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In my very younger days, the newspaper arrived very early morning and my father browsed through it before going to office, and we also looked at it. It used to be ‘Mashriq’ the Urdu newspaper, and for years, it remained the same.

A very common complaint, objection, statement used to be about ‘surkh feeta’ or red tape. It was alleged to be the mother of all ills. It caused delays in decision making, it kept the matters pending for years, and it made the file moving between various departments for endless cycles. Government departments were identified with red tape, and it is still the same.

Red tape got its name from colonial England where binders of documents were tied up with red cloth tape. When the English colonized India, they brought this custom here also. We inherited it and are continuing with it, though the red tape has been replaced with the white tape. Red tape is not just a physical thing, it reflects an attitude which we commonly call bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is the mindset of putting up necessary and unnecessary roadblocks, delaying decision making, shirking responsibility, and perpetuating culture of central authority.

Red tape worked very nicely in government departments because no one wanted to take the responsibility for a decision. Therefore, the file was marked to all concerned and even unconcerned departments to give their input. When it became absolutely safe, the concerned officer shall sign the file. In a more common scenario, the officer does not want to do it and therefore keeps forwarding here and there with notes like ‘Please speak’, ‘Please comment’ etc. In yet another scenario, the case is delayed and made to look complicated in order to get speed money. As soon as the money is received, the file starts moving.

Our old times officers and clerks took pride in the fact they could write a killer note on the file which no senior would be able to contest. God knows, how many men and women have been sacrificed on the altar of ‘killer notes.’

It is generally assumed that Bureaucracy is the hall mark of government departments and that private corporates would be free from this ill. Unfortunately, this is not so. Let me show how bureaucracy works in private corporates.


The best and the commonest place to hide bureaucracy is culture. The usual definition of culture is ‘the way things are done around here’. The new joiners are reminded by colleagues at various levels about what the culture of the organization is. It also includes a concealed threat that any effort that threatens the stability of culture shall be dealt with seriously.

What exactly is culture? Let us look at the evolution of an organization.

Most businesses start small, and as a personal enterprise. The entrepreneur puts together a small team but does not delegate any authority to any of them. He (it is mostly he) would take all decisions himself and run the organization with central authority. It is necessary in the beginning because the enterprise is small and vulnerable, and any misstep could become a fatal blow. As the business stabilizes and increases, some amount of delegation may take place. Over time, a management layer evolves which has been trained, and coached by the entrepreneur in his own ways. The management layer also believes in central authority and command and do not like to get into discussion or explanation of their decisions. They are also intolerant of dissent and disagreement. The culture of central command takes root and becomes a strong presence. The business grows further, and the new generation of the original owner also joins, but they are also trained to exercise central authority.

Authority is intoxicating and addictive. Over time, the need for central authority is eliminated but the addiction is stronger than ever. Commands, said and unsaid, go like this.

  • It is how things are done around here. We are doing great
  • Do not try to reinvent the wheel; it is invented and running smoothly
  • We never had a problem with our system. It works perfectly for us
  • We cannot allow people at every level to take decisions. It may be very harmful for the company
  • We know from experience what is best for this company
  • Experience cannot be substituted with high education
  • We play safe and always use well-tried methods
  • We believe in giving freedom to people, but within the ambit of the policy framework
  • We have a set of policies and procedures (read SOPs). These have been designed with utmost wisdom and everyone is required to comply with these.
  • We allow difference of opinion, but it should not violate the set procedures
  • We appreciate creativity and innovation, but it must be done within the system
  • The organization cannot be given in the hands of those who have not spent a long time here
  • We hire talented people to add value to the organization, not to change the basic premises
  • The value and strength of our system has been endorsed time and again. We see no reason to change

This list is just indicative, many more lines can be added.

Culture is a great thing to have, but it becomes the major limiting factor, and so it must be reviewed. Culture is the biggest proponent of bureaucracy, and organizations around the world are grappling with this issue. Change Management is change of how things are done around here, and it is change of culture. It is a very difficult task, and most of the old, bureaucratic managers are ultimately relieved to make way for change. In my time, I have seen numerous examples of managers who refused to change and were finally replaced.

It is a long debate why people do not change. I have found that ‘insecurity’ is the basic reason, though it may present in other forms. There is fear that I may not survive if the ground beneath my feet shuffles. Plenty of organizations are losing growth but keep embracing bureaucratic attitude.

To be Concluded……

Disclaimer: Most pictures in these blogs are taken from Google Images and Pexels. Credit is given where known; some do not show copyright ownership. However, if a claim is lodged at any stage, we shall either mention the ownership clearly, or remove the picture with suitable regrets.

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