Helplessness can look like power.
Last week I was sitting around talking to a group of my family members. Someone brought up a newspaper article they had read about a women who was accusing the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) of harassment. Apparently, as my family member explained, the women had a variety of body piercings. She wore nipple rings that the TSA representative required she remove. As it turned out she ultimately had to use of pliers to remove them. The woman was upset and is now suing the TSA for an apology and money.
My family member who was recounting the newspaper article ended the story with the statement, “See, this is what happens when you give people too much power. Too much power in the hands of these airport people, and this is what you get!”
Now I thought that was an interesting statement. Most people would indeed come to the conclusion that the TSA representative had too much power and that in this case the representative exercised an abuse of power.
I see it exactly the opposite. Now I don’t know what the policy is. News accounts indicate that the TSA usually uses a pat-down in such circumstances. Having said that, the TSA spokesperson indicated that the TSA representative in this situation “acted appropriately”.
I can’t speak to what the TSA policy is in such cases. I just don’t know. However, generalizing, I would say that the TSA representative didn’t exercise power, in fact, I don’t think they have much power.
If we agree that power is the exercise of independent judgment, then the TSA representatives have very little power. Do you really want the safety of an airliner to be left up to the individual judgment of a TSA employee? Do you want one TSA rep at Denver using their judgment and the TSA rep at Los Angeles using their independent judgment?
I don’t think so.
When it comes to airline safety we don’t want individualized judgment. We want uniform, standardized, predictable, robotic responses. We want every representative doing the same thing and we want all of them erring on the side of conservative safety.
Therefore, the TSA representatives are driven by policies, not by judgment. They are operating at the extreme end of micromanagement. They can’t think. They’re not supposed to think. They are supposed to implement the policies. They x-ray all the luggage. They are to confiscate all liquids in excess of x ounces. On and on and on.
I would say that the TSA representatives have absolutely no power. No power at all. They cannot deviate. They cannot use judgment. They cannot make their own decisions. I can imagine that when it comes to body jewelry, they have a policy that states something like, “All metal ornaments must be removed an inspected by passing them through the x-ray machine.”
To really have power, one has to have the ability to exercise judgment. To have no power is to be required to follow strict policies and not deviate from them. Generally speaking, TSA employees have no power. They exercise the policies.
And this gets me back to micromanagement. Most people believe they are micromanaged when they don’t have the ability to exercise judgement. The more freedom to exercise judgement, the less the sense of micromanagement.
And yet, there are certain jobs where the exercise of judgment is not what we want to allow. This is why the military has a very structured command structure. For sure, there are times and opportunities for soldiers to exercise individual initiative, but most of the time it is “by the numbers.”
The same applies to NASA and space operations. No astronaut steps out of the shuttle or the space station without check after check after check of redundant check lists. No one gets to exercise a great deal of individual decision-making flying 250 miles above the earth.
The same applies to decisions to send the Martian rovers down a slope. It’s not a individual decision where to go and when. It’s something everybody who’s anybody gets involved in.
So, it should be clear that there are certain tasks, certain operations where individual judgment must be suspended because of the specific circumstances. That means there are certain situations which will looks like micromanagement and they are micromanagement because that is what is needed. The only thing that keeps it from feeling micromanagement is that everyone understands the context and that the context “requires” a close management style.
Therefore, once again, micromanagement is a perception. It is not an absolute management style. It is a clash of perceptions between the managers perception of acceptable management oversight and that expected by the direct report.
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