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Max Weber Bureaucracy: Characteristics, Advantages and Disadvantages

Max Weber described bureaucracy using its structural characteristics with no restriction to government cycles but one, which includes even the large private enterprises.  In his work, Max Weber goes to great lengths to describe the structure and nature of bureaucracy (Weber 1978). It is important to note that typically, hierarchical pyramid of authority   in which every level has distinctive jurisdictional areas   but all governed by rational policies or rules.  For example, managers undertake certain specific trainings to run their offices and carry out their duties through files and written documents.

A set working day does not bind the responsibility of managers but demand their total attention and commitment.  Max Weber describes this aspect as “indestructible” and illustrates that an occupying army will often employ existing bureaucracy to achieve their own ends and only using the conquering bureaucrats to replace the conquered bureaucrats and this way the country continues to run smoothly (Weber 1978).  Max Weber notes that such is the influence or power of bureaucracy. This paper provides a detailed insight to the characteristics, advantages and disadvantages of Max Weber’s bureaucracy model.

Max Weber outlines what he considers as the ideal type of bureaucracy (rational bureaucracy) characterized by division of labor, recording of documents and   hierarchal chain of command.  He considers bureaucracy a result of the evolution of social organisation and systems form the traditional type to a more rational basis of social order (Rhodes 2005). He believes the bureaucratic systems and bureaucracy generally are inevitable.  Some of the factors responsible for the rise of bureaucracy are taxation, money economy, coordination among agencies and increased communications.

According to Max Weber, bureaucracy provides   greater efficiency and is equally important because of its leveling impact or effects on the society. However, Max Weber recognizes the disadvantages of bureaucracy and suggests that bureaucracy may stifle enterprise was the case in ancient Rome (Rhodes 2005).  Max Weber noted that bureaucracy establishes a new class of public or private officials who use inordinate power and force over their subjects within their respective administrative cycles hence they become domineering and impose their personal agendas on their juniors or subjects.  Max Weber referred to it as the “dictatorship of the official (Max 1997).

Characteristics of Weber’s Bureaucracy Model

The power of bureaucracy grows in tandem with the technical knowledge (secrecy) that creates influence, which outstrips the supposed neutrality of bureaucracy. Max emphasized that the bureaucracies were attempts to subdue people to the rule of reason (rationality) in order to make it facilitate the functioning of the organizations in line with calculable rules. Max Weber believes that bureaucracy and rationality go hand in hand. One of the key characteristics of bureaucracy according to Weber is functional specialization.

Functional specialization in this case applies to individuals within organizations and equally applies to lager divisions or units of the organizations.  The breaking down of work into specific and special tasks with every employee or worker assigned to a specific tasks or a few roles of similar kinds. According to Weber, this type of specialization is necessary for a rational bureaucracy and that the boundaries that separate a functional division or unit form another and require fixing through explicit regulations, rules and guidelines (Weber 1978).

Hierarchy system of subordination and supervision)

Coordinating the units and divisions would require clear system of authority characterized by hierarchy.  This in turn implies clear levels of authority that all the  workers or employees  within the organization need  to understand who their boss is  with every individual observing and respecting the chains of commands  which means that one can only give instructions and orders to their  subordinates while they can only receive  commands and instructions from their immediate superiors.  It only through such a system that the top officials can be sure that instructions and directives reach where there should reach and know who to hold responsible. Hierarchical authority is necessary in bureaucracies so that managers can make proper use of highly trained experts.

Training:  It ensures that the effort put in training an expert matches his responsibility and authority. Weber maintained that it was possible to operate rational bureaucracies by deploying experts at levels that match their specific training. Individuals earmarked for top management or leadership can gain experience through a system of rotation in the various divisions of the organization in order to acquire firsthand experience concerning the different problems future subordinates are likely to face (Rhodes 2005).

Rules: According to Max Weber, decision-making guided by principles, rules and guidelines is one of the key characteristics and aspects of rational bureaucracies.  In this case the managing of the bureaucracies in accordance with the rules and carefully developed principles which individuals can learn and apply and that officials must record decisions and transactions in order to allow for review. According to Max Weber, it is only with such principles and rules that the operations and activities of several managers at different levels within the organizations can be predictable and coordinated.

It works on the notion that if we cannot predict what an official can or will do then it becomes difficult to count on the official. In this case, it is important to know that officials within the organizations can cope and solve problems at times of crisis. In as much as it is difficult to outline specific contingency measures employees need to take in different circumstances it is important to train the decision makers who are able to handle different situations and must promptly and accurately report their decisions to their superiors

It is important to note that for a long time Max Weber’s “rational bureaucracy” concept dominated the social science reasoning concerning modern, large organizations. In case the organizations were operating in line with Max Weber’s model of bureaucracy then it was necessary to bring such organizations to operate inline with ideal bureaucratic procedures. The sharp positions and criticisms on Max Weber’s   model of bureaucracy started emerging during the Second World War when the then social scientists begun arguing that Max ignored much of certain crucial issues that took place within the organizations such as the cliques, the conflicts, sidestepping chain of command and rules.

According to Weber, the bureaucratic order takes the form of future serfdom characterized by powerless submission by men akin to the submission of slaves to the authority in ancient Egypt (Weber 1978).  In such an environment, people work in the stations and areas bureaucrats determined hence the people are not able to climb social ladder due to their closed future economic mobility. The result of this social order is the domination coupled with increased levels of formalization or rationality that limits innovation and variety from life and this makes Max Weber deeply worried.

He therefore started thinking of ways of addressing the excesses and disadvantages of bureaucracies but ended up entrusting his hopes for protection and care from two kinds of leaders. The first is the politicians because they are accountable to the people and can seek support from his legislature and constituency for political support necessary for countering bureaucratic powers. Weber equally believed that the politicians are not accountable to the bureaucrats.  The second type of leader is the entrepreneur whom he believed was a “counter” kind of bureaucrat. While the bureaucrat happens to be risk averse and focuses on order, the entrepreneur on the other hand takes great risks thus his skills, expertise becomes and alternate source of knowledge and power to the bureaucrats.

Max Weber’s position on rational bureaucracy is the subject of this paper. A sociologist named Max Weber began studying the new forms of organizations established for managing a vast number of people operating in complex and far-flung activities (Max 1997).. After carrying out several studies, Max Weber concluded that all these organizations were in way other bureaucracies.  In the present society, bureaucracy represents a negative word characterized by inefficiency, officiousness and red tape. Bureaucracies can therefore breed these features especially in cases where there exists a highly centralized authority. Max Weber on the other hand outlined what he considered as the reasons why bureaucracies worked albeit better than the traditional organizations.

Advantages of Weber’s Bureaucracy Model

In order to properly appreciate and understand the advantages or disadvantage of division of bureaucracy model according to Max Weber, it is important to consider the economic and ethical aspects of the Weber’s concept. The rational bureaucracy model put forward by Max Weber has certain positive aspects and advantages .some of the perceptive used in determining the advantages or the disadvantages of Max Weber’s notion and concept of rational bureaucracy have connections or relations in terms of the measure of satisfaction and efficiency derived from the working experience of employees.  Some the key advantages of Max Weber’s model of bureaucracy are the concept of division of labor and hierarchy.

The combination of both the hierarchy and division of labor makes it possible to limit the harmful types of authority that can result in unfair circumstances for employees.   In the absence of  such rational rules and principles then individuals in higher positions of authority are can abuse their powers   by ignoring the rights and freedom of employees  and thus bureaucracy helps check such excesses. Max Weber holds that authority can emanate from different roots and thus for such authority to be acceptable they have to be legitimized (Max 1997). Therefore, there exists a connection between legitimized authority and Weber’s model of bureaucracy. It is important to note that the existence of illegitimate authority within an organization can negatively affect its operations and thus bureaucracy as put forth by Max Weber plays the role of an organizer and a legitimizing authority.  Hierarchical structures and the concept or idea of division labor as some of the characteristics of bureaucracy account according to Weber can help solve the problem of illegitimate power or authority in organizations.


Division of labor has its unique advantages to the employees as it gives them an opportunity to defend themselves and account for the work they carry out. The absence of division of labour can create loopholes for abuse of power by certain superiors since they can falsely accuse and punish their subjects of since there is no accurate means of measuring an individuals output.  It is therefore imperative that division of labor which one of the key features of Weber’s account of bureaucracy promotes fairness in organizations.


The structuring of organizations, which is common with bureaucracies, ensures that there is objectivity in the interactions between the individual and the organization ensures that personal judgments and feelings of the employees do not interfere with the operation of the organization.  The concept and principle of objectivity promotes a just and equal treatment of clients of the organization in due the structural and formal instruction of the business or organization. From an ethical perspective, it is important to note that the principle of objectivity promotes fairness and justice in organizations to a large group of individuals.  The impersonal application of regulations, rules to the employees and people considered as outsiders of the organizations and the manner in which the organization handles its own staff enhances objectivity in the organization. For example, the rules concerning the taxpayer and the superiors determine impersonally the regulations or laws concerning the rights and duties of the employees.

Division of labor and hierarchal structuring of organization in Weber’s model of “rational bureaucracy”   enhances control of unexpected problems or shocks since it is easy to identify promptly the particular section experiencing the problem in order to contain within the section and avoid transmission in to other sections of the organization. The hierarchal structuring or organizations make it possible for the managers to establish or detect a problem and its origin in the organization   thus limiting the general transmission of a specific problem by securing all other non-affected sections.  It is equally important to note that with democracy, bureaucracy can result in leveling of social and economic differences.

Disadvantages of Max Weber’s bureaucracy model

Inefficiency and lack of flexibility are some of the disadvantages of Max’s concept of bureaucracy in organizations.  The pile up or growing of regulations, rules, laws or corpus of bureaucracy affects the efficiency of the organization and the system and equally restricts flexibility as the  rules, laws , guidelines and policies continue to grow large and large. The creation or several hurdles and bureaucratic procedures in an organization can work against efficiency because bureaucracy in itself is not the aim or goal of the organization but a means of realizing the goals of the organizations.  In this case, the bureaucracy can result in changing of positions between the means which the bureaucracy and the goals of the organization.  The organization stands to lose a lot if bureaucracy ceases to be a managerial tool and instead becomes the core business or activity of the organization.

Restriction of creativity and innovation by the employees is another disadvantage of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy gives very little room for creativity among the employees as the organizations design their specific task to take certain forms and a few allowed areas. This leaves very little or no room at all for creativity and this leads to a growing sense of dissatisfaction among the employees with their jobs.

The mechanical reasoning and thinking in such organizations is due to bureaucracy which affects the manner in which the employees towards the organization and its clients.  The employees in such organizations therefore spend a lot of time working in jobs and environments that they do not enjoy.   It is important to note that is difficult to operate or working in circumstances that have minimal room for flexibility and this leads to employees not getting satisfaction in their work and can cause inefficiency.  Finally, bureaucracy creates room for abuse of power and position by individuals who control the system. Bureaucracy equally seems to maintain the superiority of the professionally informed personalities and individuals in the organization through secrecy that characterize the bureaucratic systems .

In conclusion, it is important to note that Weber considered the calculability of results as the major advantage of bureaucracy. He equally noted certain dysfunctions of bureaucracy such as the susceptibility to abuse by superiors or individuals who control the system (Bryan 1999) Max Weber born in the year 1864 made his observations concerning bureaucracy in accordance with his experience in the USA while he was travelling there. He therefore noted certain characteristics of bureaucracy such fixed jurisdictional areas guided by regulations, policies, rules and laws. Routine activities, division of labor, hierarchy and a systematic chain of command, procedures of operations are some of the characteristics of the “rational bureaucracy”. Rationality of bureaucracy became Max Weber’s central issue concerning his ideal type (Max 1997).

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