An insight into how managers can build effective relationships with their direct reports.

Leading direct reports requires a strategic and empathetic approach. Managers must understand their reports’ motivations and needs and then harness and meet them both in a way that benefits the business. This requires collaboration, proactive thinking, and emotional control that combine to create inclusive and open manager-report relationships.

How Effective Managers Operate

Effective managers know how to engage with their staff members in a collaborative way that pushes them and the company forward. For example, they ask open-ended questions that help their direct reports move forward. They might say “how can I help you manage this situation in the future”, or “talk to me about the challenges you’re facing with your role or project.” This type of questioning shows the reports they’re valued and respected, and it’s also the quickest way to reach a resolution. It also puts the manager in a mindset where they assume the report cares about their role and the company, instead of assuming they’re lazy, disruptive, or incompetent. The manager engaging with this back-and-forth quickly receives the information they need to make a recommendation, so both they and the report can move on and get back to other tasks. 

Mickey Fain, president and CEO of Stoneside Blinds & Shades, the fastest growing custom window coverings company in the United States, credits much of the company’s success to the team’s effective strategies for managing direct reports. He recommends managers take a long view when it comes to correcting their staff. He says, “When someone I’m working with makes an error, or fails to follow through, I’m most successful when I assume everyone truly wants to do a great job and they want to succeed. For example, if I ask someone, ‘why do you keep making that mistake’ or say something like ‘you never get this right’, I drain them of energy, don’t provide anything helpful, damage the relationship and I’m not likely to improve the situation.”

Acting Positively

Fain says he assumes people in his professional life have positive intent. “Our emotions are the result of the stories we tell ourselves. For example, if I create a story in my head that, ‘they don’t care’, ‘they aren’t trying’, or ‘they’re out to get me’, I will likely produce a very negative emotion that rarely produces a positive outcome.” Instead, Fain frames situations with positivity, which improves his staff members’ morale, and develops an efficient mindset. He says, “We control our emotions and therefore, our effectiveness, through how we frame a situation.”

When managers tackle situations (even difficult ones) with positivity, that allows them to act more proactively. They can spot and fix mistakes, assess challenges, and create progress and growth-based cultures. Proactive management brings a host of benefits, including the ability to reduce risk, lowering tensions amongst staff, spotting shortcomings, and encouraging direct reports to adopt a similar mindset. This positivity builds teams that aren’t eager to place or deflect blame, they’re instead focused on results.

Using and Controlling Emotions

Direct reports sometimes make mistakes, and leaders need to react to them. Leaders might also feel pressure from their boss, board members, investors, or other stakeholders which can push emotions to high points, leading to poor decisions or lashing out with anger. Effective leaders don’t suppress all emotion and function like robots, they manage their emotions to fit a situation, and keep them within an appropriate range. This is a trainable ability to control emotions to relay direction or provide counsel without loading them with baggage.

Fain says he is less effective when he’s operating from anger, saying “While managers should not strive to be non-emotional, it’s important for managers to exercise emotional control to be most effective. If I’m in this angry emotional state, I am more likely to focus on assessing blame instead of improving the situation or solving problems.” Managers can self-reflect to review how they’ve showed emotion in the past and make any necessary adjustments. For example, they can consider if their emotions help them reach certain goals, if they positively or negatively impact reports with their emotions, and if they react poorly to specific instances.

Effective leaders use a variety of strategies that make direct reports look forward to the workday. They encourage collaboration, use emotions to increase engagement, and use positivity to shape outcomes. When managers take on this strategy, it lets direct reports succeed, helps the managers climb the ladder, and sets up the business for growth and innovation.

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