A Brush with Bureaucracy
There’s nothing more exasperating than having to deal with bureaucracy! Bureaucrats are small-minded people that follow rules to the letter of the law and don’t know how to discriminate when rules should be applied and when doing so may cause harm.
The term “bureaucracy” has its roots in the French and Greek languages, i.e., the French word “bureau,” which means desk or office, and a Greek word “Kratos,” which means rules or political power. The term “bureaucracy was first coined in the mid-18th century by a French economist named Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay. Presently, the terms bureaucracy and bureaucrats have negative connotations. Bureaucrats spend too long to get a job done, generate a lot of paperwork, and often play their roles as rude and unsympathetic officials. Hitesh Bhasin, CEO of Marketing91, says in his article “Top 12 Characteristics of Bureaucracy,” that all bureaucracies function in the same way and have identical characteristics. [“Top 12 Characteristics of Bureaucracy;” by Hitesh Bhasin, January 22, 2020; https://www.marketing91.com/characteristics-of-bureaucracy/]
These characteristics include a hierarchical system, a code of official rules, impersonal relationships, clear division of labor, efficient work methods, record-keeping, and achievement-oriented careers. The hierarchy is not unlike an ant-farm, in which each ant does its part or the hive—often by rote and without conscious thought. Each ant functions within certain parameters and dares not deviate from the official rules and protocols.
So many establishments these days function like ant farms! I had a few “ant-farm” encounters in recent days that really ticked me off.
Last month I suffered with major health issues—double pneumonia, sepsis and congestive heart failure. I spent ten days in the hospital. While the doctors and nurses were wonderful, I had to contend with unbelievable bureaucracy. When you are sick, dealing with bureaucracy is almost intolerable. It seems to me that no one in the hospital wants to “rock the boat” and everyone marches in lockstep to do the bidding of their superiors.
I was scheduled to take a test on my last day—originally appointed for 9:45 in the morning, and I was instructed not to eat anything after dinner the night before. The test did not actually take place until 6:30pm and I did not eat anything at all for more than 24 hours as a result. No one would dare break the rule—not even to help a patient desperately needing nutrition for the battle against pneumonia. I certainly could have had breakfast that day and it would not have interfered with the test. But rules are rules, not to be bent, even if the rules cause suffering.
The next day I was scheduled to leave the hospital. I had to wait hours for the social worker (I do not even know why I even needed a social worker) to finish her meetings. Her meetings were apparently more important than helping her patients. After 10 days in the hospital and waiting all day for the test the day before, I had enough. I was antsy to get out of that hospital, so I threatened to walk out. Hospitals are not prisons and it is my right to leave whenever I want. My threat to leave before completing the dismissal protocol was the only way I could get the social worker to sign me out. She did not care one whit that I was anxious to get out of that hospital room after looking at the same four walls for ten days.
The following week I met a friend at a busy breakfast restaurant. I put my name in the queue and stood for a half hour until the table was ready because there were no seats. My friend still had not arrived when I was called to be seated. But the teenage host refused to seat me because not all of the members of my party were present. I informed her that I had just gotten out of the hospital after being treated for pneumonia and congestive heart failure, that I was tired from standing for a half hour and that I would really like to sit down. None of this mattered to her. She was all about obeying orders, and she refused to seat me after glaring at me with her stone-cold eyes. Just then my friend arrived, and we were seated. I barked at her, “You see, I am honest and do not lie. You could have accommodated me and made an exception.” But there was absolutely no empathy from her whatsoever, and she made no attempt to apologize.
I can only conclude from these episodes that we are living in a narcissistic world where the prevailing rule is “it is all about me.” Is there no room to care about anyone else in such a world? Everyone knows the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—it is the staple of every religion. But few make any attempt to apply it to their professional lives.
It is my observation that most employees function in the workplace as automatons. They dare not question the official rulebook, which they blindly follow for their paycheck. As a result, they turn a blind eye when confronted with injustice arising from the rigid application of that rulebook. Gustavo Razzetti, a teamwork expert and consultant, observed that “Corporate rules tend to limit their people rather than enable them to do more and better.”
In all fairness, breaking rules does have consequences. Anyone who breaks rules has to evaluate if the potential fallout is worth it. No one wants the reputation of a troublemaker, and everyone wants to fly under the radar. [Gustavo Razzetti, . “When Breaking the Rules Is the Smart Thing to Do” Psychology Today; Dec. 6th 2018. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-adaptive-mind/201812/when-breaking-the-rules-is-the-smart-thing-do]
I was raised to believe that kindness takes precedence over ambition, status, possessions and workplace responsibilities. “Kindness is the language the deaf can hear and the blind can see,” says Mark Twain. What kind of person you are is more important than what you know, what you have, and what you do. In my experience, even small kindnesses can return big dividends because people never forget them. As author Pushkar Saraf explains, “A simple act of kindness can create endless ripples.”
As you can see from the scenarios I painted, some rules must be broken in order to support the concept of kindness. Perhaps the smartest way of deciding whether to enforce a rule is to ask in each instance if obeying that rule is “for the sake of heaven.” [Talmud: Pirkei Avot 5:17 “A debate for the sake of heaven will endure; but a debate not for the sake of heaven will not endure.”] In other words, will enforcing that rule violate the Golden Rule, which takes precedence over all other rules?
Everyone knows that “I was only following orders” did not hold up as an excuse to justify crimes at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. Certainly, one can’t compare the crimes in World War II to the rigid application of rules in today’s workplace. However, “I was only following the rules” is NEVER a good excuse to justify being unkind.
Lou Holtz, former football player, coach and analyst believes in enforcing only three rules: “Do the right thing, do the best you can, and always show people you care.” I totally agree. These are the only rules that should be rigidly enforced in the workplace. All other rules should be flexible.
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