I work in advertising as an art director. Nothing too cutting edge design-wise, but the projects are interesting enough, and the clients are (mostly) easy to deal with. My only real complaint is my boss. For whatever the reason, he seems compelled to always have the last word. Typically this plays out right before I’m about to present my work to a client. He’ll seize on some minor detail which he absolutely insists must be changed, and a last minute or late night scramble will then follow. Most of these modifications are so small no one would ever notice, but some actually make things worse, in my opinion. I mean, he doesn’t even have a background in the arts! Besides, the client is going to want to make their own edits anyway, so what’s the point? Is there anything I can do to keep him from doing this..? – Name withheld
Organizational behaviorist and management scholar Jeffrey Pfeffer has a lot to say about the dilemma you face. Quite a lot, in fact.
One of the more widely documented effects in all of social psychology, he explains, is the idea that most people see themselves as self-enhancing – that is, they consider their own performance superior to that of their peers.
This, Pfeffer was able to show, also affects how they behave as a manager.
In a study titled, “Faith in supervision and the self-enhancement bias: Two psychological reasons why managers don’t empower workers,” he and his colleagues found that people who took a more active role in supervising someone’s work—in this case, the production of an advertisement, coincidentally—evaluated that ad more favorably than when they merely observed the process. In fact, they deemed it to be 100% better, even though the two ads were identical. And so, as Pfeffer concludes:
“Work performed under more oversight and control will be perceived [by a manager] as better than the identical work performed with less oversight.”
So if your manager’s behavior is indeed a compulsion, it appears to be a very human one.
What then, can you do about it?
Well, I suppose you could “accidentally” leave a copy of Pfeffer’s study on his desk. However, I don’t recommend it. Nobody likes to admit they’re wrong, much less be confronted by their own irrationality – even if it’s good for the organization, and for business.
I suspect too that your manager genuinely believes his contributions make your work better (and on occasion, of course, that is entirely possible). But the downsides of his micromanagement far outweigh the positives, even if his “suggestions” always resulted in an improvement. As must be acknowledged, any marginal contribution he might make is sure to be more than negated by your own loss of enthusiasm for your job, and your work.
Another tactic you might try is deliberately leaving in a “mistake” or two for your manager to find and point out, thus satisfying his need to weigh in. Nothing so obvious as a spelling error, though; that seems unprofessional, and is likely to reflect poorly on you. (Maybe a margin that’s off, or color that doesn’t quite match?) I can’t in good conscience recommend this strategy either, however. Lying to your manager in this way is never a good idea, in my opinion. Besides, what if he doesn’t notice the little screw-ups you’ve left for him to catch? Or worse, actually likes it that way? You’d be stuck turning in work you’re not altogether proud of.
Or, of course, you could consider all of this just part of the job, and put up with it.
One final thought: In his study, Pfeffer found that 90% of people saw their work as being superior to others. That other ten percent, however, did not.
I can’t help but wonder if this doesn’t connect with another statistic – one The Gallup Organization reported several years ago. They determined that only about one in ten people have the “natural, God-given talent” to manage a group of people.
It strikes me then that if good management really is about support, as the available evidence overwhelmingly suggests it is, yet only 10% of the population has the capacity to recognize their way may not be the best way, well…might not that help explain why good managers are, in Gallup’s estimation, so few and far between?
Like I said, it’s just a thought.
In the meantime, whatever you decide to do, my hope is that you’ll commit this experience to memory. That way, you can draw on it should you ever become a manager yourself.
It would of course be deeply hypocritical of you if, having so resented this treatment by your own manager, you were to later behave in precisely the same way towards any future employees of yours. So never mind your current predicament for the moment.
My question to you is: Do you think you have the humility needed to be a good manager..?
 Pfeffer, Jeffrey, R.B. Caldini, B. Hanna, and K. Knopoff. “Faith in supervision and the self-enhancement bias: Two psychological reasons why managers don’t empower workers.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 20, No. 4 (1998): 313-321.
 Pfeffer, Jeffrey. The Human Equation. 1998 (Harvard Business School Press), p. 147.
 Sirota, David; Mischkind, Louis A.; and Meltzer, Michael Irwin. The Enthusiastic Employee. 2005 (Wharton School Publishing) and references therein.
 Pfeffer, op. cit., p. 147.