The Business of Healthcare

Why the Lack of Power Corrupts Absolutely: Dealing With Petty Bureaucrats

A few months ago, while waiting at the gate for a flight, I couldn’t help but notice a gate agent making some woman unpack and repack and unpack and repack her expandable carry-on suitcase because it was too wide to fit into the measuring “box” for carry-on luggage.

It was obvious from the gate agent’s face that she took sublime pleasure in the exercise of her “power.”

When I commented to her a few minutes later that I next expected her to make the woman remove her underwear, she responded, “no one gets on my flight unless I say so.”

The reality is that such mini-dictators, the peons of bureaucracy, are nearly replete of any actual authority. Frustrated by their inability to control their destiny, they act out their near total lack of authority by overcompensating within the one slice of power they have – in this case, the power to drive a woman close to tears because her suitcase had to be pushed into the measuring device instead of sliding right in.

You’ve run into these people. They’re at the DMV and the post office and the TSA.

And, they’re at hospitals: The petty midlevel “executives” who occupy places on an org chart that looks like IBM’s in the 1960’s or a plate of spaghetti. They are the bureaucrats who can say “no,” but who lack any authority to actually say “yes.”

Lord Acton commented that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It appears that the lack of actual power does the same.

The quiver required to effectively deal with these people includes multiple arrows. Some are polite, others are political, and more than a few are pointed. An effective strategy involves knowing when and how to get the petty bureaucrat to open the gate, when and how to get around him, and when and how to get him pushed out.

Comment or contact me if you’d like to discuss this post.

Mark F. Weiss

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