pilots are motivated to arrange productive meetings for the organization, thus Rebels at Work should always consider their advice. Unlike Wind-Surfers, Tugboat Pilots do not become BBBs because of their desire to advance their careers; most of them see themselves as the guardians of the organization’s well-being. They have watched several leaders come and go and so understand the damage that even good intentions could cause and know not to get too caught up in any one change agenda. Tugboat Pilots are among the best BBB’s for rebels at work to befriend. If they believe your intentions are good, that you too are motivated more by helping the organization than by ego, there’s a good chance they will try to help you. But beware, the instincts of Tugboat pilots are likely to be more conservative than yours. Taking a chance in dangerous waters is just not their style. Keep that in mind when deciding how much of their advice to take on board.

Bureaucratic Green Belts. We think this type of BBB, actually a BGB, can do more good than harm. We call them green belts because, while they are masters of one particular set of bureaucratic processes, they are not defenders of the entire bureaucracy and have not yet adopted a complete organizational mindset. In fact some bureaucratic green belts never become BBBs, and instead devote their careers to defending just the particular processes they own, sometimes from the rest of the organization.

Rebels at Work can too easily dismiss Bureaucratic Green Belts, who often can have important insight into the implementation risks of their proposals. Rebels at Work can assume that green belts won't understand their vision but instead we've found that they can relish applying their knowledge and skills to an entirely new set of puzzles. If a rebel change agenda touches upon some of the processes that a green belt owns, some early conversations with that individual can win you some important insights and warn you of problematic aspects of your ideas.

OK--now it's your turn. What types of BBBs have you encountered?