Actions to Take: Force yourself to consider others’ ideas for longer than a few minutes. When someone disagrees with you, train yourself to assume there is very good logic behind their argument, even if they can’t easily articulate it. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you are better than your employees. Hold your employees to the same standard you hold yourself.
Today’s topic shines a light on an ugly part of management that we would all rather not acknowledge. The truth is, bosses often think they are better than their employees. Most would never come out and say it. Most would not even consciously think it. But it comes out in our actions, in the way we present our opinions and explain away others’ opinions. It comes out in how much consideration we give our own ideas versus how much we give ideas presented to us. This is natural human behavior, of course. It is just more obviously toxic when a boss does it. Let’s talk about how we managers are not quite as special as we think we are.
Managers are set up for failure in a lot of ways. Perhaps the most covert trap of all is that we got promoted because of our past successes. We got the job, not our coworkers. There is a reason for that. We were especially good at our individual contributor work and showed an aptitude for further success. We must have worked better than others at our level. We are, generally speaking, more highly motivated and productive than the average employee. Otherwise, someone else would have been promoted instead of us. This is largely true, which is what makes it such a trap.
Let’s assume you are managing people in a job you once held. You know the job extremely well. If you were a coworker instead of their manager, you’d likely be the smartest, get the most done, and know the details of the job better than anyone else. Most managers do not find themselves in this position. We generally supervise a variety of positions, and we rarely know the details of the work as well as the employees do. Nevertheless, let’s say you find yourself in this situation. Even if all of that is true, it is still not effective to think or act like you know best.
If you know the job best, it makes sense for you to trust yourself over others. It makes sense to implement the ideas that you have and give less thought to your employees’ ideas. It makes sense to expect people to do the work the way you would do it, not the way they want to do it. Hopefully, you are already starting to see how this becomes a problem.
Think about your boss for a moment. When you bring ideas to them, how do they respond? Do they act as though they know the situation better than you do, immediately giving you an answer that may or may not fit with your thinking? Or do they draw on your more intimate knowledge of the situation by asking questions, getting details, and considering your opinion as seriously as they consider their own? Try to think of real people from your work history who resemble those descriptions. Which person do you want to work for?
The fact is, people want the boss who doesn’t act like they know better even if it's true that the boss knows better. Imagine that an employee comes to you with an idea for changing a process. You know immediately that it will not work. You had the same thought before, tried it out, and discovered half a dozen reasons why it simply cannot be implemented. You explain that it can’t be done and move along with your day. Now imagine that you have a great idea you want to present to your boss. You know that it has been tried before, but the situation is different now. You have spent a several hours here and there the past few weeks mulling it over. You think there is a good chance it can really improve processes. You tell your boss, and after less than 5 minutes of discussion, they have shot down your idea.
This is the same scenario, presented on either side of the table. In both cases, the boss might be absolutely certain that the idea is not going to work out. Despite that, this is the wrong way to go about managing. In both scenarios, the manager is acting as if they are better (or at least know better) than their employees.
Now, it is still the manager’s job to make effective decisions. You can’t agree to bad ideas just to spare someone’s feelings. My argument is that there is a way to make good decisions and treat your employees as equals. Here is how:
- When an employee brings you an idea that won’t work, do not dismiss it out of hand. Instead, spend extra time hearing their thoughts. Make your own concerns clear. They might already have answers planned for those concerns.
- Challenge your own assumptions. You might know this idea did not work a few years ago. Can you be sure it will not work now? You might know best, but your employee knows different. Is it possible they have a perspective you have not considered yet?
- Mentally argue their case for them. You likely got a management position because you are an effective communicator. Your employee might be a great thinker but unable to fully articulate their idea. Play devil’s advocate against yourself. Push yourself to see their side. Argue for their case.
- When possible, avoid making a decision in the same meeting you first heard about the idea. Instead, give it a few days or a week. If you are one of the few, wonderful bosses who does weekly one-on-one meetings, note the topic for the following week. Waiting has a couple major benefits. The first is largely perception. When you make quick decisions, your employee can’t help but feel like you didn’t give it enough thought. The other major benefit is that you might actually think about it! Even if you do not change your mind, you will come to understand your employee’s perspective and be better equipped to explain the “no” in a way that they will accept.
- Whatever your decision, explain why. Show your employees that you give their opinions serious thought. The easiest way to do that is by coming up with a “why” that directly addresses their way of thinking.
There are two other situations where the “better than” mentality rears its head. The first is when employees do things differently than you would. In itself, there is nothing wrong with that. There is also nothing wrong with providing suggestions for a better method. The problems occur when managers mix up “different method” and “better method.” Your method is better for you, there is no doubt about that. Before you go forcing your way onto your employees, make sure your way is better generally. Even then, it might not be worth the ill will. People like to have ownership of their work. One part of ownership is getting to make some choices about how the work is done. If your way is 2% better but it makes your employee 20% more resentful, that is not a good trade.
Finally, managers act like they are better than their employees when they set weak performance expectations. Follow this rule: “If I would not expect my boss to put up with it from me, I should not put up with it from my direct reports.” It is an act of arrogance to hold yourself to a higher standard than your direct reports. I am not talking about specific job duties or abilities. I am not saying you should expect everyone to know Excel as well as you or have the same set of project planning skills. I am talking about core values and core competencies, the things we expect from everyone: professionalism, respect, accountability, and so on. When you don’t hold others to the same standard you hold yourself to, you are claiming that you are more effective, smarter, more aware, in some way better than them. You are saying, “I got this position because I am better, so of course I don’t come in late. I put up with my employees coming in late because they are not as good as me.” Remember that you are not special, and that cuts both ways. Say instead, “Of course I expect my employees to come in on time. I expect it of myself, and I would not expect my boss to put up with lateness from me.” Don’t be arrogant enough to give your direct reports a pass.
Bosses are not special. Better bosses know this and show it in their actions. They give their employees’ opinions equal weight to their own, they appreciate different methods of getting the same task done, and they hold their employees to the same standards to which they hold themselves.