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  1. Blog
  2. Management
  3. October 26, 2022

The Direct Report Relationship: How Managers Can Grow Employees & Build Trust

Plus, the difference between direct and indirect reports

Direct report and manager talking at work
Photo courtesy of LinkedIn Sales Solutions

The manager and direct report relationship is one of the most important relationships in both parties’ careers. Managers get to build valuable empathetic leadership skills, and direct reports gain someone in their corner that champions, supports, and listens to them. InHerSight data reinforces the value of the manager-direct report relationship, showing more than half of women (56 percent) feel most confident and comfortable elevating concerns in 1:1 settings.

But who exactly counts as a direct report? And what responsibilities come with managing a direct report?

All of your direct report questions are answered below, plus learn some of the best relationship and career-building questions to ask your employees. 

Read more: What Makes a Good Manager, According to Research

What is a direct report?

A direct report is an employee who works directly under someone else in an organization’s hierarchy—usually a manager, supervisor, or team leader. For example, a sales associate might report to the sales manager, and a software engineer might report to the engineering manager. 

The number of direct reports a manager has varies depending on factors like the department and company size. Some managers only have one direct report, and some managers have an entire team of subordinates. Managing a larger number of direct reports is becoming increasingly common, with a Deloitte survey reporting that U.S. managers now have an average of 9.7 direct reports—and that number grows to 11.4 at large enterprises.

Responsibilities of having a direct report

As a manager, although you get to assign and delegate work, having a direct report still involves a lot of responsibilities. On top of your regular job duties, you’re responsible for managing your report’s performance; supporting their career development, growth, and goals; and clearly communicating expectations. Essentially, you’re their personal coach, helping them to reach their full potential at work.

Managing requires empathy, self-awareness, and communication skills. If you’re not consistently checking in with your direct report, it becomes easy for issues to get overlooked, which can impact their performance and overall happiness. 

In a recent Gallup study, more than half of employees surveyed said that no one—including their manager—had talked to them about how they were feeling in their role in their last three months before they quit. And 52 percent of exiting employees stressed that their manager could’ve done something to prevent them from leaving their job.

Research shows there are 12 employee needs that, when met, have the potential to boost productivity, engagement, and happiness. From the perspective of employees, these needs sound like:

  • “I know what is expected of me at work.”

  • “I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.”

  • “At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.”

  • “In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.”

  • “My manager, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.”

  • “There is someone at work who encourages my development.”

  • “At work, my opinions seem to count.”

  • “The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.”

  • “My fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.”

  • “I have a best friend at work.”

  • “In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.”

  • “This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.”

Managers, you can help employees fulfill these needs. Schedule regular 1:1s with your direct report, get to know them on a personal level, establish short- and long-term goals, and encourage them to take ownership of their own work. 

Read more: Coaching Direct Reports Off Your Team & Toward Their Goals

Direct report relationship-building questions

Open communication is a fundamental element of a successful manager and direct report relationship. Asking open-ended questions and inviting feedback in your meetings is an easy and effective way to gauge how employees are feeling at work.

Invite general satisfaction feedback in 1:1s by asking your direct reports questions like:

  • Are you encountering any challenges in your position?

  • Do you have any suggestions for improving the way we work together?

  • What keeps you engaged and inspired at work?

  • What projects have you enjoyed working on recently? Why?

  • How can I better support you in your job?

  • How would you like to grow within this organization?

  • Do you feel a sense of purpose in your job?

  • What do you need from me to do your best work?

  • What are we currently not doing as a company that you feel we should do?

  • Which of your talents are you not using in your current role?

Humanize your 1:1s by asking more informal, personal questions or opening each meeting with an icebreaker. Really listen to the answer—active listening will build trust and create a stronger relationship. 

You can ask questions like:

  • How are you doing in general?

  • What have you been up to on the weekends?

  • Do you have any personal goals that I can help you with?

  • How is your side-hustle going?

  • How is your family doing?

  • Do you have any vacations planned?

  • What’s your favorite musician/group/band?

  • What’s your favorite book?

To reflect and improve your direct report relationship, good managers should ask themselves questions like:

  • Do my direct reports have clear goals, and are they being met?

  • Am I contributing to an inclusive workplace where my direct report’s ideas and opinions are valued and heard?

  • Am I going above and beyond to support women and BIPOC employees? Do I offer them enough support and resources in order to perform their jobs while feeling a sense of belonging?

  • Am I offering enough growth opportunities to my direct reports or am I accidentally keeping them in dead-end jobs?

  • Am I promoting a healthy work-life balance or am I unconsciously promoting hustle culture

  • Am I building a culture of trust where employees feel safe to offer constructive feedback?

Key components of the manager and direct report relationship

The manager and direct report relationship establishes a feedback system and improves company-wide communication.

The first key component of helping direct reports to grow and succeed is to clearly communicate company goals, KPIs, and deadlines—without micromanaging. Managers should realize when it’s time to step back and allow employees to complete their work using their own judgment.

Another key component of the relationship is establishing trust through transparency, vulnerability, and honest conversations. 

For example, according to InHerSight research, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) visibility and measurability is crucial to the retention of employees—53 percent of employees say they are unlikely or very unlikely to stay with a company that does not have visible or measurable DEI engagement. A report from Gartner HR also found that in organizations with managers who put DEI into practice, their employees are three times more likely to be high performers and nearly three times more likely to feel included. 

Managers should be informed and get comfortable discussing topics like diversity and inclusion, salary, microaggressions, discrimination, pregnancy, miscarriage, and more with their direct reports in order to create a psychologically safe space for them. It's your job to make sure your employees feel supported and cared for. 

Finally, lead with humanity and empathy. While it’s important to celebrate your direct report’s work accomplishments, remember they have lives outside of work. Acknowledge their wins in and out of the workplace—take the time to check in with them to see how they’re doing in their personal lives, and remain open-minded and flexible with their work schedule and style if they’re feeling overwhelmed or burned out. According to one study, leaders who are more empathetic have followers who experience less stress and physical symptoms. 

So, if you want to foster the healthiest direct report relationship, remember the golden or, better yet, the platinum rule: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.” Ask, listen, and act accordingly.

Read more: How to Be a Good Manager, According to Experienced Managers

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