columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I recently moved into a role where some of my direct reports also have direct reports. In my first few weeks, I had meet and greets with every person in the department, and a recurring theme that I uncovered was that it seems like my direct reports aren't very good managers: They don't delegate, give unclear directions, don't give consistent feedback, etc.

This all came up in a very organic way. When I asked, "What would help you do your job better?" a frequent response was along the lines of getting feedback or face time with their direct manager. When I asked about career goals, many responded that they don't feel that their direct manager is developing them or creating a career path in spite of their expressing interest in advancing and growing their careers.

I interviewed colleagues on other teams who work closely with my staff and this sentiment was corroborated: "Greg" hoards all the work and complains about how busy he is, while "Marsha" and "Jan" are untapped and underutilized. "Peter" is reluctant to teach "Bobby" and "Cindy" new skills because it's faster for him to just do those tasks himself.

I've talked to my reports about building their bench and have challenged them to find opportunities for their staff. When I give them new projects, I tell them it would be a perfect stretch assignment for one of their employees, but I usually get a noncommittal "I'm not sure this is the right opportunity for Bobby" or something to that effect. Or when they complain about their workload and I ask them to delegate pieces of their work to their staff, they resist.

I like to give my employees autonomy, but I really think that our whole team would benefit from developing our staff -- it would help with employee engagement, job satisfaction, overall productivity, and so much more. Any advice on how to approach this?

Green responds:

Yes! Make managing effectively -- and all its components -- an explicit part of their jobs. It needs to be explicitly framed as a "must do" as opposed to a "would be nice to do."

Basically, you want to manage them on management in the same way you'd manage them on any other part of their job. If they were struggling with, say, running meetings, you wouldn't just hint and hope that they'd pick up on your coaching, right? You'd be clear and direct about what you want to see change.

In this case, that means that you should start by clearly naming the issue and what you'd like them to do differently. For example: "I'd like you to figure out a plan to delegate more work to your staff, so that you're freed up to focus on higher-level work, and also because we won't retain good people if we don't give them chances to develop their own skills. When we meet next week, let's talk about what that might look like -- or, if you don't currently think there's anything people are equipped to take on, let's talk about what it would take to get them there."

Then, keep checking in, both on the delegation piece and on their management in general (since it sounds like there are also issues with giving feedback, among other things). Ask questions like:
* How are you managing Marsha on X?
* What kind of feedback will you give Jan on X?
* When do you think Bobby will be ready to take over X, and what's the plan for preparing him for that?
* How can you make sure he stays on track without doing the work for him?

And don't be afraid to be directive. Management is a skill like any other, and it sounds like Greg and Peter don't really know what it looks like yet. It's reasonable for you to set clear goals about how you want them operating in this area and coach them to help them get there. You can use the same methods you'd use if you were trying to help an employee develop in any other area, like talking about why the skill matters, talking through what challenges they're running into, and observing and giving feedback. (Also, know that you'll be teaching by modeling management yourself, whether you intend to or not -- so pay attention to what messages you're sending via the way you manage them.)

Bigger-picture, I'd also talk with both Greg and Peter about what managing effectively means, and come to a shared understanding of what you expect from managers who report to you. That should include things like working to develop and retain great people (and how you do that), giving clear, regular, and actionable feedback, and addressing performance issues forthrightly, as well as things like sharing information about how they, or the organization, have come to a decision and seeking input from their people when feasible. These are things that might seem obvious to you, but they might not be obvious to Greg and Peter -- so be really clear and explicit about how you want them operating and what doing it successfully will look like.

You should also, of course, make it clear that this is part of how you're evaluating their performance; it should be part of what you assess in performance reviews and in thinking about their performance overall.

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