Some time ago I wrote about the tragic situation in which a school nurse would not let a student use his asthma inhaler, even though he had collapsed in front of her, because the school did not have a medical release form on file. I later discussed a study about how these kinds of situations arise when people see their roles as primarily that of rule enforcers, fearful of repercussions if they use their judgment to defy the rules.
Mark Esposito has a thoughtful essay about why such bizarre situations might be occurring. He first gives some recent examples.
In Maryland, a seven-year-old boy is suspended from his school under its “zero tolerance” policy because he nibbles a pastry into the shape of a handgun and says “Bang!” “Bang!” (Here). In California, a high school principal refuses to let an ambulance come onto a football filed to tend to a seriously injured player citing school board rules. (Here). A nurse at a home for the aged ignores the furtive pleas of a 911 dispatcher and refuses to perform CPR on a woman dying of cardiac arrest because she says its policy not to do it. (Here). She won’t even get someone else to do it.
In contrast, he gives an example of how the job descriptions for hiring janitors in hospitals were exclusively devoted to the things that you would associate with janitorial work. There was not a single mention of anything that might be construed as human interactions. But the janitors themselves saw their job as primarily having to do with caring for patients and he gives examples of how they would break the rules, risking reprimand, if they thought it was in the best interests of patients and their families. Esposito concludes:
The disheartening truth is that many leaders simply don’t want the best results. Instead, in an effort to secure their positions, they want mediocre results devoid of controversy. Why strive for excellence and bear the attendant risk, when C plus work will keep your job? We expect wisdom from our leaders and too often we get rules. Vague, incomprehensible guidelines tailored to nothing except the most obvious situations which are many times the least important situations. By reducing humans to mere instrumentalities of the rules with no discretion to modify them when circumstances so warrant, we achieve the foolish results recounted above. Can every person demonstrate wisdom? Likely the answer is “no,” but wisdom is learned not passed exclusively through the gene pool. As our janitors amply prove, it takes moral education and enough time to garner the necessary experience to let it bloom. Reducing people to automatons for carrying out rules is a sapping away of their humanity and an insult to their dignity as sentient beings. We need to encourage the exercise of judgment and not condemn its every failure.
No one would suggest that rules are unimportant. We need them to ensure the smooth running of things under normal conditions. But rules can never be all encompassing and in trying to make them so, we can actually end up shackling people and preventing them from doing their best. We also need to encourage the growth of wisdom at all levels, that quality that enables people to make humane decisions in situations not covered by the rules and may require them to transcend or even defy them.
In my earlier post, I described one decision rule that I have found to be helpful on many occasions when I am confronted with situations where I feel that blindly applying the rules would be a disservice. I ask myself not which decision would be the right one but which decision, if it turns out later to have been badly wrong, would I likely regret more? It would have immediately clarified the two serious situations that Esposito describes. The pastry gun one is too silly for words.