“Manager Knows Best?” It May Be Annoying, But It’s Not Going Away

In the future, nobody will be poor, everyone will be happy, and managers will never pull the old parental line at work: because I said so.

That rose colored view might not be one I share but I can certainly understand where it comes from. People who work a lot with Millennials seem to err on this view. And as a Millennial myself, who am I to question that?

After all, if I have a boss who won’t do anything without having a long, drawn out justification (or worse, feels the need to include everyone in a decision), it could make life a bit easier. At least for now.

But when Gen Y grows up — and they will — there’s no evidence suggesting that “manager knows best” will disappear.

Manager knows best going away?

A couple of weeks ago, I saw an interesting post over on the Harvard Business Review blog about why “manager knows best” is going away. Here’s the meat of the argument:

The days when a leader can confidently say “I know best” will come to an end. Managers will no longer be able to communicate with just a small circle of trusted advisers — they’ll be expected to interact digitally with a much broader range of people both inside and outside the company.

Not every company will be pleased by this turn of events, of course, but those that embrace it will have new competitive opportunities. With knowledge flowing more freely throughout the organization and decisions being made more quickly, the company will be able to react more nimbly to the ever-increasing pace of change.”

Are managers communicating more broadly, using technology, and increasing the pace that decisions are made? Absolutely. Does that mean that decisions are sometimes more collaborative? Absolutely. Does that mean “manager knows best” is going away? I don’t think so.

It’s a matter of perspective

Since the beginning of time, the best managers have been adept at taking input from all angles as well as being considerate of the position of the company, finances and strategic value, and plotting the best path forward. And anyone can tell you that making a collaborative decision isn’t always possible (and in some situations, it can actually be really bad).

Consider a situation where marketing needs more money to advertise a product but the finance head is denying the request because they are out of budget. Compromising might not be the best solution (as either spending too little money or too much money might be the wrong decision). It takes a manager who can look at all of the facts and who can confidently make the right decision given all of the facts.

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Somebody in that transaction isn’t going to be happy, no matter how collaborative and open it was. And no matter the explanation, at least one of them could disagree with your take on the situation. Maybe even both of them. If it has happened to me, it’s certainly happened to all managers.

Not a license to be arrogant

No two people view the same situation 100 percent the same way. Budgeting decisions are a great example of when there may be many good possibilities but ultimately there is only one possible way forward.

When those decisions have to be made, there has to be a manager in place that can be confident in making that decision. Even when good judgment and data back those decisions, managers have to be confident in saying “because I said so.”

Collaborative approaches, transparency, and technology don’t, in and of themselves, create trust in the judgment of company leadership. While those can all help, it is more important that leaders take into consideration all aspects of a situation, consistently make the right calls, and communicate with their employees clearly about why the decision was made.

I’ve always appreciated managers who balanced feedback, communication, and collaboration with making tough decisions and being transparent about them. That doesn’t mean they always made the decisions I agreed with, but that they owned the decision and adjusted on the fly based on the information they received.

The manager may not always know best, but the good ones know best the majority of the time. And as we transition the younger generation to leadership roles, they should be taught to not be afraid of making the unpopular, but correct, decision.


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