Max Weber was a German sociologist who made significant complementary contributions to Taylor’s management system as well as to the disciplines of economics and sociology. Weber did the majority of his work in the early 1890s and then after 1904 when he started writing again. Sociologists hold Weber in such esteem that they regard him as a father of the field.
Weber1Max Weber, “Ideal Bureaucracy” in The Theory of Social and Economic Organizations (ed. & trans. Talcott Parsons & Alexander H. Henderson). (New York: Oxford University Press, 1922/1947) stressed that social scientists could only understand collectives by understanding the actions of individuals. One of the individual behaviors that Weber did research was the types of leadership, identifying three types of leadership: charismatic domination (familial and religious) traditional domination (patriarchs, patrimonialism, and feudalism) and legal domination (modern law, state, and bureaucracy). Weber’s contribution to management is the development and understanding of the legal rationalism model of leadership, which stressed the idea that leaders should make decisions based on law, precedent, and rule, rather than whim. Weber went further than previous scholars and described why we saw the emergence of bureaucracies and other responses to industrialization.
According to Weber, both the industrialization and transportation revolutions allowed for the expanse of territories to be managed. The demands placed on managing larger and larger amounts of territory as well as people facilitated the need for bureaucracy, which is a system of fixed rules that are impartially administered. The expanding market economy required administration that is more efficient. At the same time, the emergence of communication and transportation improvements made improved administration possible.
The most notable contribution Weber provided to modern management was the creation of the modern bureaucracy. Although the ancient Chinese had the first bureaucracy, the notable difference of Weber’s bureaucracy is that decisions were made on a formal basis, rather than what a manager felt was correct. Weber stressed that knowledge, not birth circumstances, should be the basis of hiring and promotion within a bureaucracy. This attitude stood in sharp contrast to the policies and practices of the time in both Europe and the United States, which stressed birth circumstances. Weber also stressed that bureaucrats need to make decisions based on rules rather than whims.
While the word bureaucracy typically has negative connotations in the mind of modern readers, at the time it was a vast improvement over what had occurred previously. Prior to Weber, management did not have to provide justification for why they made particular decisions, nor did they have to make decisions based on rules. Hiring and promotion were based on nepotism, very different from the modern meritocracy of today.
Principles of the Ideal Bureaucracy:
- Specialized roles
- Recruitment based on merit
- Uniform principles of placement, promotion, and transfer
- Careerism with systematic salary structure
- Hierarchy, responsibility, and accountability
- Subjection of official conduct to strict rules of discipline and control
- Supremacy of abstract rules
- Impersonal authority (i.e., office bearer does not bring the office with him)
There was, however, a downside to this new managerial approach. A bureaucracy could shield bureaucrats from personal responsibility and initiative. Even worse, it could make them willing participants in criminal activities. American sociologist Robert K. Merton noted that in a bureaucracy, rules could become more important than actual goals. Merton wrote:
An effective bureaucracy demands reliability of response and strict devotion to regulations. Such devotion to the rules leads to their transformation into absolutes; they are no longer conceived as relative to a set of purposes. This interferes with ready adaptation under special conditions not clearly envisaged by those who drew up the general rules. Thus, the very elements which conduce toward efficiency in general produce inefficiency in specific instances. Full realization of the inadequacy is seldom attained by members of the group who have not divorced themselves from the meanings which the rules have for them. These rules in time become symbolic in cast, rather than strictly utilitarian.2Robert K. Merton, “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality.” Social Forces, 1940, 18, 500-508.
Another particular issue was that bureaucracy placed so much emphasis on legal authority that it ignored several important factors. The first factor is that bureaucratic laws are often incomplete due to problems in communication and understanding. Contracts tend to be abandoned rather than completed. No contract or law can consider every outcome or event. The second issue is that bureaucratic organizations ignored interpersonal authority and often relied only on reason and logic for decision-making. Often people followed their managers because they personally liked them rather than the legal aspect of authority. Managers that only use legal authority to gain performance are limited in the performance they will be able to garner.
Weber’s ideas can be seen very clearly in human resource management in that managers should make decisions based on policy rather than whim. His ideas about structure and the line of authority continue to have great influence in management today.
Management 2020 text remixed from multiple sources under a CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. View a complete list of original sources.