Bureaucratic Structure in an Organization: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:00 Bureaucratic Structure…
  • 0:33 Definition of a…
  • 1:18 Principles of a…
  • 2:20 Example of a…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Bureaucratic structures are used in many organizations, including the military, government agencies like the Department of State, and large corporations. In this lesson, we'll define bureaucratic structure and you'll learn how one operates. You'll also be given an opportunity to reinforce your knowledge of this topic with a brief quiz.

Bureaucratic Structure Theorist

Max Weber, alive from 1864-1920, is considered the founding father of modern bureaucratic management theory. Weber was a German sociologist and political economist. He viewed bureaucracy as a positive development from past management and leadership based on traditional authority. Traditional authority was based on the belief in the sacredness of tradition and charismatic leadership, in which authority was based on personal devotion to the leader.

Definition of a Bureaucratic Structure

Most large and complex organizations in the government and the business world utilize a bureaucratic structure, and understanding bureaucratic structure will help you understand how the government and large corporations operate. A bureaucratic structure of an organization has two fundamental characteristics. First, the structure is hierarchical, which means there are clearly ordered levels of management, where lower levels are subordinate, or answerable, to higher levels. Second, the organization is governed by a set of objective laws, rules and procedures as the basis of authority and direction. Max Weber called this element rational-legal authority.

Principles of a Bureaucratic Structure

Employees of a bureaucracy give their obedience to the organization because managers exercise authority through their office or formal position, and the orders or directions are based on the formal rules or laws of the organization. The scope of the manager's authority is limited to his or her position.

For example, the vice president of marketing has no legitimate authority to direct anyone outside of that division, such as the employees in production. This is an example of rational-legal authority. Keep in mind, the easiest way to think of rational-legal authority is that it is the set of the organization's policies and procedures which everyone in the organization must follow.

As previously mentioned, hierarchy is an important feature of bureaucratic structure as well. This structure is meant to provide a clear chain of command, so that one level of the structure is only answerable to the level above it. This helps prevent conflicting orders from different lines of authority.

Example of a Bureaucratic Structure

Imagine for a moment that you were recently hired as a software engineer for a large microchip manufacturing company in Silicon Valley. You are at the bottom of the food chain and do not supervise anyone. However, you are answerable to your unit supervisor, who is answerable to the department head. The department head is answerable to the vice president of the division, who is answerable to the CEO, who must answer to the chairman of the board of directors.

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