Management Policy Deserves Intellectual Rigor

I was taught a long time ago, in managing employees at a business (or your own children at home), that if you have to resort to "because I said so," you might get your way, but you've lost the argument.

A recent Newsweek interview with Jonathan Oppenheimer, a young, fourth-generation director of the diamond company De Beers Group, brought this to mind.

Because he's had to lead much more senior managers at De Beers, he was asked for advice he'd give to young managers stepping into a similar role. "Win your employees' intellectual respect," he said.

Oppenheimer noted that early on, he had used his position as a De Beers owner to get something done his way. "... it was embarrassing because it demonstrated a failure of reason. If I could have done it again, I think I would spend whatever time was needed to have my argument carry the day."

I don't think his point could be stated any clearer than that.


There are plenty of other challenges new managers can face. For example, a close relative of "because I said so" is "because we've always done it that way." The new manager is not as likely to say this as to have it said to him.

Here's a good place for the new manager to do his best impersonation of Silver-Tongue Jones. Figure out a polite way to ask "why?" Perhaps you could try something like: "That's interesting. Can you give me some background on that?"

An occasion like this is also a good point to take some time and ask both your own supervisor and some of the more experienced fellow department heads about these company habits.

Through this extra research, you might find that there's a piece of equipment you've assumed the station has, but in fact they don't. You might find there are local conditions that have dictated they do it the way they do.

You may even find that they've got a better way of doing it.

But in the same way that you owe your employees more than a "because I said so" rationale for a decision, someone ought to be able to give you a good reason why it's always been done that way. Just find a nice, soft way of asking. Managers sometimes find an easy escape in the mantra: "It's company policy."

Heck, it's written right there in the employee manual... might as well be written on a stone tablet. And if you don't enforce it, you could be out of work yourself. Fine, but if you can't explain the rule and why it's there, you'll not only be making yourself seem foolish, but the company seem trivializing as well.

There's a lot a new manager has to do when he gets his first managing job, and one piece of homework should be to carefully read not only the employee manual but collective bargaining contracts as well. Find something that you don't understand? Or find something that you don't understand why it's there? Ask.

Think that's going to be tough? Try the unwritten rules. Unwritten rules are more likely to trip up a manager coming from another company or station than for a manager promoted from within. And by their very nature, there is no list of such unwritten rules, though they can have just as strong a standing as those codified.

I worked at a company where, for three decades or more, no one flew first class. It was never written down in any policy manual, though I think it may have been written in letters of understanding with travel agencies the company used. But no one flew first class.

The rule went back to the 1950s, when the national sales manager flew first class cross-country, and ran into the company's founder and chairman.

"I didn't know you were on the flight," he said.

"You would have if you'd sat back in coach where I did," said the founder.

No one flew first class after that. It was an unwritten rule.

You have every right to check with your supervisor or another department head about such an unwritten rule. Just don't act incredulous when you ask about the rule. It may seem strange to you, but it may have been serious business at the company for, as in my example, decades.