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Feb 21, 2011

Playing the system

Every system gets played; that’s the nature of complex organizations with many rules. There is always a loophole that can be exploited; there is always too much going on for anyone to notice everything. But there are definitely degrees and shades of this phenomenon, ranging from minor things to debilitating pervasive corruption. Given the particular configurations of our system here at RIC, the instances of the system playing are quite low, although they inevitably do occur. Examples would be the reconfiguration of courses from 3 credit to 4-credit, just to make instructor’s workload a little more manageable. The Contract is full of special arrangements and deals, for this department and that department, for these kinds of classes, and other kinds of classes. There are probably many more deals off the books. Some are fair and equitable, while others are not; most were made in a hurry and fall somewhere in between.
Many years ago, in a graduate class I took, a professor in public administration argued how playing the system can never really be ethically defensible. I disagreed – systems that are devised without one’s participation and consent, and judged by its participants to be unjust – those could be justifiably undermined. For example, if students believe that certain class is pointless, and the instructor is not offering anything of value to them, but imposes arbitrary and rigid rules – I would have a hard time condemning them for trying to bend the rules. I may still have to pursue administrative sanctions – for the sake of the larger system’s stability. But ethically speaking, students have a good point. Would you condemn the Egyptian youth for breaking the emergency laws imposed by the now ousted president Mubarak?
People play the system not because they are bad, but because the system itself is perceived as less than fair. However, the sum of total perceptions of the system IS the system. For example, when one person thinks there is unfairness and favoritism in the organization, he or she would feel justified to get even by skipping on work a little, by inflating one’s work just a bit, and by playing the system somewhat, sometimes without realizing it. Lack of transparency perpetuates the notion – almost everyone feels that the next person is treated better, therefore, I am entitled to a little something. Some people complain and argue for a special deal for them, because they have heard of a special deal for others; while others just quietly take what they think is theirs. The end result is the same: the organization will be crawling with a number of exceptions, unwritten deals, and special arrangements. Each unfair deal was made to balance off another unfair deal, so we end up with two. The more of those you have, the more evidence of unfair treatment become apparent to more people. I am not at all saying we’re there, far from it; it’s just the general direction I really wish to avoid.
What does a manager do? In the abstract, it is pretty clear; I have written about it a few years ago. Transparency, clear, fair and simple rules, and the ability to justify and publically explain exceptions – that is what is needed. In the real life, it is not so simple. For example, old deals may be not quite fair, but breaking them would make more harm than good. An institution is as good as its word. Breaking past arrangements encourages short-term thinking, and intensify the playing of the system. There is also a genuine diversity of circumstances that make it difficult to apply fair and consistent rules. People just do different things and have different strengths. The complexity is difficult to comprehend, and not easy to make transparent. But we should try anyway. The bottom line is – even when no one is asking, we should be able to defend and explain any special arrangement at any time – convincingly and reasonably. 

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