Pope Francis’ Critique of the Bureaucratic Personality: Are We Listening?

Yesterdy Pope Francis delivered a blistering critique of the Catholic Church’s administrative apparatus directly to the leaders of that body, the Roman Curia. Citing fifteen “ailments” that afflict the church bureaucracy, the Pope addressed problems of that group, but more generally raised questions that should be thoughtfully considered by all who work in large organizations, whether corporate or governmental.

The Pope began by remarking on the limits of a bureaucracy “that is not self-critical, does not stay up-to-date, (and) that does not seek to improve itself.” This condition is fed by leaders or managers who consider themselves indispensable, and “transform themselves into masters, (believing) themselves superior to others, rather than at their service.”

The Pope also derided the tendency of those in large bureaucracies to lose their “inner serenity, vivacity, and boldness” and become “working machines.” In doing so, he pointed out, leaders, managers, or others lose their capacity for empathy and emotional “sensibility.”

There is also excessive planning and functionalism, in which “the apostle plans everything in detail and believes that, by perfect planning things effectively progress….” In contrast, and very much in keeping with the contemporary critique of stale and tradition-bound organizations, the Pope recommends “freshness, imagination, and innovation.”

Next is the sickness of poor coordination, where the organization “loses its harmonious functionality and its temperance” and where “members do not collaborate and do not work with a spirit of communion…..”

The Pope also took aim at “excessive industriousness,” the failure to rest, to reflect, and to replenish, both spiritually and physically. The result of this lack of recovery time is stress and agitation, both of which are antithetical to individual health and to job performance.

After several ailments pointed more directly at the Curia, the Pope also noted the tendency for those in large organizations to become indifferent toward others, losing “the sincerity and warmth of personal relationships.” Among managers and leaders, this tendency may become even more acute, as they come “to treat others – especially those they consider inferior – with rigidity, hardness, and arrogance.”

Finally, there is the disease of accumulation, when “the apostle seeks to fill an existential emptiness of the heart by accumulating material goods” or when “the apostle transforms his service into power, and his power into goods to obtain worldly profit or more power.”

In my view, the Pope provided not only a critique of the church bureaucracy but provided enormous insight into what we might call the “bureaucratic personality.”  Certainly many organizations are adopting more progressive practices, emphasizing creativity and innovation at the organizational level and meaningful engagement at the personal level.

Still today, most of us live in the shadow of organization, acting out an organizational ideology that makes us more objective, impersonal, and aloof than we would, upon reflection, prefer. Despite changes at the institutional level, an increasing number of today’s managers and leaders seem to exhibit heavy-handed, top-down management styles.

How often, even recently, have we seen managers and leaders who consider themselves superior, even indispensable, who lose touch with “the real people,” and who display excessive ego? How often have we seen those same people become rigid and harsh in their relations with subordinates?

Similarly, we can easily think of managers and leaders who plan excessively, impose their own vision, and fail to adapt to changing conditions.  And we have we seen managers and leaders forsake the ideals of their organizations in pursuit of wealth and personal power, resulting in dramatic inequities in income and rewards.

Individually we have often failed to engage in self-reflection and self-critique, which might lead to positive change in the way we act.  We have let stress and “agitation” overcome us. We have failed to collaborate and to commit to the team. And, in pursuit of machine-like efficiency, we have neglected personal relationships and failed to engage with others in an empathetic and caring fashion.

In all of these areas, without even conscious thought, we forgive our managers and leaders and ourselves, saying that’s just the way things work – that’s how things have always been done. But, as the Pope points out, things don’t have to be that way – whether in the church bureaucracy or our own.

I would suggest that the first corrective is simply a recognition and an articulation of the human problems of large organizations, something the Pope provided for the Catholic Church, and something we might do for each of our own groups and organizations. A period of self-reflection, self-critique, and dialogue might appropriately follow.

We need to focus on opening new spaces for freedom, autonomy, empathy, humility, patience, commitment, caring and concern in our workplaces.  We need to address ways to get work done without damage to the human spirit. We need to talk about these things – not through gossip or finger-pointing – but through patient, tolerant, and reasoned conversations.

Just as it will not be easy for Pope Francis to reform the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, it will not be easy for us to reform our own organizations. But the fact that the Pope chose the holiday season, a time of reflection and new commitments, to make his statement, suggests that this might be an opportune time for all of us to think about how we might build more humane organizations and encourage more communal and supportive leadership.

Perhaps this is the season to address the human concerns of autonomy, collaboration, and engagement in large organizations – not in pursuit of greater productivity and economic gain – but in pursuit of greater significance in our lives and in the lives of those we lead.


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