The Gatekeepers and the Service Providers
I felt a little scooped by Gabriel Conroy’s post on a professor dealing with bureaucracy.
…I do know people who work in bureaucracies, like anyone else, can have their petty moments and their power trips. I’ve worked enough (mostly low-level and mostly customer-service) bureaucratic jobs and have been occasionally guilty of passive aggression enough times…
I’ve long noticed a phenomenon in which otherwise powerless service providers use every tool available to avoid being helpful. And so we’re clear I’m not talking about enforcing legitimate rules. Rather, I am talking about interpreting rules in an uncharitable way so as to avoid providing service.
I say this having had first-hand experience. When I was a young lad, I was a powerless service provider. At some point, there was a change in policy in which there had to be a ticket in the company’s online ticketing system for us to do the work required. Previously, we would just respond to issues reported via e-mail or phone.
We immediately began taking advantage of this. People who e-mailed would be instructed that they needed to fill out a ticket first. (This was a somewhat onerous requirement because there were legions of optional fields for entering things that had no use or meaning for their situation. It wasn’t obvious to a user that they could simply leave all those fields blank.)
To this day, I don’t know why the system was implemented. We weren’t rewarded for solving more tickets. Things weren’t tracked in the system. Even if that were the case, we had the ability to easily create a ticket for the customer ourselves. It took us about two seconds to copy and paste a customer’s e-mail into the ticketing system, and we eventually did start to do just that, because it was less work than telling people to make the ticket themselves.
But I do know that many people in such positions do in fact indulge in such behavior. Every academic department in every university has staff on hand who see it as their job to ensure that they don’t do anything without making sure the person they are doing it for goes through the required hoops, even if this entails extra work on their part. And such departments often have one renegade person who will in fact let you buy the paperclips without making you fill out the form that isn’t needed for that item anyway. All the work eventually gets routed to these people, and they are stuck with a disproportionate amount of it.
And this doesn’t just go for academia. When my wife wanted some of her own medical records from her doctor’s office, she asked a receptionist and was told she needed to fill out a form and wait and check back once it was processed. She later talked to a different receptionist who simply printed out what she wanted.
In truth, there was indeed a form available for such requests because of HIPPA requirements. However, that form existed so that people who were not there in person could still ask for the information. There are no privacy concerns when a person right in front of you is asking for information about themselves. Rather than being helpful, the form was used as a barrier to helping.
The receptionists at the doctor’s office have discretion on whether they want to take a service provider orientation or a gatekeeper orientation. Gatekeepers see themselves as determining who is worthy of receiving their help. Service providers see themselves as there to help. If you apply to a gatekeeper for something and there is a mistake, you will receive a rejection. The service provider will contact you to correct the mistake before processing.
Dilbert’s Mordac The Preventer of Information Services is the canonical example of the gatekeeper orientation. I think the fact that he is a recurring character in the office cartoon of record shows I am not making this up entirely.
I’d like to understand what triggers the gatekeeper orientation. Unfortunately, my experiences serving in that role are long ago. I no longer have much insight into what my psychology was at the time. I’m reduced to offering some hypotheses:
- Ego preservation: These strategies are used by people at the bottom of organizations. They generally lack prestige and strength. Serving as a gatekeeper gives them some measure of control and strength back.
- Determining who is worthy: Service people see themselves as gatekeepers for a resource and only want that resource to go to those who “earn” it by following the rules strictly rather than giving it to everyone who shows up and asks.
- Work avoidance: By being unhelpful, gatekeepers can limit the future requests they will see.
- Customer antipathy: Gatekeepers see their customers as grown children with unreasonable, endless demands. Gatekeeping is a check on that.
Can you think of any other explanations?
Other questions for you:
- Have you noticed this happen in any other situations?
- Do you have or have you had a gatekeeper orientation? Remember, this doesn’t just mean that you enforce rules. You need to *choose* to enforce them less charitably than is necessary. What motivates you to act in this way? What are your attitudes toward those who ask for things, toward your employer, and toward your job? Do you feel your job has meaning? How do you feel about your customers as a group?
- Have you been on the customer end of someone with a gatekeeper orientation?
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