Lean, mean and stupid!
Curtin, Leah L
Dateline…November 24, 1996, The Philadelphia Inquirer: “It does not end. In health care these days, insanity rules. We have millionaire insurance executives trying to turn mastectomies into drive-through procedures. Skilled professionals are being dumped in favor of just-off-the-street novices. And every hospital administrator with 10 cents worth of authority all of a sudden thinks he’s Al Dunlap, the job-slashing maniac of Scott Paper and Sunbeam fame…. Registered nurses Beth Ennis and Donna Sharer [are] both specialists in maternity. Both raved about by their peers. And both fired. .. [because] they declined working a double shift on short notice.” Each had young children at home andgiven only 5 minutes’ noticethey could not arrange for babysitters. It also helps to know that they were working the evening shift, and they would have had to arrange for babysitters to be in their homes before 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. respectively-a darn near impossible task at 11 o’clock at night. Thus, they refused to stay and thereby disobeyed a direct order from a supervisor. The next day they were suspended and eventually fired for “insubordination.
From the staff nurses’ perspective, all things considered, being fired probably is better than going to jail for child neglect. However, one’s credulity is strained to the breaking point when trying to understand management’s position in this situation. Why fire excellent employees for being responsible parents-especially when the arequest” for overtime was made so late in the day? If the employees are, in fact, incompetent or troublemakers, why fire them for conduct that certainly is understandable-some would say downright commendable? Such an action on management’s part is sure to outrage other employees, and anyone else who finds out about it too.
So why did “they” do It?
Policy? Rules? The hospital may have started a policy of mandatory overtime and the rules apply to everyone, even mothers of young children, don’t they? To put the matter in a nutshell, no. NO! No they do not. Not even the laws of the land apply to all exactly as written. That is why we have arbitrators, judges and courts of law. Even so clear and unquestioned a law as that against murder is applied differently depending on the circumstances, and sometimes even murder is found to be “justifiable.” Certainly hospitals’ rules and policies are not above the law.
Such an assertion, of course, requires a defense that, in the absence of common sense, requires an analysis of two things: (1) the role and purpose of policies and rules, and (2) the ethics of a policy that makes overtime mandatory.
The role and purpose of policies and rules
One of the most pervasive and intractable problems in management is the tendency to put literal-minded people in positions of authority. Strumpf and Deluca deal with this problem in a chapter entitled “Rules Are Tools (Not to Be Placed in the Hands of Fools).” (Learning to Use What You Already Know, p. 129). They conclude, “Rules provide us with an opportunity to learn from the knowledge and experience of those who created the rule. .. [but] Is not the role of a leader to make sensible exceptions to general rules?…”
If policies and rules hold only for some of the people some of the time, then why bother with them at all? Policies, and the “rules” that flow from them, help guard against arbitrary decisions and both prejudice and favoritism. Policies and rules ensure that managers’ behavior is more productive and predictable. However, they are merely guides to decision making, nothing more and nothing less.
Literal-minded managers (unkind persons may call them “rigid”) are unable to imagine an exception and often lack the empathy to understand the impact their strict adherence to the “letter of the law” has on the human beings affected by their behavior. This situation appears to represent the kind of injustice that results. One can understand how an individual manager, perhaps an evening supervisor, could bungle the job by adhering strictly to the policy. But it takes a stretch to understand how, after due consideration (the nurses were suspended for insubordination pending dismissal), senior managers and personnel professionals could uphold such an incredibly stupid application of what is-at best-a highly unpopular, legally ambiguous and ethically indefensible (except in disaster situations) policy.
Either the whole management team is power-mad and lacks even rudimentary common sense or they are so afraid of losing control of the staff-or their own jobs?-that they override their own common sense. Thus, the role and purpose of policy and the role and purpose of management is lost in a maze of politics, fear, rules, dominance games and self-justifications hedged all around by pious references to the “rules:
A policy of mandatory overtime Webster’s New 20th Century Dictionary (second edition) defines the word “policy” as follows “…1. political wisdom or cunning; diplomacy; prudence; artfulness. 2. wise, expedient, or crafty conduct or management. 3. any governing principle, plan, or course of action….” In so far as policies represent the collective wisdom and experience of senior management, they truly are “governing principles” with principle being defined by Webster’s as “…a rule of conduct, especially of right conduct; as the principle of racial equality.” And as such, they are wise guides to decision.
However, when policies are a result of expediency (“…seeking immediate or selfish gain or advantage at the expense of or without consideration of genuine principle”), they are at best the products of cunning or craftiness (“…versed in deceit; skillful at fraud; artful, sly…”). Not only are they poor guides for decision makers, they usually are prescriptions for failure. Almost always they must be imposed by force, which generates fear among managers and staff alike. So managers impose them when they are inapplicable or even stupid.
How successful leaders lead… Forcing unwilling people to work, even if you pay them for the work, is parlously close to the “sweatshops” of the industrial era: the ones that gave rise to the powerful and successful union movements of the ’20s and ’30s. A policy of coercion is counterproductive to all of management’s goalsand to any pretense to morality. Compare this oppressive orientation with David Packard’s almost legendary concern for people. Stories about his personal support for employees during economic recession testify to his concern for the welfare of others in making business decisions. Aaron Feuerstein of Maulden Mills made headlines nationwide when he kept 3,000 employees on the payroll despite the mill’s destruction in a terrible fire. When asked why he did it, he said, “I consider our workers assets, not expenses.” Most recently, Alan Greenspan, the nation’s foremost economist, publicly criticized the likes of Al Dunlap for sacrificing employee welfare to profit investors (CNN, January 23, 1997).
Call it street sense or simply a good business nose, the foundation of good management is the business leader’s ability to step into the other person’s shoes. An “other orientation”that goes beyond self-interest is central to the values people list as most important to them: honesty, love, fairness, being true to your word, caring for family These are all commitments to other people. This sense of commitment is not a theoretical, rational calculation, but a character trait psychologists and philosophers describe variously as empathy, self-sacrifice or altruism. Whatever the label, such a capacity stands far removed from the self-serving image that cartoon stereotypes of business greed suggest and that some managerial approaches encourage. *
As The Philadelphia Inquirer noted, some (and even “some” is too many) administrators are acting like “job-slashing maniacs”: in effect, tinhorn egoists insensitive to the needs of others. And some of their managers are following suit. It’s called the “clown prince syndrome”; i.e., a manager begins to believe that the higher up he (or she) moves, the “better” he must be. He comes to think that he deserves extra status, confuses position with wisdom, and obedience with good decision making and teamwork.
When reality is thus muddled, dictatorial conduct, exploitation of the little guy, and an inflexible adherence to policies and rules subjugate personal rights and human values to organizational power and position. Are managers simply following their leader? If, for example, one evening supervisor had made the decision to fire “for insubordination” these two staff nurses because of their refusal to work a double shift with 5 minutes’ notice (thus leaving them no time to arrange care for their minor children), this might be an aberration-an overzealous or even stupid manager who doesn’t understand the role of organizational policy. However, the fact that the personnel department reviewed the decision and supported it, and that no one in administration intervened-until after the nurses’ story appeared in the local newspaper-indicates a policy of coercion: thus, managers don’t make decisions and interpret policies, they obey orders. Employees are not human beings with rights and family responsibilities, they are mechanical cogs in the corporate wheel.
If the purpose is to save money, it doesn’t work. A demoralized workforce is an unproductive one. A devalued workforce makes mistakes. A coerced workforce fights back: and unionization is very expensive indeed. Such a situation is at best counterproductive. Human beings cannot work productively, and eventually may refuse work at all in such despotic organizations. Certainly they cannot be healed in them.
Copyright Springhouse Corporation May 1997
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