Saturday, April 24, 2010

Cultures and Attitudes

You would think that peoples' attitudes and behaviour would be an individual thing with a range of variation in any organization.

But attitudes and behaviours are greatly affected by the culture of an organization, biasing people within the organization to act a certain way. There is still variation, and you can find good people in a bad organization (or vice versa). But even this is reduced by a tendancy for good people to leave a bad organization, and bad people to be removed from a good organization.

Amtrak (US passenger rail) seems to have a culture of small minded bureaucracy.

On the way to Portland there were only a handful of people in our car. So one person moved to a seat with more room. No big deal, until the steward came along: Is this your seat? You must remain in your designated seat. It is not possible to switch seats. The passenger wisely kept quiet. Eventually the steward wound down his littany of pronouncements. The passenger looked at him. Then the steward said "Ok, here's what we can do. I can let you stay in this seat as long as you agree to move if someone else is assigned this seat.". I had to shake my head. This was exactly what the passenger had said he would do right from the start. "But you must leave your seat assignment card on your assigned seat."

But that wasn't the end of it. A bit later a second steward came around: Is this your assigned seat? No, but the other steward said I could sit there. You could tell he was frustrated at having his exercise of power cut short and looked for another outlet. "Ok, but you must have your seat assignment card on the seat you are sitting in, not the seat you were assigned." (The exact opposite of the first steward.)

This kind of bureaucratic attitude is often exemplified by people saying "you must" or "you cannot" or "I cannot", even (or especially) when this is obviously untrue.

For example, when I went to get tea I was told "I cannot put hot water in your cup.". Obviously he "could", presumably what he meant was that he wasn't supposed to. So why not say that? It would be a lot less frustrating if he said "sorry, I'm not allowed to do that". Or just bend the rules. The previous time, the person had put the hot water in a paper cup, as he was required to do, and then poured it into my cup. This satisfied his requirement, while at the same time fulfilling my desire to not waste a cup.

I think creatively interpreting (bending) the rules (and not being punished for it) is a sign of a good organizational culture. Whereas, presenting the rules as "cannot's" is a sign of a bad one.

The problem is that saying "you cannot" makes you feel more powerful. While saying "I'm not allowed" makes you feel less powerful. And of course, most people would prefer to feel more powerful.

I worry about where my own company's culture fits. I hope it's clear that people should understand the reason for "rules" and use their judgement in interpreting them. And at the very least be truthful and say "I'm not allowed to do that" rather than "you cannot".


Jen said...

Depends on the rule and the person around here. You hear a lot of "cannot"s or "never"s from some people and other people are more like "I'll see who I can talk to about that" people.

People are afraid to get in trouble, no one wants to lose their job, so it's tough deciding what "rules" can be bent and which ones can't. And it can be even more frustrating when you bend a rule and get in trouble and then there is someone constantly breaking right through them and nothing happens. Even more frustration happens when different departments are told different things.

I don't mind saying that "I'm not allowed to do that" because then the people asking can go bug someone else :o)

Mtn Goat said...

Obviously this won't apply in some situations, but I learned a valuable lesson from a former Principal of mine. His approach was to do what you wanted (or needed) to do and apologize for it later (if, indeed, anyone noticed what you'd done). We have too many people who can't find ways of DOING things but rather fall back on reasons why they CAN'T. Sad, really.

andrew said...

As in the quotation "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission." (often attributed to Grace Hopper)

Erik said...

I find that it helps when you explain to the customer why the "rule" exists. (Even if it is one you can bend)
i.e. "I'm sorry, I can't pour hot water directly into your personal mug. Customer items cannot be brought behind the counter because it could cause cross contamination. You wouldn't want to get sick because I poured a cup of hot water in to the personal mug of someone with a cold before I poured you one. I can, however, pour a cup of hot water into one of our disposable paper cups,
and give that to you." works better than, "Sorry, I cannot pour hot water into your cup", (even if it is a bit wordy)