What My Family Can Teach My Bureaucracy

by Mr. Sheehy

On a Friday afternoon few things can cure the sunken feeling of a long week like time with my family can. Tonight we made popcorn and cauliflower for dinner, eating the cauliflower at the kitchen counter and then reconvening in the living room for popcorn and the original version of The Parent Trap. Our three year old climbed into my lap for the show, and with my feet out-stretched on the ottoman, I couldn’t have asked for more.

There is much one could say about the idyllic arrangements of one’s family. The very structure strikes me as the closest we come as people to a perfect arrangement. We know each other so well, we love each other so much, and we’re so committed to living our lives together, that we are able to relate to one another more effectively than any other relationship. I am speaking, of course, of the arrangement and the intended consequences of it, not of the broken situations with which we are all familiar.

I think about this because, for me, it’s been a long week at work. I got worked up again, which essentially means I butted up against what I consider to be effects of bureaucracy, and I had a hard time calming down or “letting it go.” A few hours after work, bathed in constant prayer for peace and with my family so clearly helping me to calm down, it occurs to me that the family is essentially the opposite of a bureaucracy. It’s as pure an antonym as I can think of.

Take a simple situation with my son as an example. You see, we are a family that insists upon first-time obedience. That is, if I ask one of my children to do something, I expect them to do it the first time I mention it. I don’t count to three, and I don’t allow them to ignore me and then have me not bother to enforce what I said. One of the most important ways this effects my parenting is that I am very careful about what I tell them to do. If I don’t really mean for them to do something, I do not tell them to do it. I have found this to be freeing for them, because they don’t have to play games guessing whether I really mean it this time.

When my son gets up in the morning and we hang out, he is always too noisy and is always in danger of waking up his sisters before they need to be awake. As a parent who expects first time obedience, if I tell him to be quiet, he should be quiet. But in this case, I know my son well enough to know how difficult such a task would be. The boy is a noise box. I’ll say, “Remember to be quiet,” and he’ll whisper really quietly for about 10 seconds. After a minute, his whispers are up to a normal person’s full volume, and then a minute after that he’ll overturn a box of Legos, having what appears to be no idea that “quiet” means doing things differently not only with our voices, but with our toys too.

Thus, instead of issuing one-time orders in this situation and demanding morning-long obedience, I teach him morning after morning what it means to be quiet; I remind him that the girls are “still asleep” if it has been a while, since their rest is clearly not the first thing on his mind; and along the way I ask him to do a few things that are clear and which he can reasonably obey without any problem.

We have a standard for our family, the standard of first time obedience, but we know our children so well and care for them so much that we are able to examine the fuller situation and apply the standard in a way that honors our son and produces the results we ultimately want. In this case, the result is that our son is learning to be considerate of his sisters and play quietly until they are awake. And by issuing the “orders” carefully, I uphold our standard of obedience.

It seems to me that the ability of a parent (and really, any family members) to take the person into consideration is the big difference between a family and a bureaucracy. I realize considering a bureaucracy next to a family seems almost unreasonable–how can it compete, when it has seemingly no common purpose to a family? Yet I’d say the purposes are not that far apart in some ways, and the way the two different entities approach their duties lends an insight into how we might improve our work in bureaucracies.

Education, of course, is a bureaucracy. Even a small school falls under the authority of its district, which falls under the state department of education, which falls under the national DOE. And as with anything else involving public money, the the departments of education fall ultimately under legislative authority at each level. Someone a couple layers up says something needs to be done in a particular way, and as the idea trickles down the hierarchy it loses its original context and transmutes into a dictate and a mandate.

The loss of that original context and intention in each idea reminds me quite a bit of my reading about knowledge management. In the field of knowledge management, the idea exists that knowledge ultimately cannot be detached from a knower. Thus, if we wish to share knowledge through an organization, we will find that we cannot simply record the knowledge in a data form and pass that data along as knowledge. Once detached from the knower, it loses something important.

The bigger the bureaucracy, then, the easier it is for that knowledge to be detached from the knower, and once it moves away from the original knower, it seems to become something else–a dictate, a mandate, or some other word we have heard before.

Some of this may be due to the telephone-game concept, where the message changes at each level. A colleague of mine pointed this out to me this week. At the top of the chain, an individual we’ll call a Level A worker uses research to make an informed decision about what teachers should attempt to do in their classrooms, perhaps a particular practice. That Level A worker teaches some Level B workers about the research and the practice and asks the Level B workers to pass it down to Level C and make sure that Level C workers are implementing the important practice. Level B then turns to Level C and says, “Do the practice,” and the research and underpinning philosophy behind it has disappeared along the way. Thus, the knowledge the Level A worker wanted to pass along is lost.

It seems to me that this is why so often a top level worker steps in and calms things down after a change or mandate has moved through a system and created a ruckus. The mandate moved through apart from the knower, and the knowledge was not communicated until that knower addressed the effected workers him or herself.

Yet knowledge moving down is not the only direction where we must be concerned in a bureaucracy. In a family, that anti-bureaucracy, I have a need to pass knowledge down to my children just as a manager has a need to pass knowledge down to those he’s supervising, but that is not where the communication stops. My children are not a batch of inanimate receptors. They are dynamic persons with unique needs, goals, and skills. In learning about them and evaluating them, it is crucial that I do not attempt to pry their knowledge from its context.

I might say that one of my children lacks skills with abstraction. Her sister tried to spell a word for her to give her a secret clue that we were going to eat ice cream (otherwise Little Brother would have known and not eaten his dinner) and she refused to attempt to picture the letters in her head. My analysis that she lacks abstraction skills might be accurate, but it would also be unfair not to consider the person who is not abstracting. That child was barely five years old at the time, meaning that such abstraction might be too tricky for her stage of development. She could have read the words if written, however, so perhaps she simply did not like the game and didn’t want to play along–a very likely scenario considering this particular child of ours. Those factors make me unwilling to draw judgment on her abilities with abstract thinking just yet. I value my daughter in this way by considering her, the knower, and her knowledge together. Ultimately, it is valuing the person that is important.

A week or two ago a friend of mine related an incident in the news. He said that a principal of a school in New Hampshire had confiscated a flag from a student because it could be used as a weapon. This friend likely heard the news on a conservative talk show, which I am guessing means the story was framed under the idea that schools are unpatriotic. While I understood why someone would interpret the story in such a way (considering the pledge of allegiance lawsuits of a few years back), I immediately interpreted the story in a different way.

My first reaction was to figure that the principal in question was just like the thousands of principals all across our country who are trying to do their jobs and enforce the rules that have been given. Ultimately, a serious portion of their job is to enforce rules–they are much closer to referees than coaches, if one wanted to make an analogy for their work. Yet it sounded to me like this principal was doing precisely what a bureaucracy does that a family can avoid–he did not seem to consider the person as much as he considered the rule, the mandate, or the standard. It did not matter if the boy had been bringing the flag to honor his dad who had been deployed six months to the day, the rule was the rule and while on school grounds he couldn’t possess something that could be used as a weapon. (I should emphasize that I have not read the actual news event and don’t know why the principal took the flag–it’s not really the point of what I’m saying.)

Without considering the person and the context, the authority dishonors that person and, in a sense, dehumanizes him or her. I use de-humanize intentionally, because the exchange considers less of the human and more of the external conformation to the rule or formula for acceptable behavior.

Mandates and rules are big deals and I do not mean to dismiss them, especially when management’s primary responsibilities are to ensure that such regulations are being followed. Yet when regulating, managers must remember they are regulating people, not mandates. Unfortunately, it takes a good deal of courage for a principal or manager to view the person instead of simply viewing the mandate. It is courage that will reap dividends, however, because such an approach not only honors people, but more effectively reveals the truth of a situation.

Say a teacher is showing a lot of movies in a class. The principal has noticed this pattern after walking through the department a few times and is confident that the teacher has exceeded an appropriate quantity. How should that principal then address the situation? One way would be to write a note informing the teacher that films are not a central part of her curriculum standards and she needs to stop showing them. Another would be to wait until the teacher’s evaluation comes up and mention it then. Either of those options would enforce the rule, but both approaches seem a bit detached and do not particularly honor the person. Additionally, though the teacher might stop showing movies, it is unknown whether that teacher has improved her practice by not showing them or simply inserted an alternative waste of time that is harder for the principal to detect.

Another approach might be to open a conversation with that teacher about the films and find out why the teacher has been showing so many. Such a conversation might reveal that the teacher has been overwhelmed with papers to grade and has found that showing a movie prevented students from creating more papers that added to her pile; or perhaps she did not value the literature curriculum particularly and decided to show movies as the primary method for teaching story. These cases would present vastly different situations. In the first one, the teacher doesn’t need a reprimand but rather some mentoring about how to balance and manage student paperwork; in the second, the teacher has a philosophical approach that might be inconsistent with the goals of the subject being taught, which could lead to a parting of company. Either way, the person is honored in the exchange and the truth is discovered.

A bureaucracy’s greatest weakness is its impersonality. Too often at work I find myself referring to Orwell’s 1984 and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, finding that the “This is the way it is, it’s what the rules are and it’s our job to follow them, no matter how strange they seem” approach to my work is similar to the mentality of those who flourished in Oceania and the Soviet Union. When I encounter frustrations, things I believe to be wrong, I should just chill-out, play the game, jump through the hoop, and then those above me will leave me alone and I can live a nice, mellow existence.

Perhaps that’s what I should do, but I just am not ready to live that mellow existence. I get worked up about the bureaucracy at work and holler against it like I’m the last Who in Whoville, desperate for someone to hear me. I am convinced that it is possible for someone to hear me, too. In the Soviet Union, the giant system was the work of dictators. Here, we do not live in a dictatorship, and I am hopeful that somewhere up there in the levels above me, people work who have the courage to blink their eyes and break out of the trance of bureaucracy, people who have the courage to consider the person before the mandate.

After all, those people above me have families. That means they know how to work with people and value them as the humans they are. Perhaps they just need someone to remind them.

Thanks for reading.