Strengthening Relationships with Your Direct Reports

By Nichole Harrop

Working in the corporate world and becoming a people leader, it doesn’t take long to realize there are many aspects to your role. On a daily basis, you might be involved in pulling reports, participating in the hiring process, updating SOPs, assisting with escalated issues, attending multiple meetings, discussing quarterly goals, and so much more.

None of these responsibilities directly involve leadership interactions. Many of the tasks listed above can consume your day, which is why it’s helpful to maximize any time spent with your team members. So what strategies can a people leader best utilize to improve communication and build stronger relationships?

Provide clear expectations

It’s imperative to provide clear expectations with your direct reports. Assumptions sometimes get the best of us, so carefully explaining what you expect is a critical skill to hone. You may also follow up by asking your direct report to simply re-cap what they understand you’re asking of them. This dialogue isn’t condescending in nature, as I think we can all agree that sometimes a request can make perfect sense until we try to apply it in the work setting. We all of a sudden go “blank,” or make some initial progress before getting “stuck” and feel like we can’t reach out for help because we “should” know what to do next.

When you have clear expectations with your direct reports, it reduces the “grey area” where employees may worry they aren’t doing enough or aren’t working on the right things. Clarity breeds confidence within themselves and their role.

What does this look like?

As a leader, communicate what the end result looks like as well as key steps along the way. Invite your team members to follow up as soon as something becomes unclear, and be willing to adjust the way you approach the conversation as you learn their work and communication style. Oftentimes, encouraging your employee to take notes regarding task specifics is a way to avoid miscommunication.

Provide specific feedback

As you get to know your direct reports better, you will gain the ability to provide more employee-specific feedback. Feedback can be difficult to receive for someone who doesn’t believe you are providing it in their best interest. This is why it’s vital to establish a foundation of trust by giving feedback in small doses to start, to ensure your employee understands your intent to simply help them succeed, and not pick apart their work. Compare this to when you receive feedback from someone you love, like a family member or someone you trust, like a friend or colleague. The input can still have an initial sting, but you recognize the person is providing it in your best interest, and they want to help you develop and succeed.

When you desire to help your team improve, you understand the need for specific feedback, both positive and constructive. Teams with leaders who welcome and prompt this type of feedback, in their direction, are a great example of wanting to get it right, not be right. They encourage feedback even if it’s not initially in alignment with their opinions/views.

What does this look like?

I appreciate when leaders ask, “Are you open to receiving some feedback on (insert specific topic)?” This allows your direct report the option to say no, and if so, you can ask when they might be ready. You can reassure your direct report that you are providing feedback to help them grow and improve and then confirm they agree that you are working as a team towards one common goal.

As the leader, acknowledgment of an instance of constructive feedback you have received will show you are also human, learning and growing with them. This helps foster a safe environment where each team member feels comfortable sharing their specific feedback with each other in an effort to create a stronger team.

Provide meaningful compliments

The next time you find yourself typing in a chat message, email, or speaking in person saying, “You’re doing a great job.” What does that really mean? How much more vague can we get? Your first reaction to something might be exactly that, “Great work!” Can we get more specific? What exactly was so great? We live in a fast-paced world, but when you can slow down, be intentional, and get more specific (as listed above) with your feedback and compliments, you will see a deeper connection created. When possible, provide face to face feedback and break it down as to why you feel your direct report is “doing a great job.”

When your direct report knows what you specifically appreciate and notice, they will recognize something they can continue doing with confidence. This helps create more confidence in your team when there are more specifics added as to why they did a great job. Challenge yourself to dig a little deeper each time you have a thought to tell someone how “great” of a job they are doing.

What does this look like?

Have awareness. Now that you recognize the importance of clear and specific compliments, you will be able to elaborate on the initially vague compliment. You can spend another minute or two to share what specifically you enjoyed about their work.

The goal is to have an autonomous functioning team, so you, as a leader, feel confident in your team’s abilities when you are working on other tasks and projects. When you have stronger relationships with your direct reports, built with sincere intentions, they will feel more confident in moving forward with a clear understanding of what you expect of them. Creating a cohesive team will help employees feel comfortable reaching out with questions and feedback, so nothing ends up becoming a bottleneck in your operations.

This post is by guest contributor Nichole Harrop, Women’s Leadership + Career Coach. Learn more about Nichole at