Should senior managers check in with people who aren’t their direct reports?

Written by Matthew Rock Tuesday 17 November 2020
We’re encouraged to dial up our empathy and check in with employees, but how do you do this without treading on other managers’ toes?
People in an office space

In a recent Better Managers Briefing a question came in that touched on a topical theme. There wasn’t time to answer it at the time, so we thought we’d put it to CMI members and other leaders out in the real world. What a response we got!

The question is this: Do senior managers have a duty to check in with those who aren't their direct reports? This is important right now because all around the world, people are feeling anxious about their health and livelihoods; they may be suffering mental health issues as a result of months of uncertainty. In this climate it is surely right that senior managers should dial up their empathy, check in with people at all levels, and find out what’s really going on. This crisis shows more than ever the importance of ‘pastoral care’ in an organisation, says Rachel Leech, engagement manager at the Rail Safety and Standards Board.

But there is always the danger that well-intentioned managers will ‘check in’ with other managers’ reports and unleash a management free-for-all – “Why did you go over my head, what were you doing talking to her/him/them?” Ancient grievances could rise to the surface – “I’ve never enjoyed working for him, can’t I report to you”. And rumours can spread – “did you hear that she called him in for a meeting, what do you think’s going on?” As we’ve all seen in the recent Downing Street shenanigans, who reports to who can be very sensitive and quickly become explosive.

It’s ‘tricky’, says event project director Natalie Choi with understatement. Unsolicited approaches to someone else’s team may ‘step on toes’ and can have all sorts of unintended implications.

So what’s the answer? Should managers do it? And how can they demonstrate warmth and empathise with what people are going through without kicking off management mayhem?

Approaching non-direct reports needs discussion and co-ordination at senior level in order to prevent conflict, says Bryn Jones CMgr. But he’s very much in favour. “When senior managers introduce themselves to people who may not be their direct reports, they are in essence “improving the business culture throughout the organisation,” he says. This embeds “the system of care.”

Richard Gotch built and sold his own communications consultancy, Market Engineering. He says “it isn't about checking-up on middle manager performance, but about motivating by being seen, by being available, by showing care and empathy, by listening. Of course, this will also show middle managers that they can't hide. The best factory managers are the ones who walk the shop floor and ask about Frank's prize marrows.”

Sometimes people don’t want to confide in their direct line manager, says Dean Faulkner, who manages a team of software engineers at a big management consultancy. Having a “matrix of support” should be encouraged,” he says. He also says he’d consider it ‘a slight red flag’ if someone has an issue with others checking in on their teams. Spot on, Dean.

Natalie Choi adds it’s important to gather a ‘holistic review’ of management through the company, otherwise “management goes unmanaged.”

Roman Zyla works in a senior governance role at the International Finance Corporation. He says that “if a good manager checks in on a broader group, they are not only taking the pulse and gaining the measure of the shop, they are also peer-reviewing as they go.” Over time, the organisation’s management will only improve.

And Mark Armitage, a senior manager in the automotive sector, says it all comes down to personal and professional development: “The senior team must be able to liaise with all staff and work with each other to be the best they can be.”

A final thought from Rachel Leech at the RSSB: “let’s not forget that it’s not solely the responsibility of managers to ‘check in’! We are all human.” During the pandemic, she’s checked in with peers, as well as with some of her senior managers. Whatever your role, it’s always good to ask: how are you today?


We’d love to carry on this conversation with you, please share your thoughts on Twitter, LinkedIn using #BetterManagers.

And there’s loads more on operational and line management at CMI’s ManagementDirect learning portal (exclusive to CMI members).

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