People management demands a strong knowledge of how to lead direct reports. In fact, working with people is the most critical part of a manager’s job. Hence, effective leaders understand how to guide and motivate them on a daily basis.

But what exactly are direct reports, and why do they matter? And how can you manage them effectively? We’ll take a look at these and other key questions.

Table of Contents

1. What Are Direct Reports

2. Direct Reports vs Indirect Reports

3. How Many Direct Reports Should A Manager Have

4. Getting to Know Your Direct Reports

5. How to Manage Direct Reports Better

6. Performance Management and Evaluation of Direct Reports

What Are Direct Reports

Direct reports are the employees who report to a particular manager. Often supervisors will call these direct reports their “team.” They may hold regular meetings together and collaborate daily. 

Direct reports in organizational structure

The hierarchy of an organization often has many different tiers. This means companies often have numerous levels of direct reports. Every leader, from the CEO to first-level supervisors, has someone reporting to them directly. 

In turn, one manager’s direct reports may have their own direct reports. In other words, many employees act as both a direct report and a manager of direct reports. However, lower-level employees and those in individual contributor positions typically have no one reporting to them.

The importance of direct reports

Each level of direct report works to further their team and manager’s goals. In turn, their efforts bring the organization closer to achieving its goals.

Direct Reports vs Indirect Reports

Do managers have indirect reports as well as direct reports? Yes, although the term is rarely used. Indirect reports are two or more levels below a given manager, rather than one. A leader’s indirect reports are the direct reports of one of her direct reports. She still holds ultimate responsibility for their work, but she doesn’t manage them directly.

Rather, she will check in with their manager (her direct report) about their progress. 

How Many Direct Reports Should a Manager Have

Two professionally dressed men of colour discussing direct reports
Credit: Thirdman/Pexels

Organizations should ensure each manager has a reasonable number of reportees. Too often, they have far too many people and priorities to manage. “Managers are getting crushed,” writes Gallup. “When asked, they are 50% more likely than individual contributors to strongly agree they ‘have too much work to do.’”

Too many direct reports can overwhelm managers, causing burnout. “As the number of team members increases, the manager’s engagement decreases,” Gallup adds. Clearly, organizations need to reassess how much direct reporting each manager oversees.

Appropriate numbers

For instance, a manager might have five direct reports and 30 indirect reports. Now, it would be tough to manage all 30 indirect reports effectively. (That’s why organizations have hierarchies!) So, the indirect reports are grouped into teams that each have a different focus. One of the manager’s direct reports supervises each team. 

Effects on organizational structure

What does this mean for organizational structure? If a department has dramatically expanded, the company might rethink its structure. Say it currently has one manager who leads a team of 20. It’s doubled in size over the past four years.

The company might create two managerial positions for that department and promote the current manager to director of the department. The two new managers then become his direct reports. And they’ll each manage a specific group of employees in that department.

In other words, as teams grow larger, organizations often grow more complex. This can simplify each manager’s work—at least to an extent.

Getting to Know Your Direct Reports

We’d like to share five key tips for getting to know employees who report to you directly. Then, we’ll briefly explore how to get to know indirect reports, too.

Be authentic

Show up as a full person at work, not just their manager. If you’re authentic, they’ll be more authentic in turn. Talk about your favourite hobbies outside of work. For instance, one new manager came to work dressed in his scuba gear! It broke the ice and showed another dimension of who he was. While you don’t need to go that far, authenticity fosters strong bonds.

Remember the details

Try to remember their hobbies, kids’ names, and other important details. When you ask them about those things, it will spark more conversation. As a result, you’ll get to know them more as a person over time. They’ll see that you care, so they’ll open up more.

Encourage them to share ideas

Show curiosity about their opinions and ideas. Create spaces to discuss creative new ideas. Also, celebrate efforts that people have made rather than just successes. This will all instill a sense of psychological safety, allowing them to more fully show up at work.

Admit your mistakes

Share about times you’ve failed or fallen short of your goals. Being vulnerable will make them feel safer owning up to mistakes and challenges. 

Talk one-on-one every week

Make time for an informal check-in with each direct report weekly. And on a quarterly basis, hold a more formal review. Here, discuss their goals and career plans as well. That way, you can help them shape a path to achieving their dreams.

Get to know indirect reports too

Occasionally, hold “skip-level meetings” to build rapport with indirect reports, too. Then, you’ll have a clearer view of what your broader team is accomplishing. You’ll also learn what drives them. Don’t take over the manager’s job duties in this meeting, though. Just view it as an opportunity to build trust and understanding.

“Ask broad questions about individuals’ daily problems and challenges and to verify whether they understand the company values and vision. Then, listen closely to the answers without offering to solve their issues; that is their supervisor’s job,” writes Wharton Magazine.

How to Manage Direct Reports Better

Four colleagues in meeting about direct reports
Credit: Ivan Samkov/Pexels

Let’s discuss several components of effectively managing direct reports:

  • Leadership style
  • Ability to delegate
  • Regular feedback
  • Showing you care

Each of these elements strongly influences direct reports’ performance. Plus, they enhance the overall employee experience.

Good leadership styles

Here are some helpful leadership approaches you might consider using. They’re not all mutually exclusive; you could use elements of more than one.

  • Democratic leaders focus on making decisions by consensus. They lead interactive decision-making processes that seek everyone’s input on plans.
  • Collaborative leaders prioritize strong teamwork across functions. They focus on eliminating workplace silos and promoting dialogue across teams and organizations. When solving problems, they seek diverse input.
  • Transformational leaders challenge employees to set and achieve tough goals. They focus on guiding people to become leaders themselves. This differs from the more traditional transactional leadership style in how it seeks to motivate direct reports.

    With transformational leadership, they’re motivated by the desire to become innovative leaders. They believe fully in the company’s vision and genuinely want to achieve it. With transactional leadership, they’re motivated more by positive reinforcement. 

Now, let’s turn to how good leaders delegate effectively.

How to delegate to direct reports

Follow these pointers to delegate in a way that benefits everyone.

  • Consider whether the task might be a developmental opportunity for someone. Try to assign tasks that will further people’s growth. Plan around their goals and learning objectives whenever possible.
  • Establish a communication protocol. How often do you want updates about the project? If the employee is solving a problem, do you expect them to run a proposed plan by you? How and when will you check in?
  • Be open to new methods of doing things. Employees might have ideas for how to do a task more efficiently. Listen instead of immediately correcting them. They bring a fresh perspective.
  • Provide access to the necessary resources. Make sure employees have the tools to get the job done.

Now, let’s turn to feedback, which goes hand in hand with delegation.

Giving helpful feedback to direct reports

Share feedback clearly with these tips.

  • Deliver constructive feedback in bite-sized chunks
  • Make your goal clear: to help the employee excel. 
  • Give specific examples they can learn from. Explain exactly what they can do differently as well.
  • Use instant feedback tools to share feedback regularly. Give feedback throughout the day, not just once a week.

How to show your direct reports you care

As you get to know direct reports, you’ll already be showing you care. But here are a few additional steps every manager should take!

  • When introducing a change, tune into how it might make them feel. Be compassionate as you explain and help them adapt to the change.
  • Show commitment to helping them achieve their career goals. Help them customize a career path and identify opportunities to advance it.
  • Provide access to the right developmental resources. Encourage them to take advantage of learning opportunities like conferences and training. This will show you’re invested in their growth.
  • Express your appreciation for their efforts. Notice and acknowledge the energy they’ve put in and the specific skills they’ve contributed.
  • Give tangible rewards on occasion as well. What are appropriate gifts for direct reports? You could choose something individualized, like a gift related to a hobby or a favourite food. Or, you could pick something that most people will love. For example, movie tickets and restaurant gift certificates are usually a hit.

Take this self-assessment to see if you’re showing you care!

Performance Management and Evaluation of Direct Reports

Efficient managers leverage these best practices to formally evaluate direct reports.

  • Use software that streamlines performance management. For instance, Primalogik’s software tracks progress toward goals and KPIs
  • Create a standardized performance evaluation process that all managers use. Software will again help you to create a more structured process. It will provide managers with points to address and questions to ask, tailored toward performance goals.
  • In frequent check-ins, ask open-ended questions about challenges direct reports face. Also ask what they’re most proud of. You may learn about new accomplishments they hadn’t shared.
  • Do you feel a strong sense of purpose in your work?
  • How often do you get to use your greatest strengths? Describe.
  • What aspects of your work do you truly enjoy? When do you get to engage in them?
  • How do you want to grow?
  • If a performance issue exists, determine what’s causing it. Does the employee struggle with motivation or lack the necessary resources? Is it a skills issue? Don’t assume you know—discuss the problem with the employee! 

As you strengthen bonds with direct reports, you’ll lead them more effectively. And as you manage performance skillfully, you’ll see them accomplishing more. The whole team will grow more capable as you guide each person to success.

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