Leadership & Management

Why Some Managers Won't Let Go

A study reveals the tendency of leaders to inflate the worth of work produced with their direct oversight.

September 01, 1997

| by Barbara Buell

There is mounting evidence that giving people more responsibility for making decisions in their jobs generates greater productivity, morale, and commitment. Yet, in spite of the substantial economic returns to decentralization and delegation, many American managers resist such practices in favor of traditional command-and-control approaches to managing people.

Stanford GSB’s Jeffrey Pfeffer believes this problem stems in part from a contemporary obsession with leadership. “There is a cultural, socially learned belief in leadership,” says Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee Professor of Organizational Behavior. “At Stanford, for instance, we have a speakers series called the ‘View From The Top,’ not the ‘View From The Middle’ or the ‘View From The Bottom.’”

Many studies have examined how decentralization and trust affect the people who are subject to these management approaches, but Pfeffer has recently examined the effect of control, or its absence, on their bosses. With Arizona State University social psychologist Robert Cialdini and Stanford GSB doctoral candidates Kathleen Knopoff and Benjamin Hanna, Pfeffer looked for some of the social psychological reasons why employee empowerment techniques aren’t more widely or easily used.

The researchers conducted an experiment in which 282 MBA students were recruited to play the roles of managers or subordinates who were designing a new wristwatch advertisement. In actuality, all subjects played a managing role. The data showed that the more involvement and control a manager felt he or she had over the task, the more favorably the manager judged the final ad and the more favorably the person evaluated his or her own managerial ability and the subordinate. “It’s a common cognitive bias motivated by the desire for self-enhancement,” explains Pfeffer. “If you’ve been actively involved in producing something, it’s going to look better to you. Conversely, something in which you have been less involved looks worse.”

Pfeffer and his colleagues also found what they termed a “faith in supervision effect.” Even observers not involved in the experiment thought the final ad was better to the extent they believed it had been produced with more supervisory control and involvement. Ironically, says Pfeffer, this faith in supervision is often misplaced, because creative and intellectual activity can be undermined by close supervision.

How can this overvaluation of work produced under more supervision be overcome? The researchers found that simply using the language of teams — phrases such as team leader and team member rather than supervisor and subordinate — ameliorated the tendency to overvalue the advertisement.

Because of the tendency to inflate the worth of work produced with one’s direct involvement, it may be necessary to “force” delegation. “You put managers in a situation where they have to delegate,” says Pfeffer. “Give them a large number of direct reports and thereby force decentralization.”

Effective organizations put people in groups that manage themselves while leaders develop and nourish the corporate culture and promote an atmosphere that values learning, innovation, and accomplishment. Instead of telling people what to do and breathing down their necks to make sure they do it, good managers train and support their people and give them the resources to make their own decisions.

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