Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Pettiness


Henry Kissinger once commented that the politics of the faculty lounge are so vicious because the stakes are so small. I've been thinking about that lately while watching the tactics of a board of directors. Years ago, while serving as president of a homeowners association, I discovered that the subject of nuclear war evoked less anger than a pothole on a local street.

It is no surprise that mayors are subjected to violence more than any other officials. This is not simply, I believe, because they are more accessible, but because the issues are more immediate and regarded as much more personal.

In his essay on the work of boards, C. Northcote Parkinson coined the Law of Triviality: "Briefly stated, it means that the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved." In other words, a board may pass a multimillion dollar item after five minutes of discussion and then spend almost an hour debating the purchase of a small shed.

This emphasis on the minor encourages a mean and ungenerous pettiness. In such an environment, disputes can rapidly become personalized - community organizer Saul Alinsky noted the galvanizing power of a designated culprit - and dubious methods quickly justified, at least in the minds of the abusers.

Pettiness is a poison that afflicts little minds; especially those individuals who go through life concerned that someone, somewhere, is taking advantage of them or getting more than their fair share. These are folks who hold irrational grudges and who constantly keep score; habits that invariably lead to unhappiness.

Left unchecked, pettiness can drive off good performers who have neither the time nor the inclination to swat gnats. Because of that, petty behavior should not be regarded as a minor infraction.

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