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The unbinding of time: on bureaucratic counter-productivity.

[B]ureaucratization' is an unwieldy word, perhaps even an onomatopoeia, since it sounds as bungling as the situation it would characterize.

--Kenneth Burke (1984, p. 225)

Count Alfred Korzybski (2001) delineated three classes of life on the planet: chemistry-binding, space-binding, and time-binding. He suggested that life, most broadly and fundamentally, consisted of "chemistry-binding." The binding of chemicals is required by organic life in all of its forms. Molecular bonding, cell growth, and photosynthesis are obvious examples. To that basic level, he added a second, what he called the "space-binding" of animals. Animals are binders of space because they roam to forage for food. They traverse and meaningfully integrate space ("bind" space) as they flee from predators, hunt prey, and look for mates. Third and finally, humanity occupies the unique location within nature designated by the term "time-binding." We humans are organic and volitional life forms who fall into history and open to culture. Memory, cognition, and consciousness of abstracting take us beyond instinct and beyond mere recollection of familiar pathways and feeding grounds. Our neuro-semantic processes bring us into worlds of imagination and possibility, of cultural achievement, art, music, mathematics, science, and philosophy.

Korzybski's notion of "time-binding" offers a realistic account of how humanity differs from the rest of the natural world and also outlines the possibility of a more "sane" future. In and through time-binding, humans can take up where previous generations have left off, and ideally, make the world a better place-a more hospitable place-one that has taken sociohistorical advantage of the passage of time. One of his concerns about time-binding was that humans may not recognize or adequately appreciate this aspect of themselves. People can underestimate the role that time-binding plays in human affairs; they can neglect time-binding to their individual and collective detriment.

This brief paper addresses the concerns mentioned above by investigating countercurrents to "time-binding" within modern bureaucratic workplaces. These countercurrents serve to "unbind" time. By the notion of "unbinding time," we refer to more than mere forgetfulness, disregard, or neglect of the past. Instead, we mean particular kinds of "anti-productivity" or "counter-productivity" that undermine the health and well-being of organizations and their members. This counter-productivity can be best understood by considering three different forms of dysfunction; (1) "make-work," (2) "passive-aggressive information-withholding," and (3) "the cow path." Individually, these dysfunctions can interfere with the productive functioning of a group and undermine its integration. When combined, and when amplified by communication technologies, effects of these dysfunctions can grow exponentially, further entrenching counter-productivity throughout the modern workplace.


"Make-work" is a broad category of human action referring mainly to pretend work, irrelevant work, inessential work, or work that is not meant to make any real difference. Make-work takes many different forms, but all varieties amount to keeping up the appearance of being busy or industrious, not openly wasting time or sitting idle. Make-work can include taking longer than necessary on everyday tasks; mystifying others regarding what is involved in doing what has been done; and overexaggerating the amount of time, effort, or energy that some project took, would take, or is taking. Make-work can also include hanging around on committees or task forces that barely meet (or hardly do anything), having more meetings rather than deciding and implementing decisions, and covering over how some tasks were completed before any official time was allocated for them. In short, whether accounted for or not, make-work is largely about "the performance" of work or the "image of being busy" rather than about actually, concretely, completing tasks in the best interest of the organization.

Before going further, we should note that this criticism of make-work is not a bid for Taylorism, nor is it offered in the spirit of the Protestant work ethic. In any sort of bureaucratic work, there is necessary downtime. Productivity and efficiency must be balanced by humane workplace practices and legitimate, restorative breaks from both salaried and hourly paid work. Make-work is not simply about carving out extra time, which is sometimes justified. It is about when people fill extra time with meaningless work tasks while pretending that these tasks are real work. It is about exaggeration and a less-than-candid disclosure of work.

Within multilevel hierarchies, make-work can grow exponentially. Supervisors or superiors can successfully hide the fact that they are engaged in make-work when they assign work to subordinates. This trickle-down work, seen by subordinates as legitimately assigned, takes up real time. In some cases, subordinates may hide the fact that they engage in make-work when completing the make-work assigned to them. In any event, superiors and supervisors can take partial or total credit for their subordinates' work/ make-work and count it as their own.

Make-work is often reflected in talk about one's work. Wendell Johnson (1956) recognized that people are their "own most enchanted listeners." This means that when they talk to others, their speaking is not necessarily nor primarily for the benefit of other people. Rather, it is often for their own benefit that they speak. For example, workers talking about the importance of their work may be saying less about the significance of that work and more about how they would like to be seen. "This work is important and difficult" is another way of saying, "I am important and competent." Along those same lines, "I am working so hard" and/or "My work is so complex and challenging" is often another way of saying "I would like you to think that I am working hard." Because people can be their own most enchanted listeners, we should not be surprised that they can overestimate, in make-work ways, all that is involved in completing their projects. Some of this boasting makes psychological sense. For individuals, such maneuvers can be a kind of overcompensation for the all-too-common feeling of being under-recognized or unappreciated within large or complex bureaucracies.

The motives behind make-work deserve a candid and careful assessment. Some make-work begins as a refuge from the strain of ever increasing efficiency within bureaucratic organizations. In other words, some people learn how to save time within the demands of bureaucratic work, and then use make-work (instead of, say, relaxing or "goofing off') as a way to cover for that saved time. Because some people are able to get more work done in less time, they face choices: They can admit having time left over (and risk being given additional tasks), they can hide the fact that they have time left over (with make-work), or they can slow down their activity (sometimes with make-work) so that no leftover time will be discovered. People who are otherwise busy (in work and in home life) and who manage to save themselves some time may be reluctant to admit to any newfound ease of process or time-savings. Some forms of make-work are created for just these situations-so everyone looks busy or so that the situation appears "equitable." This is partly because whatever free time people have been able to make for themselves through technologies, learned strategies, competencies, insider routines, and so on can easily get filled with more work, or make-work designed by others in the organizational hierarchy.

Passive-Aggressive Information-Withholding

Problems working within bureaucracies become more challenging when make-work is coupled with "passive-aggressive information-withholding." Passive-aggressive information-withholding takes many forms and appears in many guises. Simply defined, it occurs when people who wish to impress upon others the difficulty of their work, hide or withhold some piece of information or procedure that would make tasks significantly easier or more efficient for others to do. When people say "knowledge is power" or when people clamor for "organizational transparency," or when they recognize how job security can be achieved through secrecy about what someone does, they are acknowledging the many ways information can be passively withheld. People can withhold information about important and helpful contacts, available material or financial resources, simple tricks that make a particular task easier to perform, and things/people worth avoiding. Such information-withholding runs directly counter to the promise of time-binding. The work, the energy, the efforts, all of the labor performed by a single generation in a culture is an achievement, and it can be generously bestowed upon future generations through both formal and informal symbolic means (talk, lore, instructional and legal documents, constitutions, etc.). The failure to share expertise unravels and unbinds time.

Organizations with like-minded individuals and/or those that are small enough for members to genuinely care about each other and the longevity of the organization often work hard to establish protocols, set up workable laws, and function efficiently. In such organizations, sharing of information is the life-blood of the group. People who have knowledge--those who do tasks well, have valuable information and insights--share their knowledge and skills with those who are new, newer, or below them in the hierarchal structure. Sometimes this is called "mentoring."

Unfortunately, workplace bureaucracies are frequently rife with internal competition, envy, limited resources, and incompetence. Sometimes, competition has been manufactured to create rifts within the group and prevent collective action. It doesn't take much to fight over--a few extra dollars of salary, a small financial or material "bonus," a small amount of extra space, or even a few words or tokens of recognition may be enough (see Shah, 1978). Like chickens fighting over a handful of scattered corn, members of organizations can become surprisingly aggressive as they seek out attention and resources. Those who are not inclined to outright confrontation or direct competition turn to more passive tactics, such as not sharing as much information as they could or should. Instead, they try to "prove" to others the worth of their position and their work by withholding information that would make tasks easier for their coworkers, colleagues, peers, and/or successors. Sometimes spite, malice, jealousy, and/or ill will can inspire such behavior, as can the feeling of being underappreciated. But many problems arise from the structure and organization of the group itself, rather than from individual personality types or emotional responses.

Novelist, nonfiction writer, and Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti (1962) identifies a recurrent source of strife in organizations: "the sting and its command." In essence, people who have been hurt or "stung" in some way by the actions of others, do to others what they have had done to them. If people feel like they have been denied information and have had to work hard to get the insights and knowledge to make their job less painful, they may, in turn, deny information to others as a kind of retaliation or "felt justice." If people feel inferior because of mistakes they've made, they can try to make others feel inferior by not helping them avoid mistakes. If people feel they have been left out of what they consider to be important formative processes, they may, in turn, leave others out of future events or decisions by denying or complicating access to relevant information.

Another form of passive-aggressive information-withholding worth mention occurs when people won't admit that they don't know something. This can occur on occasion, or when people in bureaucracies are promoted to their level of incompetence (Peter & Hull, 1969). People don't want to get caught not knowing what they are presumed to know--or what they are supposed to know or have known--and so they are reluctant to "fess up" about what they don't know. They can also go to great lengths to hide or find excuses for their ignorance, instead of just admitting their ignorance and learning what they need to learn. This unwillingness to display ignorance is a denial of vulnerability--a way of attempting to gain a kind of protection from fallibility. Unfortunately, denying fallibility often plays out as a form of microaggression where people attempt to put themselves above others, or at least out of critical reach. As a consequence, they make unnecessary mistakes that negatively impact the larger group.

The result of these and other forms of passive-aggressive information withholding is an unbinding of time. For example, a person in a bureaucracy might set up a seminar, workshop, conference, or speaker series. This might involve making contacts, securing workable facilities, becoming familiar with software, overseeing operations, etc. Such labor, depending upon context and superiors, might leave the project-planner feeling unappreciated, especially in a large bureaucracy where many people are also doing various noteworthy things. To get desired appreciation, or out of frustration or anger, the planner could withhold information about the program, or about running the program, or key contacts that make things run more smoothly. Over the long haul, such an approach works against not only any individual who inherits the program, but also the original program planner, the program itself, and the larger organization. It can break established traditions and undermine the original impetus behind the program. Such behavior hurts the group, by breaking off vital links across time and between people.

It is perhaps not surprising that when new organizational leaders take the helm (presidents, chief executive officers, cardinals, principals, provosts, managers, deans, and/or other upper administration), they often bring an entirely new staff with them. Some of this has to do with familiarity and the perks of the job, but there is also the real possibility that new leaders wouldn't be able to trust the already existing staff or to count on them to openly and freely share information. The old staff members might hide or suppress information--and simultaneously engage in forms of make-work as a means to displayed competence and job security. They might also try to undermine others' performances so as to look better by comparison.

The Cow Path

Another countercurrent to productivity within the modern bureaucratic workplace is the cow path. Unlike make-work and passive-aggressive information-withholding (which unbind time), the cow path is a kind of time already bound that dictates action, hamstringing both the organization and its employees. In the cow path, the past is an obstacle, rather than an asset.

No bureaucracy can ever completely extinguish the imaginative possibility that helped lead to its existence. But in most systems, some form of compromise must be struck between imagination and bureaucracy. A given system must emphasize certain things and neglect others. This solidifies action into a system.

In some cases, bureaucracies can go astray and lose sight of their original impetus. A company can lose focus on the quality of its products and fixate on profits. A school can be so focused on standardized testing that it ignores the broader academic needs of its students. A political candidate can be more concerned about reelection than about representing his or her constituents. Doctors can be so focused on the amount of time they spend with a patient that the patient's health needs are inadequately assessed.

"A bureaucratic order approaches the stage of alienation in proportion as its 'unintended by-products' become a stronger factor than the original purpose" (Burke, 1984, p. 226). This means that the further astray a bureaucracy gets from its initial mission, the more alienation results. Substantial alienation often leads to a class struggle, where those who have a stake in retaining the bureaucracy come into conflict with those who find fault in the system.

It is normal and natural to be obedient to reigning symbols of authority--it is part of what maintains the social fabric. In the situation just described, however, those who find fault with the system are "robbed of their 'right' to be obedient," and feel compelled to be disloyal. Speaking against established bureaucracy is difficult and painful not only because faultfinders ("the opposition") are castigated for being disrespectful to the reigning symbols of authority, but also because the natural inclination of all members of the group is toward loyalty.

The opposition may try to reimagine the group and succeed in the reformation of a new collectivity. "Insofar as [a given order] can unite in a new collectivity, progressively affirming its own title to the orthodoxy, tendencies toward the negativistic, satanistic, sectarian, disintegrative, and 'splintering' fall away" (1984, p. 226). Or, the opposition may fail, especially if it tries to work within existing bureaucratic structures and processes: "insofar as its own imaginative possibility requires embodiment in bureaucratic fixities, its necessary divergences from Utopia become apparent" (1984, p. 226).

The term "utopia" points to how people often ignore their own idealistic patterns of thought while criticizing others for theirs. Those invested in keeping a bureaucracy the way it is can have an especially hard time accepting the imperfect world of bureaucratic compromise. There is nothing that needs fixing, they say. There is no room for imagination. We do what we've done before, and we should continue to do things this way.

As Burke aptly puts it,
   Every machine contains a cow-path. That is: there are embodied
   somewhere in its parts the variants of a process that remains
   simply because the originators of the machine embodied this process
   in their invention. It has been retained, not because it has been
   criticized, evaluated, and judged to be the best possible process,
   but simply because no one ever thought of questioning it. (1984, p.

A cow path is seldom formulated; sometimes it's not even given explicit verbalization. The process exists simply because it does--"in pious obedience to its secret grounding in the authority of custom" (1984, p. 228).

Sometimes a bureaucracy needs to leave the past behind. Outmoded structures and processes call out for replacement. Unfortunately, bureaucratic cow-paths are extremely hard to redirect. This is not just simple inertia; cow paths, in their own way, facilitate make-work and passive-aggressive information-withholding. Bureaucratic cow paths resist the constructive de-tethering and rebinding of time by ossifying process and entrenching practices in the workplace. They discourage needed change, even when a portion of the group sees problems and can imagine better ways of pursuing the organization's original goal or restoring the organization's original goal to prominence. Following "the old ways" for no other reason than "that's how we do it" is yet another kind of anti- or counter-productivity undermining the health and well-being of organizations and their members.

Technological Encroachment, Technological Skimming, and the Digital Divide

Compounding and extending the already multiplicative effects of make-work, passive-aggressive information-withholding, and the cow path, is the technological age in which we find ourselves. Today, members of organizations are presented with technological challenges and efficiencies in the workplace at an ever-increasing rate. New programs, software, and hardware appear daily and require newly learned competencies from users.

Technological encroachment can follow in the footsteps of already established cow paths, even when these paths are no longer the best way to proceed. Procedural flowcharts may be retained when the logic of their ordering is long past. Shifts in media (e.g., from paper to electronic), can result in outmoded methods of processing, storage, and retrieval of information. New hardware or software needs may not be satisfied by old hierarchies of expenditures and distribution. Doing things the old way is problematic, to say the least, when the old way gives inadequate or outdated direction regarding new technological needs.

Technological encroachment also has enabled a technologically oriented form of time-binding that, in turn, has led to human counter-productivity. Automated scheduling systems, copying functions, new data processing capabilities, faster processing speeds, integrated multitasking applications, and other technological advances make it possible to do things that previously had taken much longer to do. These advances also make "technological skimming" possible. People who practice "technological skimming" use technology to reduce the overall demands of their routine work, and then, without sharing that fact, engage in make-work to fill the time saved. In contrast, those people who can't keep up--those who don't learn technological systems and procedures as quickly or as easily as others--may fall behind and their performance may suffer.

Because of passive-aggressive information-withholding, determining on which side of the organizational "digital divide" someone is located can be difficult. Are certain individuals struggling with a challenging technology and related difficulty? If so, do they need help and perhaps more time to do the work? Or, are they strategists on the cow path engaged in technological skimming--competently using the technology to make life simpler for themselves and then hiding that fact--and the time saved--through various forms of make-work?


The pace of life gets faster every day. New technologies change the environments in which we find ourselves--at home and in the workplace. With the press of a few buttons we can transfer and record vast sums of data across a variety of platforms, view people and spaces at a distance, command electronic equipment of substantial size and complexity, and coordinate disparate media sources and services. We now lean on technologies to bind time for us--in increased efficiencies, synergies, and networks. Instead of sharing knowledge face-to-face, we direct others to websites and links and fact sheets; instead of explaining specific procedures, we point to general video tutorials; instead of explaining "how things work around here," employees can be directed to online resources and asked to figure things out from there. When we lean too heavily on electronic technologies for "connection," we potentially undermine our collective ability to bind time. We may also extend already existing unhealthy practices in the workplace.

Whether we are trying to deal with new efficiencies that technologies inevitably yield, or are simply succumbing to the foibles of human nature-about which we are still largely unaware--make-work, passive-aggressive information-withholding, and the cow path aggravate our individual and collective action, and they undermine overall productivity. These practices undermine human time-binding and exacerbate the problems associated with modern bureaucracies.


Burke, K. (1984). Attitudes toward history, 3rd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Canetti, E. (1962). Crowds and power. (C. Stewart, trans.). New York: Viking Press.

Johnson, W. (1956). Your most enchanted listener. New York: Harper.

Korzybski, A. (2001). Manhood of humanity, 2nd ed. Brooklyn, NY: Institute of General Semantics.

Peter, L. J, & R. Hull. (1969). The Peter principle. New York: Bantam Books.

Shah, I. (1978). Learning how to learn: psychology and spirituality in the Sufi way. London: Octagon Press.

Corey Anton is professor of communication studies at Grand Valley State University and author of dozens of scholarly papers and book chapters. His research spans the fields of existential phenomenology, media ecology, semiotics, communicology. the philosophy of communication, and multidisciplinary communication theory. Past editor of the journal Explorations in Media Ecology, and past-president of the Media Ecology Association, Anton is a fellow of the International Communicology Institute, and currently serves as the vice president of the Institute of General Semantics.

Valerie V. Peterson, B.A. and M .A. (University of Virginia) and Ph.D. (University of Iowa), is professor of communication studies at Grand Valley State University. She writes about sex and sexuality, rhetoric, visual communication, and other topics related to language and communication. Her published work includes academic articles, book chapters, and other writings on identity, sophistic thought, the medium of birth control, communication theory, visual rhetoric, and sexual politics. She is a past managing editor of Explorations in Media Ecology.
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Author:Anton, Corey; Peterson, Valerie V.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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