A reader asks:
I supervise a small group of people, and was told recently that they don't like me giving reminders or asking for updates (or, possibly, they don't like how I do that). This isn't the first mention of it, but apparently what I've tried to do differently hasn't helped. My problem is, no one from the group directly mentions it to me; all of the feedback is from my manager. I don't know if she directly asks them about problems or if they just start talking about it, but it seems to come up frequently. I think it's more of my manager providing an audience, so the complaints continue. I'm thinking what I've tried in the past hasn't worked because the issues are misconstrued by going through my manager first or part of it gets left out in the retelling.
I'd like to ask my manager to support me more, ask if they've talked to me first, and then if they haven't, tell them to talk to me first before they come to her. This way I get to hear exactly what's bothering them and determine what solution would work.
Is this reasonable to request? It seems like some of the group like to complain, so is it reasonable to ask for the complaining to be shut down unless they directly address it with me first? Does the answer change if my manager is directly asking them for feedback on me? How do I bring this up in either scenario?
It's absolutely reasonable to ask your manager to direct complaints back to you so that you can hear them firsthand, ask any questions you need to ask, and try to resolve things directly with the person who's complaining.
However, it's also reasonable for your manager to want to have some feel for what's going on in your team. You don't want to come across as if you're trying to put up a firewall between her and your staff, or as if you're trying to hide anything. Rather, you want your framing to be something like this: "I think it's valuable for people to be able to talk with you if they've been unable to resolve something with me and if it's important enough to escalate, but I'd like them to talk with me first so that I can attempt to address the issue. I'm concerned that it's undermining my ability to manage them if they're regularly going around me rather than talking with me first. Would you be willing to redirect people back to me when they come to you, by asking if they've spoken with me about the issue and, if they haven't, asking them to do that as a next step?"
If your manager isn't willing to do this, there's a problem. The problem could be that she's a bad manager and doesn't understand how this is undermining your ability to manage. Or she might have concerns about how you're managing people and wants to stay closely involved for that reason -- but if that were the case, she should tell you that.
You asked whether my answer would be different if your manager is directly soliciting this feedback from people, and the answer to that is yes. It's a good idea for managers to do that on occasion, because (a) they should have a sense of the people who work for managers under them, and (b) it makes people more likely to come to them if there's a serious problem they do need to know about. But the way to do that isn't by letting people circumvent their manager for anything and everything; instead, she should do it by engaging around substance (such as in work-related meetings) and by taking people's pulse both casually (like asking "how are things going?" when she has an opportunity) and more formally (like asking people for input as she's getting ready for your performance evaluation).
Then, if she heard concerning feedback, in some cases she'd ideally steer the person back to you to try to resolve the issue directly. In other cases, she might talk to you about the concerns that were raised, probe into the areas of a concern in a general sense with you ("how are you ensuring people have a chance for input into this project?"), or do some first-hand observation of her own.
But it doesn't make sense for her to put herself regularly in this role of a go-between, and that's the part you need to address.
If you aren't able to persuade her to handle this differently, your next best option is to talk directly to your employees -- both about the specifics that get relayed through your boss and about how you want them handling issues more broadly. On the former, you could say something like, "Jane mentioned you were unhappy with the reminders I've given you on the X project. I've structured it that way because of Y, but I'd love to hear from you about how you think we might do it differently." You can also say, "I'd like you to talk to me about concerns directly so that I can hear your take on the issue and figure out how to address it. Do you feel comfortable doing that in the future?" (Frankly, you might also ask, "Is anything going on that's made you uncomfortable talking to me directly about this kind of thing?")
Last, it's worth noting that if your manager is hearing complaints frequently, something's wrong. It might not be you -- it might be the people who are complaining (unreasonable expectations, chronic grumblers, who knows), or it might be a case of miscommunication. But it's a flag that something is off and needs to be addressed. So beyond ironing out how complaints get relayed, keep in mind that in a smoothly functioning team, there aren't going to be a ton of complaints most of the time ... so if that continues, you'd want to do some real examination of what's going on.
Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.