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 their direct reports’ direct reports, they might step on the front-line manager’s toes or inadvertently send conflicting messages about priorities or workflow. The good news is that you can build relationships with your managers’ team members without creating problems. In fact, interacting with your direct reports’ direct reports can bring three important benefits:

  1. It will give you a much better sense of how things are playing out on the ground.
  2. When people know you, they’re generally much more likely to approach you if there’s a problem that you should hear about.
  3. 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. These people might eventually report to you (or be your peers)!

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.

When interacting with the staff member, be careful not to make decisions that their manager should make or inadvertently undermine the manager’s processes. In other words, don’t jump in and do the manager’s job on their behalf; steer people back to them 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 and power of managing their team on the manager’s shoulders.

For instance, if a staff member several levels down comes to you with a proposal for a 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 Cam’s realm, I’m going to ask you to propose this to them and see what they think.” On the other hand, if that same staff member wanted to pick your brain about what donation processing systems you’ve used, it would probably be fine to share your thoughts, while reiterating that it’s ultimately Cam’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 new hires two or more levels below you
  • Occasionally scheduling breakfast/lunch with individual team members
  • Making a point to check in on how they’re doing when you run into each other in the office or while you’re waiting for meetings to start
  • Conducting regular skip-level meetings

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 could tell the manager, “I’m going to occasionally schedule lunch or coffee with people on your team. This is so that I can stay grounded in how the work is playing out 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. This will give me a deeper understanding of how things are playing out and I can spot ways to be a more helpful resource to the team.”

If you’re explicitly seeking input for 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.

Also, remember that whom you get to know is a choice point. When you build relationships with people who have less positional power than you, you increase their access to power. Do a bias check with yourself: who are you most inclined to get to know? In what ways are they similar to you? What makes you drawn to them? What are the ways in which they fit into the dominant culture of society and/or of your organization? If you find that you are quicker to schedule coffees with people who went to your alma mater, grab lunch with people who are at a similar life stage as you, or conduct skip-levels with people who look like the people in power at your organization, reconsider your approach. Better yet, make it a practice to get to know everyone.

3. Handle critical 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 the issue on their 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 they’re providing input, and whether they could give input earlier in the process. Depending on the circumstances, you might also directly say, “I’ve heard some feedback that people wish they could get your two cents earlier in the process. What do you think about that?