What to do when your direct report isn’t managing their team very well

What should you do if you’re a skip-level manager who’s receiving complaints from your report’s report (people two levels down) that their manager is too demanding, unreasonable and is causing them stress? 

A common problem – handling the behaviour of more junior leaders who are upsetting their team members. How do you step in without taking over? Here are some things to think about:

Does the manager have ‘high expectations’ or are they being unreasonable?

If there are no problems with team performance, it’s likely the leader who needs ‘sorting’, as opposed to the situation. Especially if it’s both directly (through their attitude) and indirectly (through their fall-out with any team members) affecting the whole team. 

Have a productive meeting

Set the agenda for the meeting with them in advance, so that you’re not blindsiding them with unexpected feedback. It’s important to then tell them about the negative impact you’ve heard about from other team members. Use a lot of open questions to understand what is going on from their perspective. Really listen to the answers to see if you’re missing any key information. Be ready to gently evidence your claims, e.g, give examples of where the team struggles with their approach. Be sure it doesn’t turn adversarial: you both have optimal team performance as a clear, shared target, but just have different views on the best way to get there. 

Adjust expectations

Make it clear that, from your perspective, their team does not need to perform as hard as they are pushing them. Explain that you’d prefer them to be more in line with your approach to this issue which is….[here is where you would evidence what your perspective is on this topic, e.g., any ‘above and beyond’ hours need to be really well praised and rewarded]. 

Behaviour change

Then, it’s about the manager needing to change behaviour. It’s more likely to be effective if it (1) is framed as starting to do something, rather than stopping, (2) is based on small regular actions that can build into a habit, and (3) if it’s regularly rewarded in the early days to establish that this is precisely what you want to see. So, for example, you could ask them to thank team members for their efforts when they stay late, rather than saying they still haven’t done enough. This is a ‘start doing’ action (which will replace the harsh messaging they used to use). It can be regular, and you can in turn thank them when you see them doing it. They’ll also get the reward of their team appreciating their consideration, too, and will probably get more positive engagement from them as a result. 

Finally, get them to address with their team that they realise they’ve previously been too harsh, that they’re sorry, and are going to be changing their behaviour. This reset will help team members to accept their new approach and, importantly, spot that it is happening. If team members don’t have the change pointed out to them, it may mean they don’t notice the change in intentions. Clearly signalling that things are going to be different will help them to give them another chance.

Three resources to help:

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