My wife works with families with children with disabilities for a state agency. She and I often have discussions about some of the administrative challenges and frustrations with her job, and some of the creative ways that she and other members of her agency are able to bend the rules to meet the human needs of the job, even though their decisions occasionally step beyond management decisions for standard operating procedures. For my wife and her colleagues below the management level of the agency, helping families and doing what is best for children is the motivation for all of their decisions, however, for the management team within the agency, avoiding errors and blame often seems to be the more important goal.
This disconnect between agency functions, mission, and procedures is not unique to my wife’s state agency. It is a challenge that Max Weber wrote about in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Somewhere along the line, public agencies and private companies seem to forget their mission. Procedure becomes more important than performance, and services or products suffer.
Gerd Gigerenzer offers an explanation for why this happens in his book Risk Savvy. Negative error cultures likely contribute to people becoming more focused on procedure over performance, because following perfect procedure is safe, even if it isn’t always necessary and doesn’t always lead to the best outcomes. A failure to accept risk and errors, and a failure to discuss and learn from errors, leads people to avoid situations where they could be blamed for failure. Gigerenzer writes, “People need to be encouraged to talk about errors and take the responsibility in order to learn and achieve better overall performance.”
As companies and government agencies age, their workforce ages. People become comfortable in their role, they don’t want to have to look for a new job, they take out mortgages, have kids, and send them to college. People become more conservative and risk averse as they have more to lose, and that means they are less likely to take risks in their career, because they don’t want to lose their income to support their lifestyles, retirements, or the college plans for their kids. Following procedures, like getting meaningless forms submitted on time and documenting conversations timely, become more important than actually ensuring valuable services or products are provided to constituents and customers. Procedure prospers over performance, and the agency or company as a whole suffers. Positive error cultures, where it is ok to take reasonable risks and acceptable to discuss errors without fear of blame are important for overcoming the stagnation that can arise when procedure becomes more important than the mission of the agency or company.