Why corporate bureaucracy and 'lack of common sense' is 'killing' company success

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·6-min read

Hearing a phone line go dead after hours trying to get through. Sitting through virtual meetings beset by tech problems. Getting CC:d into irrelevant email threads. Struggling to open sealed plastic packaging.

Such everyday experiences are among the countless examples of corporate bureaucracy featured in a new book ‘The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate BS.’

READ MORE: How 2020 shone a light on the inefficiency burden of middle management

Danish author Martin Lindstrom, whose previous books have topped New York Times best-seller lists, argues many companies around the world are “haunted by a lack of common sense,” making life difficult for employees and customers alike.

In an interview with Yahoo Finance UK, he set out what he had learned about such behaviours during his career as a brand and culture transformation expert, who has worked with multinationals from Burger King to Google.

Companies ‘slowly drift away from what the customer wants’

Lindstrom’s company hired two psychologists more than a decade ago, to “understand what’s really going on behind the scenes” when tackling clients’ problems.

He said his experiences suggests companies gradually lose touch with their customer’s perspective over time.

“There’s so much red tape, so much bureaucracy, it’s killing things. The issue is for companies, they more or less can’t see—because they begin to see the world from the inside out, not the outside in,” he said.

“So they slowly drift away from what the customer really wants, and are more obsessed with legal and compliance and all that stuff. And slowly things are just becoming worse and worse, and they can’t even feel it.

“A lot of people see problems before opportunities. They envisage ‘what if people complain,’ ‘what if we’re sued’— that becomes the main driver for people creating a lot of red tape without them being aware of it.”

The toll of back-to-back online meetings

Branding and culture transformation expert Martin Lindstrom.
Branding and culture transformation expert Martin Lindstrom. Photo: Lars Schmidt.

Staff pay a price for such issues as much as customers, according to Lindstrom.

“All this red tape is occupying around 35% to 40% of everyone’s daily lives in an organisation... it’s key to why creativity is being killed, and why people’s motivation levels are down the drain.”

Changes sparked by the pandemic such as the rise of remote working are an opportunity to reset, he argues, but COVID-19 has “without any doubt” added new organisational inefficiencies and headaches for staff.

Constant Zoom meetings leave too little time to reflect and think, particularly for creative people, he said.

He also criticised the default durations assigned to many virtual meetings, arguing discussions are then stretched to fill the time as participants “don’t want to be unpolite” ending them early.

Meanwhile employees spend meetings “hammering away on our computers preparing” for the next meeting. “We’re never really present. We think we can multitask. Forget about it.”

Back-to-back online meetings also leave no time for toilet breaks. “Whenever people want to go to the toilet, they sneak out, put a stamp-sized photo on, come back and pretend they haven’t been away.

The need for empathy

A key argument in Lindstrom’s book is that many companies’ flawed processes show a lack not only of common sense, but more importantly a lack of empathy.

“Common sense is directly correlated with empathy,” he said. “Empathy is the ability to put your self in the shoes of another person, and feel what that person is feeling. Common sense is to see things from another point of view.

“Empathy is the reason human beings are where we are today.”

But Lindstom suspects empathy is on the wane. He cites a US study of 14,000 college students between 1980 and 2010, which found a 48% decline in empathy and 34% decline in taking others’ perspectives.

His book argues smartphones have likely worsened the problem over the past decade, meaning we “don’t notice things any more.” Another study found just the presence of a mobile phone on a table knocked empathy levels during a conversation.

Lindstrom suggests the corporate world pays too little attention to empathy partly because it is associated with “crying babies and cupcakes.”

“It’s much more than that... it’s why a simple action like buying office equipment turned into six pages and a committee decision followed by five levels of approval process.”

How to be more empathetic and efficient — as an organisation or individual

Branding and culture transformation expert Martin Lindstrom.
Branding and culture transformation expert Martin Lindstrom. Photo: Lars Schmidt.

For Lindstrom, the answer is to step into the shoes of others.

Those creating or implementing rules have “zero empathy because they haven’t tried it themselves.”

He cited an example from one of his clients, a pharmaceutical company, who admitted they had not spent time with patients.

Leaders then met one asthmatic patient who said she’d helped others see how it affected her by handing them straws and telling them to breathe only through their mouths. Lindstrom then did the same exercise with senior managers.

He makes a similar case for politicians and policymakers in order to ensure “better nuance” in decision-making, highlighting the fallout of the Brexit deal on UK seafood sector a case in point.

“Whenever a policy is being introduced, take policymakers out of their environment into the real environment, to the fishermen or whatever it is, and experience things through their lense. It’s a little bit like Undercover Boss.”

READ MORE: Lost schooling during pandemic ‘could wipe £350bn off earnings’

He has even helped organisations including Standard Chartered bank set up their own ‘ministry of common sense.’

Lindstrom recommends launching a call-out to staff or users for “frictions” they want resolved, with users likely to also volunteer clever solutions.

Such call-outs and ideas need direct approval processes by top decision-makers to be both heard and translated into action, filtering out “red tape required the whole way up.”

Reforms made then need to be celebrated to convince people change is possible, he added.

Such an approach helped Standard Chartered cut one approval process from several days to six hours.

As for employees or anyone looking to waste less time themselves, Lindstrom’s advice is to write down everything you do for a week, and then break it up into things you want to keep doing, do more of, eliminate or you’re not sure about.

“You’ll notice you’re wasting a lot of time.”

WATCH: SVP at Audible Ara Tucker on how to create a sense of belonging in the workplace