How to Manage Skip-Level Relationships

Last updated: September 13, 2021
Estimated reading time: 6 min


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 steps removed 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, cultivating relationships with staff members several paces away can seem tricky. You don’t want to undermine your managers’ relationships with their teams or inadvertently send conflicting messages about priorities or workflow—and you also need to hear staff members’ perspectives in order to manage their managers well.

There’s good news: you can build relationships with your managers’ team members without creating problems. In fact, interacting with your direct reports’ direct reports—with care, attention, and consistency—has significant benefits:

  1. Supportive relationships across lines of organizational power can counteract inequities and give staff a greater sense of belonging and value.
  2. Getting to know staff can help you to spot the next wave of upcoming talent—people who might eventually report to you (or be your peers)!
  3. When people know you, they’re generally much more likely to approach you if there’s a problem (or praise) you should hear about.

The main advice we offered in our manager’s guide to relationship-building holds true for your relationship with staff members who report your managers, as well. Here are three specific tips for navigating skip-level relationships successfully.

1. Create opportunities to get to know your managers’ staff members.

When you occupy a leadership position, you have power. This means not everyone will be comfortable popping into your virtual office hours unless you make it a norm. So, be proactive and create opportunities for connection, both formal and informal, and let managers and staff know your objectives are to connect with everyone on the team, better understand staff experience, and spot opportunities to be a more helpful coach for the manager. You can get to know your managers’ staff by:

  • Conducting regular skip-level meetings
  • Having a get-to-know-you coffee with new hires
  • Scheduling breakfast/lunch with individual team members
  • Spending time with staff you don’t know well during retreats, break out sessions, or other gatherings

Make it a practice to get to know everyone—but if you need to prioritize the time you spend, recognize this as a choice point. Pause and ask 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?
  • Who is ending up on the margins? How could you prioritize those relationships?

If you find that you are quicker to schedule coffee with staff 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 “just seem like a great fit” for leadership at your organization, reconsider your approach.

Whether you opt for formal or informal meetings, you can find more guidance and sample questions in How to Use Skip-Level Meetings Effectively and helpful language in these sample emails for managers and their staff members.

2. Don’t short-circuit the manager.

When you get together with staff members, invite their insight into your team and organization, and seek feedback about their manager’s effectiveness. As you do this, be careful not to make decisions that their manager should make or inadvertently undermine the manager’s processes. Steer people back to their manager when it comes to managing their team, and be clear when a topic or concern rises to your realm. For example:

  • If a staff member 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.”
  • If that same staff member wanted to learn from you about donation processing systems you’ve used, it would 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).
  • If that same staff person proposed a new donation processing system that could really increase the efficiency of other teams too, such as administration and finance, you might say, “This is a great idea. I encourage you to talk it over with Cam and I will too. From there this is something we’ll need to discuss with the Senior Leadership Team.”

3. Handle critical feedback thoughtfully.

If you’re building the kind of rapport and candor that’s essential to effective management, you’re likely to hear concerns and even critical feedback. Remember, it can take a lot of courage for staff to share insights, especially across lines of difference or power. If you hear critical feedback about the manager from their staff member (or about the organizational culture), start in listening mode and ask questions to broaden your understanding. Let the staff members know you take their concerns seriously. From there, you have a few options depending on the nature of the concern:

  • In some cases, you might be able to steer the person back to the manager to resolve the issue on their own. You might coach the staff member on how to give direct feedback to their manager or manage up, or talk them through solutions that empower them to strengthen the relationship.
  • Other times, an issue might be more serious and require your attention. Clarify the next steps you will take with the staff member and whether you can or can’t promise confidentiality. If you need time to think this through, let the staff member know you will follow up with them by X date.

In cases where the manager’s performance needs improvement, try to find a way to probe more deeply with the manager—whether through targeted observation, talking with others, or talking with the manager directly. Review our two-part series on receiving feedback (How to Receive Feedback Part 1 and Part 2) and coach your managers around giving and receiving feedback.

Above all, if you learn something concerning, consult with HR. But the bottom line is: support the staff person while doing your job to manage your manager.

A note on performance evaluations: While getting to know staff members should happen year-round, you’ll always want to get input from staff members before you evaluate their managers. While these are one kind of skip-level meeting, be explicit about the purpose of performance evaluation check-ins with both the manager and the staff members and let them know how you’ll use the insights you gain. For instance, “I want to hear your input about X manager’s strengths and areas for improvement. I won’t attribute your comments by name, but will summarize general themes in my evaluation.” For more, see How to Gather and Use Input from Others in Performance Evaluations.

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