in Business Design

The manager-knows-best effect

I’ve been thinking about why it can be hard to convince managers to trust the wisdom of their teams, allowing work to emerge from a collaborative process instead of dictating the what. The Wisdom of Crowds illustrates the evidence for multiple points of view rather than one, but I think we need more to make it happen, we need to acknowledge managers’ emotional situations too.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford GSB professor and author of compelling titles such as The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First and The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action, co-authored a relevant paper in 1997 titled, “Two Psychological Reasons Why Managers Don’t Empower Workers”. From the abstract:

The present study provides evidence for two psychological processes that may help explain managers’ reluctance to use worker empowerment practices such as delegation or self-managing teams:

  1. a faith in supervision effect, which reflects the tendency of observers to see work performed under the control of a supervisor as better than identical work done without as much supervision; and
  2. a self-enhancement effect, which reflects the tendency of managers to evaluate a work product more highly the more self-involved they are in its production.

So this offers more evidence to convince managers to put their faith in teams. Another approach I like is emphasizing other work the manager could do with the time they’d gain, such as thinking further in time on more or different strategic matters.

Update: WSJ today reports on overcontrolling bosses, upper-management at the extreme. Arthur Freedman, director of organizational development and change at American University says, “At some level of consciousness they don’t believe they know how to handle the demands of the job they’re in. So they revert or regress down one or two levels to the level where they felt comfortable.