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How to Strengthen Managerial Relationships

Employees need direct, frequent contact to fully engage in work. Great managers know how to build trust, listen, deliver feedback and manage tough conversations.

December 12, 2011
Related Topics: Leadership Development, Management, Management Training, Leadership Development, Management

Honest, open communication is critical to the success and longevity of personal relationships, and such communication is just as important in workplace relationships between managers and their direct reports. Without frequent, transparent communication between both parties, an organization is restricted in its ability to grow and prosper. Close relationships between managers and their direct reports improve collaboration, streamline execution, increase engagement and enhance performance. Distant relations, on the other hand, can lead to more mistakes and lower productivity.

Robert I. Sutton, professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, wrote Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best ... and Learn from the Worst, in which he revealed how bosses create effective, productive and benevolent workplaces. Sutton said bosses matter most to those below them in the pecking order because they guide and evaluate their direct reports at close range. “The success or failure of every boss hinges on how well or how badly he or she navigates these vexing and all-too-human relationships.”

While managers have numerous job duties to fulfill on a daily basis, managing their direct reports is one of the most important, and requires a great deal of time and effort. Managers should handle direct reports with care, coaching and guiding them to achieve both their personal and professional goals. Geisinger Health System, a physician-led health care system based in Danville, Pa., uses a wide range of preventative measures and interventions to not only heal the sick, but to help build strong relationships between managers and their employees.

“Geisinger Health System’s most effective measure has been the introduction of immersive management,” said Chris Chappell, former organizational development specialist at Geisinger and now manager, workforce training for health services at Geisinger Health Plan. “In the case of immersive management, the manager not only reaches out to the staff to gain information and to be perceived as available, but also actively engages with his or her staff in solving problems, creating efficiencies and innovating. In teams with immersive managers, we see much less of an ‘us vs. them’ attitude. Rather, both the staff and management rely on each other to improve their work experiences.”

To strengthen the relationship with direct reports, managers need to be able to perform four key skills: build trust, listen, deliver feedback effectively and manage challenging conversations.

Building Trust
To be effective leaders, managers need to earn and keep their direct reports’ trust. In 2010, Maritz Research conducted a poll to better understand U.S. employees’ attitudes toward their employers. The poll found that employees across all industries cite a lack of trust in not only their senior leaders, but also in their direct managers and colleagues. Only 11 percent of employees strongly agree that their managers show consistency in their words and actions. Further, only 7 percent of employees strongly agree they trust senior leaders to look out for their best interests, and only 7 percent strongly agree they trust their co-workers to do so. For positive business outcomes to occur, that has to change. Employees must trust their managers, co-workers and employers.

That’s easier said than done. But essentially, for employees to trust their bosses, managers must have an established track record of using fair practices and following through on promises. Eventually, as leaders’ actions align with direct reports’ expectations and the organization’s overall processes are seen as transparent and just, trust will emerge. As a result, employees will become more willing to take risks and innovate.

In the absence of trust, developing a strong relationship between managers and employees will prove quite difficult. To lessen the perception that managers do not care about their direct reports, they need to be more visible to them on a day-to-day basis. When managers hold themselves accountable for the same high standards they demand of their direct reports, regularly share good and bad news about the company, and are transparent with their decision-making processes, employees will more readily build a rapport with them and trust them to do what is right for the organization and for their own futures.

Managers don’t need to be good listeners — they need to be great listeners. Whether direct reports want to take on additional job responsibilities or report a serious organizational irregularity, they want to be comfortable approaching a manager, and be assured he or she is not only willing to listen but is willing to act on what is expressed. Further, a great manager takes ideas and feedback from everyone on the team, not just the highest-ranking or most engaged employees. A great manager also brings the most valuable feedback to senior management, ensuring it is not left by the wayside.

If an employee suggestion cannot be passed on to senior leadership, managers should thank their direct reports for the recommendation and explain why it cannot be carried out. Encouraging their direct reports to offer feedback and letting them know their ideas matter demonstrates that managers want and expect their employees to contribute to organizational success. As a result, employees will feel more engaged.

Managers need to be willing and able to hear employees’ thoughts in person. Although today’s managers are increasingly strapped for time, they should maintain an open door policy. Such a policy will demonstrate a manager’s intention to listen to his or her direct reports’ suggestions and grievances.

In the course of building trust and strengthening relationships, it’s likely managers will be exposed to employees’ non-work-related problems. They need to be willing to listen and express their concern for such problems, but they should avoid providing personal advice. Effective managers are great listeners, coaches and communicators, not therapists.

Delivering Effective Feedback
Whether in the form of a compliment or even a critique, employees are always looking for managerial feedback. Regular feedback gives employees the chance to engage, correct their mistakes and improve performance. It also gives employees an idea of what they are doing well and how to continue to produce desired outcomes.

“Quality feedback is necessary to help direct reports truly understand what they may need to do differently. Plus, it keeps everyone moving toward the same goal,” said Kathy Adams, director of education and organizational development at Mercy Health System, a nonprofit health care provider and hospital headquartered in Janesville, Wis.

Mercy Health System offers leadership development to managers through its leadership development academy, which includes a series of classes offered twice a year to help managers understand the value of delivering quality feedback.

Managers need to provide performance feedback and guidance continually throughout the year, not just during annual performance evaluations. Increasing communication with employees beyond the traditional, often unpopular end-of-year event turns a dated obligation into ongoing conversations around performance management expectations and deliverables.

These discussions should focus on an employee’s current projects and opportunities for career development. This approach requires managers to observe and evaluate their employees regularly, and to work closely with individual employees as needed to advance their skills or correct behaviors. Giving constant feedback will ensure an organization’s workforce remains engaged and keep turnover to a minimum.

These skills don’t always come naturally, nor are they a sure thing when someone receives a manager title. Formal development in a classroom or other blended learning setting should be offered so managers can learn and practice different techniques to enable them to provide specific, concrete performance feedback during informal conversations as well as formal reviews.

Managerial development should highlight the advantages of ongoing performance feedback, provide best practices for giving useful feedback and allow time for managers to role play what they have learned in a safe, non-threatening environment. Further, managers should be taught to clearly communicate performance expectations to all direct reports upfront so there are no questions regarding employees’ goals and objectives. From extending a personal compliment for a job well done to sharing how a direct report’s suggestion saved the organization money, managers must be willing to deliver praise as well as constructive criticism.

Managing Challenging Conversations
Manager-employee relationships are a two-way street, with roadblocks and rough terrain along the way. Occasionally, managers are forced to engage in challenging conversations, and how they handle these can seriously impact their future relationships with direct reports. It’s not always easy, especially when managers and direct reports are not in the same office.

“We are spread out across the country, and many of our managers need to communicate with their employees remotely,” said Claire St. Louis, vice president of talent and career development at United Water, a U.S. provider of water and wastewater services. “The risk here is the tendency to communicate less, not more, because of the physical separation. We focus significant portions of our training programs on communication, both to emphasize the importance of doing it consistently and to provide practical tools and tips for doing it effectively.”

Since difficult conversations between managers and direct reports will forever be a part of the workplace, managers need to be better prepared to deal with them, and that’s where development is important. Learning leaders can offer many options to enhance managerial effectiveness. For example, a challenging management conversations seminar can help managers learn how to conduct tough conversations with confidence and employ the skills needed to better resolve conflicts.

The seminar should identify specific strategies, such as advanced planning, that managers can use to overcome challenging conversations and use role playing so they can practice before the real deal. “If managers do not communicate well — or understand why it is essential that they do so — it will always inhibit their ability to build and sustain positive, trusting relationships with their colleagues, their staff and their customers,” St. Louis said. Giving managers an opportunity to practice what they have learned firsthand will help them handle these conversations more effectively.

Effective collaboration between managers and direct reports is extremely important in today’s fast-paced work environment. The distance separating managers and their direct reports can be the biggest productivity and performance drain in an organization. To promote the benefits associated with close working relationships between boss and employee, organizations need to hire, engage and retain managers who possess and exhibit the aforementioned skills.

As managers build trust with their direct reports, actively listen to their ideas and complaints, deliver feedback to them in an effective manner and master the art of holding challenging conversations, they will be well on their way to becoming strong, respected leaders.

Michael P. Savitt is a communications manager at HR Solutions Inc. He can be reached at

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