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Monday
Apr302018

Kiss Up, Kick Down in Medicine 

This past week the phrase “kiss up, kick down” was used to describe Ronny Jackson, then a nominee for the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (1). Wikipedia defines the phrase as “a neologism used to describe the situation where middle level employees in an organization are polite and flattering to superiors but abusive to subordinates” (2). Like most, I do not know Jackson and have no knowledge of the truth. However, the behavior attributed to Dr. Jackson is pervasive and harmful in medicine.

Kiss up, kick down is part of a blame culture. McLendon and Weinberg, see the flow of blame in an organization as one of the most important indicators of organization robustness and integrity (3). They argue that blame flowing upwards in a hierarchy proves that management can take responsibility for their orders and supply the resources required to do a job. However, blame flowing downwards, from management to staff, or laterally between professionals, indicate organizational failure. In a blame culture, problem-solving is replaced by blame-avoidance. Weinberg emphasizes that blame coming from the top generates "fear, malaise, errors, accidents, and passive-aggressive responses from the bottom", with those at the bottom feeling powerless and lacking emotional safety (4).

Calum Paton, Professor of Health Policy at Keele University, describes kiss up kick down as a prevalent feature of the UK National Health Service culture. He raised this point when giving evidence at the public inquiry into concerns of poor care and high mortality at Stafford Hospital in England (5). According to Paton, credit was centralized and blame devolved or transferred to a lower level. "Kiss up kick down means that your middle level people will kiss-up, they will please their masters, political or otherwise, and they will kick down to blame somebody else when things go wrong."

The VA scheduling scandal is a similar American example where management failed to provide the number of providers necessary to care for the patients. When caught, management attempted to blame the physicians (6). This is hardly surprising given that the physicians are often leaderless without anyone to speak for them. Too often physician leaders are not chosen from the best and brightest to protect the best interests of the patient and staff. Rather they are selected because they are the most compliant with management (kiss up).

Physicians near the top of a hierarchy are usually administrators peripherally involved in patient care. They may not always act with the best interests of the patient and staff but with what is best for their bosses and themselves as both the Stafford and VA examples illustrate. As such, they can be expected to “roll over on anyone” (kick down), a phrase used to describe Dr. Jackson (1). Furthermore, their practice skills may be weak or outdated making them particularly dangerous to the organization.

Physicians who put patient needs first often find themselves at odds with what is best for management. It may be time to reconsider how physician leaders are chosen. The medical staff is probably in the best position to judge which physicians are the best physician leaders rather than the obsequious leaders often chosen by management (7). If the medical staff chosen physician leader can work with management, the organization will have a dyad leadership. If not, then the physician leaders with the support of the staff can oppose those policies deemed harmful to patients or the organization.

Richard A. Robbins, MD

Editor, SWJPCC

References

  1. Blake A. The lengthy list of allegations against Ronny Jackson, annotated. The Washington Post. April 25, 2018. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/04/25/the-list-of-allegations-against-ronny-jackson-annotated/?utm_term=.9ee75ad66c9b (accessed 4/28/18).
  2. Kiss up kick down. Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiss_up_kick_down (accessed 4/28/18).
  3. McLendon J, Weinberg GM. Beyond blaming. Aye Conference Article Library. 1996. Available at: http://www.humansystemsinaction.com/beyondblaming/ (accessed 4/28/18).
  4. Gerald M. Weinberg: Beyond Blaming, March 5, 2006, AYE Conference. Available at: http://www.ayeconference.com/beyondblaming/ (accessed 4/28/18).
  5. Mid Staffordshire Public Inquiry Transcript - day 103. June 21, 2011. Available at: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20150407092403/http://www.midstaffspublicinquiry.com/sites/default/files/transcripts/Tuesday_21_June_2011_-_transcript.pdf (accessed 4/28/18).
  6. Robbins RA. Don't fire Sharon Helman-at least not yet. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;8(5):275-7. [CrossRef]
  7. Robbins RA. Beware the obsequious physician executive (OPIE) but embrace dyad leadership. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2017;15(4):151-3. [CrossRef]

Cite as: Robbins RA. Kiss up, kick down in medicine. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2018;16(4):230-1. doi: https://doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc060-18 PDF 

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