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Updated: Sep 28, 2019

"Why am I learning how to lead effective conversations with my direct reports, but my boss isn't?"

Impact Four Levels of Hierarchy Through the Development of One, and Create a Consistent Company Culture in The Process.

If you supervise others, you are the topic of conversation when your direct report gets home. You'll hear me say this often, and we all need to hear it often for the important perspective it provides. The importance of manager direct and intentional involvement in employee development, retention, performance, and company passion and commitment cannot be understated.

Moreover, the jobs of managers and supervisors are becoming increasingly difficult, as new technologies and industry demands are pulling those higher and higher up the ladder even farther away. This is especially true for front line supervisors who have the added accountability of enforcing HR functions on front line staff.

The good thing about this is far from its intended purpose. This good thing is that more and more supervisors are becoming the change agents for improving company culture. As HR recognizes more and more the need for manager training and supervisor development, they’re increasingly providing these opportunities.


Positive change vs. Status quo

Here it is…But rather than empowered change agents, developing supervisors often become frustrated maintenance agents. They lack support from their own superiors who are not receiving (or taking advantage of) the same development opportunities. In many cases, supervisors are receiving very powerful development through formal training, coaching comment etc. These aren’t rudimentary concepts.

Many development opportunities like effectively leading critical conversations are purposefully tied to a company culture that middle and lower management are supposed to live and breathe, but perhaps have come to slight. These concepts and culture drivers would easily be sufficient (read: vital and complex) enough, even for most executives.

The only real difference is that the latest development opportunities are experienced by those "lower on the ladder".

This may be a result of HR:
a) not wanting to bother the (legitimately) busy upper management.
b) being too busy themselves putting out fires.
c) understanding and bowing to the ferocity of company politics.
d) not empowering the closest referee to organizational problems.
e) being content to simply check the development box.

Direct and intentional supervisor support

If you give an employee leadership, communication, and employee engagement training, make sure their superiors (at least two steps up the ladder) experience and own it.

Why is it so important that employees have supervisor direct and intentional support in order for their development to a) stick and b) make them want to stay with the company?

The study

Kuvaas and Dysvik (2010) found in a study of 331 employees from a company in the telecommunications industry, that perceived supervisor support (PSS) impacted the relationship between perceived investment in employee development (PIED) and increased work performance.

The findings

Employee development likely does not increase work effort, quality, or organizational citizenship behavior UNLESS employees perceive the support of their supervisors.

In other words, employees who have the support and trust of their managers to actually implement both technical skills, leadership skills, and communication skills will work harder, output better quality work, and give discretionary effort to the company. Add in the support and trust of their boss's boss and you have a very powerful equation.

The authors of the study also found that:

Supervisor support was strongly related to greater positive emotional attachment to the company and reduced intention to leave the company.

This means that supervisor support provides quite a complete package of great interest to any organization: increased work performance and quality; increased discretionary effort; stronger organizational commitment; higher retention.

(note: the terms 'manager' and 'supervisor' in this article may be used interchangeably, depending on position and organizational structure)

Time for action

ACTION ITEM 1 of 3: Discover two new ways to show your direct reports that you: 1) are strong advocates for their development, and 2) want to partner with them in their journey, as you further develop alongside them.

Direct and intentional supervisor involvement is the single most important factor in successful employee development and longevity of behavior change. 

This means that managers must AT LEAST know the content of their direct report’s training and development. This is especially true with the more conceptual training like leadership, critical communication, etc. When supervisor support is properly integrated into a development program, a culture of support is built.

ACTION ITEM 2 of 3: Turn managers into learning partners.

If You’re Going to Train Supervisors in X, Train Their Managers in X First (or better yet, make them a learning partner instead).

What are supervisors secretly saying about the solid training and development you're giving them? Here's a direct quote from a newly promoted supervisor:

"Why am I learning how to lead effective conversations with my direct reports, but my boss isn't?"

This is something you likely won't hear. Supervisors are terrified to say it outside of a trusted setting; It's a very real sentiment.

How to create the manager-as-learning partner

If managers cannot make it a priority to experience the same training and development of their direct reports, or have already experienced the same development content, have them become a "learning partner" to their supervisor-in-training.

1) Have managers schedule 15-30 min/week, for three months in advance, to meet with their supervisor-in-training.

2) The supervisor-in-training becomes the "teacher". This requires them to truly understand and practice the new concepts to better "teach" the concepts to their own bosses. They will share how the skills/concepts have been used (i.e. when, with whom, the situation, and the result). The developing supervisor gains confidence and justification to apply skills and concepts from the training, as s/he now in position of teacher, and moving towards becoming the expert.

3) These meetings should only focus on this, and nothing else. It should be entirely separate from any regular 1-1 meetings.

The company essentially gets two developed employees for the price of one. In fact, I’ve seen cases where learning partners actually out-perform those who were enrolled in the formal development opportunity.

This adds value, power, longevity, and impact to the development opportunities you're already providing.

More evidence to support the need for at least "two levels up" of manager support.

McGovern, Gratton, Hope-Hailey, Stiles, and Truss (1997) found organizational constraints such as lack of support from HR specialist, high workloads, lack of given personal credibility, and lack of legitimacy placed on HR practices deemed as unnecessary.

This becomes a “don't shoot the messenger” concern that develops into front-line employees not perceiving support from the very supervisors that are being trained to show them support.

Thus, the four levels of hierarchy have all been included: Front-line employee; supervisor; manager level one; manager level two.


ACTION ITEM 3 of 3 (for HR): Find two new ways that a that managers (at least two levels up) can show support to the developing supervisor.

This action item will alleviate some roadblocks and frustrations coming from down the ladder by those who perceive that priority is being placed on achieving numbers, rather than achieving numbers through employees.

Get the buy-in

Managers at every level have a “What’s in it for me?” It’s ok to have this conversation with them. 

What will alleviate their headaches? 

Better employee performance?

Better ROI for the time they “take employees off the floor” for development opportunities?

Fewer resources spent on excess department orientations (because fewer employees are leaving)?

Better succession planning for a family business?

More employee discretionary effort?

Fewer union complaints?

Find out their pains. Decide if the benefits of these action items will get them what they want, but can’t seem to figure out how to get. Then, lead a guided conversation and give them a chance to discover for themselves.


Kuvaas, B., & Dysvik, A. (2010). Exploring alternative relationships between perceived investment in employee development, perceived supervisor support and employee outcomes. Human Resource Management Journal20(2), 138–156.

McGovern, F., Gratton, L., Hope-Hailey, V., Stiles, P. and Truss, C. (1997). Human resource management on the line? Human Resource Management Journal, 7(4), 12–29.

Interested in better facilitation, better techniques, and more successful transfer of training into the workplace? Grab your free TurnBoot guide, written by Dr. Jeremy Lucabaugh: 10 Training & Workshop Tactics for Impact That Turn Employee Learning into Behavior.

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