“Those are the rules.”

Posted by jlubans on February 06, 2013

A funny thing happened on the way to the Faculty where I am to teach while in Riga. My wife and I got on the number # 3 trolley bus at the stop just outside the door to our apartment. It was our first bus ride since landing in Riga a few days ago. I had four bus cards with rides still remaining from our last visit. I used one and it came up “invalid” in Latvian. I used another and it too came up empty. About then two "Rīgas satiksmes" (Riga traffic) agents sidled up and said, sotto voce, it was verboten to use old bus cards. We were escorted off at the next stop and fined! One guard spoke English and so we tried to appeal to him that we were not “fare-dodgers”. He made a wry face and shrugged his shoulders in mild sympathy, “Those are the rules.”
We took the next bus – the “kvīts” or receipt for the fine permits one to travel for 30 minutes on the bus – and made our way to the Faculty building.
The incident brought to mind multiple examples of how bureaucracies can become bureaucratic – insensitive to the client, indeed, unable to assist the client. This often happens when orders from above result in rigid application of one policy to all situations regardless of circumstances. Why don’t the bus police have some discretion in doing their main job to stop the regular cheaters? What would happen if they had some latitude of interpretation?

A similar thing happened awhile back on a train from Bologna to Milan. The conductor looked at my fully paid ticket and said I had failed to validate it – whatever that meant - in the Bologna train station. Of course the sign that says you must do so is in Italian. I had to pay a hefty fine. Again, it was a simple oversight, an understandable mistake made by a first time foreign visitor.
In this instance, I did feel that the Italian conductor was overly zealous and derived not a little bit of pleasure from the power he had over me, an American. In Riga, I felt like at least one of the bus police was embarrassed by the episode and would have let us totter off with no more than a warning. But, I suspect, the bus police had no discretion to do otherwise and his partner seemed a hard case, like the officious Italian. “They must pay!” she hissed to her partner. We had attempted to defraud the state, had we not!?

Back in the USA my wife had a couple recent encounters with the Rule of Law in the public library. One was when she forgot her library card but wanted to borrow a book. The clerk knew her, knew her to be a regular patron – she borrows one hundred or more books a year, is religious about returning books on time, always responds to call-in notices, (for crying out loud she's a LIBRARIAN), etc – but, regardless, the clerk said “no ticket, no laundry” or something to that effect. Making a bad situation worse, the clerk deliberately took the book and put it behind the desk as if my wife might pull a grab and run. Imagine that – hordes of readers looting the library’s collection! Would that be a sign of success or failure? So, what is the purpose of the library and what was the purpose of the clerk in preventing my wife’s taking out a book? What was behind this behavior? I’ll bet it was more than a bad hair day. “Those are the rules,” after all.

Merton’s essay* on “bureaucratic structure and personality” is an assigned reading in my management class. Merton explains why and how bureaucrats – office workers in public enterprises - can become mean, stingy and heartless and lose any semblance of trying to help people; in essence, conspire to frustrate clients
Merton cites an absurd interpretation of the USA naturalization rules as applied to a Norwegian residing in the USA. Back then a foreigner, who wanted to become a citizen, had to reside in the USA continuously for five years. The man was Bernt Balchen, Admiral Byrd's pilot in the flight over the South Pole. When he put in for this citizenship, it was denied because he had left the USA and gone to the South Pole. It did not matter to the naturalization official that Mr. Balchnen had served heroically on an American boat and the expedition base was named Little America and flew the American flag. “Those are the rules.” What, you may wonder, was accomplished by this literal interpretation of the so-called rules?
You, the reader, may be thinking this bit of Kafka cannot happen in your shop, no way. I hope so. It is a central tenet of the leading from the middle concept that when staff is free to make decisions that set things right, doing so avoids the many unintended consequences - the pitfalls, traps and snares - of administrative policy. When intelligent and well-educated workers are expected to do what is right, that’s what they do and feel good in doing so. If they err, so be it, as long as that error “leans toward the customer”. If, on the other hand, you (the immediate supervisor, the upper administration, the boss) tie the staff’s hands or ham string them with production quotas, they will do only what the letter of the law - as written or stated by the boss - demands. A staff’s unquestioningly carrying out orders makes an organization look inhumane and unintelligent. It is unimaginable to think that this pathological behavior will not incrementally embitter and harden even the best worker, unless, of course, she finds a better job. Nor will that worker ever be on the lookout for ways to improve the organization.

*Merton, Robert K. “Bureaucratic structure and personality,” in Shafritz and Hyde, editors, Classics of Public Administration, pp.53-62. Merton’s first wrote on this topic in 1940 with an article in the magazine, Social Forces, v. 18.

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Posted by Kelley Chisholm on February 06, 2013  •  11:14:09

This hits so close to home for me, John, especially the last paragraph. Bureaucratic supervisors do indeed hurt the organization and often lose great employees in the process. My productivity and zest for a previous job was hampered severely by a boss who did not trust her staff. Luckily, I was able to move to greener pastures. But that's not always the case for many, and the organization will suffer when derailed talent stays.

Posted by jlubans on February 13, 2013  •  02:01:54

Thanks for the enlightenment, Kelley!

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