What Should My Relationships With Staff Several Layers Below Me Look Like?

A reader asks:

“I manage three other managers, who have teams of their own. Sometimes members of their teams come directly to me with ideas, questions, or concerns. I don’t want to step on their managers’ toes. At the same time, I don’t want to shut myself out from hearing about how things are working two or more layers down from me and I find it useful to have a decent sense of those team members. How do I navigate this?”

 

When it comes to managing managers, little raises more questions than how to navigate the relationship with the staff members several layers below you.

Managers sometimes worry that in interacting with staff members two or more layers below them, they might step on the front-line manager’s toes or inadvertently send conflicting messages about priorities or workflow. But getting to know and interacting with your managers’ team members can be done without creating problems, and it brings three important benefits: First, it will give you a much better sense of how things are playing out on the ground. Second, when people know you (and see that you’re calm, reasonable, and care about great results), they’re generally much more likely to approach you if there’s a problem that you should hear about. And third, getting to know staff members several layers down will make it easier for you to spot the next wave of upcoming talent in your realm and help cultivate the best people on those rungs (who might end up being your direct reports some day).

Here are three keys to navigating these relationships successfully – getting information that you need to manage well, without undermining your managers’ own relationships with their teams.

1. Don’t short-circuit the manager. The key to interacting with staff members two levels or more down from you is to be careful not to make decisions that their manager should make or inadvertently short-circuiting the manager’s own processes. In other words, don’t jump in and do the manager’s job on her behalf; steer people back to her as much as you can. This is a delicate balance, because you do want to be engaged and interact with people – but you want to keep the weight of managing her team – including their morale – on the manager’s shoulders, not on yours.

For instance, if a staff member several levels down comes to you with a proposal for new way of processing donations, you might say, “I’m so glad that you’re thinking creatively about the best way to get this done. Since this is Carmen’s realm, I’m going to ask you to propose this to her and see what she thinks.” On the other hand, if that same staff member simply wanted to pick your brain about what donation processing systems you’d seen work well in the past, it would probably be perfectly appropriate to talk through your thoughts with her, while reiterating that it’s ultimately Carmen’s decision. In this case, you’d simply be acting as a resource (whereas in the first case, you would risk encroaching on the manager’s decision-making process).

2. Find ways to get to know your managers’ staff members.

You can get to know your managers’ teams through things like:

  • having a get-to-know-you coffee with all new hires two or more levels below you
  • occasionally scheduling lunch with individual team members to hear their thoughts on how things are going
  • finding opportunities to casually take people’s pulse, such as asking questions like “how’s everything going?” when the opportunity presents itself
  • explicitly checking into how things are going, such as checking in with a few team members about how things are going when you’re preparing to do a performance evaluation for a manager

In doing this, be transparent with all parties involved that your objectives are to better understand the experience of everyone on the team and to spot opportunities to be a helpful coach for the manager. For instance, you might explain to the manager, “I’m going to occasionally schedule lunch or coffee with people on your team, to ensure that I stay grounded in how the work is playing out on the ground and because it helps give me insight into how I can be a better resource to you.” And you might explain to the staff member, “Tony does a great job of keeping me up-to-date at a broad level, but I’d love to hear how things are going from your perspective, both to give me a deeper understanding of how things are playing out and to spot ways I can be a more helpful resource to him and the team.”

And when explicitly seeking input for something like performance evaluations, be transparent with both the manager and the staff members about what you’re doing and how you’ll use the insights you gain (such as explaining to staff members that you’ll be presenting general takeaways and broad themes, but that nothing you hear will be attributed to specific people).

3. Handle negative feedback thoughtfully. If you hear negative feedback about the manager from their staff, in some cases you might be able to steer the person back to the manager to resolve an issue on her own. Other times, though, an issue might be more serious and require your attention. In those cases, try to find a way to probe more deeply – whether through targeted observation of your own, talking with others, or talking with the manager directly.

For example, if you heard that a manager was shooting down feedback and discouraging dissent during strategy discussions, you might make a point of attending some of these meetings yourself to observe (and then give feedback to the manager). Or, if you heard complaints that a manager was regularly causing avoidable delays in the team’s work by not giving feedback on projects until the last minute, this might be harder to observe on your own. In that case, you might ask the manager to walk you through how some of these projects are unfolding, when she’s providing input, and whether she thinks she could give input earlier in the process. Depending on the circumstances, you might also directly say, “I’ve heard some feedback – I can’t share from who because they asked me not to, but it sounded plausible to me – that people wish they could get your two cents earlier in the process. What’s your sense of whether it might be worth doing that differently?”