Table Stakes for the Manager Relationship

Every relationship takes work. You have to bring something to the table, even if the relationship is an initially manufactured one with a built-in power dynamic, like the manager/report relationship. Just as with all relationships, there’s no real manual – but, the power dynamic works both ways. In even a reasonably well-run organisation, the manager has responsibilities to their team as individuals. I’ve found (frankly, more often than I’d like) that these tend to not get spelled out, and people on both sides of the equation proceed without filling in some of these essential blanks.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are the ones I most often see.

A Career Plan

Every manager owes every one of their reports a path forward in their career.

Read it again. There are a number of caveats to this, of course, but the overarching point stands. The team member clearly needs to participate in capturing the picture, but one of the primary roles of the manager is to make sure that opportunity is matched with aptitude and aspiration.

The amount of input varies massively (of course! it’s never just simple). Folks earlier in their careers will need a lot more guidance – to have organisational and sometimes interpersonal hurdles cleared for them, for example. In some cases, some coaching is needed around what the team member wants to do, and where they want to develop. This may remain true even into more tenured folks, depending on personality type, aspirations, and so on. There’s definitely an ’equilibrium point’ that someone can reach, where they are as senior as they (and their employer) want them to be, and pushing is counter-productive.

Similarly, folks who are entering the rarefied air of staff engineer or beyond may need a lot less guidance – they may in fact be the one offering guidance to their manager on opportunities and paths forward for folks on their team or themselves. There’s still room for a checkpoint; even beings-of-pure-light like staff engineers are still people, with plans and aspirations you should know about.

But, the overarching sentiment is that it’s the manager who’s on the hook for career planning.

In a previous role, I was fortunate enough to only have folks at senior manager/IC or above levels as direct reports. After initially on-boarding and getting to know them, I ended up enacting a “No status updates in 1:1s” policy for a while – 1:1s became for career planning only. This had two intentions and outcomes: (a) we’d actually get around to career conversations, because these tend to take a back seat to whatever’s happening this week, and (b) people would tell me about things when they happen, instead of bunching up updates for a 1:1; it kept me a lot more switched on to what was happening. This is clearly not workable for many situations, but I found it worked well for folks who needed little day-to-day guidance.

Timely Feedback

The concept of a manager providing timely feedback, appropriate to the setting and situation, is (hopefully!) uncontroversial.

If a manager doesn’t fill in the blanks in a narrative for their team member, the team member will generally fill them in themselves. Even if this is later corrected, the hurt stays. This is why in a thoughtful communications practice, even good news doesn’t get delivered on a Friday. It may be safe to deploy to production on Friday if you’ve done your homework, but production systems don’t spend the weekend stewing in their own juices making up nightmare scenarios for all the FAQs and missing parts you didn’t fill in.

If there’s developmental feedback someone needs to hear, then in general the best time is now. This is modulo the usual considerations like setting, and a consideration for the person’s emotional state (i.e. maybe the feedback might hit hardest right as an example of an anti-pattern comes up in an emotive argument with a co-worker, but also maybe that’s not when someone is most receptive to hearing about it? It’s hard! That’s why smart people like you do this for a living).

No Surprises

My Rule Number Zero of management communication (and particularly performance management) is “No Surprises”.

The worst time to find out that you have specific improvements to make in order to progress in your career is during a performance review. By then, it is often too late to make corrections that could have changed the outcome dramatically. I don’t mean to go off-script too much from my wonderfully egalitarian let’s-work-together style, but managers do this all the time. It is super easy to do. All you have to do is misjudge the extent to which you want to go on about something, misjudge how big of a deal it is until you really think about it come perf-time (yes, this also involves asking other people), or simply forgetting.

It’s part of a manager’s job to sometimes have conversations with people that will disappoint or upset them. You do what you can to not make it worse, but ironically, the best way to make it worse is by not bringing it up at all.

Working Both Ways

I mentioned above that these responsibilities work both ways – managing upwards is a skill in and of itself, and the above examples of what your manager is on the hook for when it comes to your own development can be a decent wedge into the ongoing job of managing upwards.

In both cases, it helps to adjust your own expectations if needed – your manager owes you these things. They’re not nice-to-have extras that only the best and most conscientious managers think of. They are Table Stakes. If you got passed up for a promotion, your manager owes you an explanation, and a path to future success. If you have room for improvement in a certain area or behaviour, your manager owes you a thoughtful conversation about improving, and you owe them your attention. Recognise when someone’s trying to do you a solid, and respond accordingly :-)


The manager/report relationship is, as stated, a manufactured one. There’s a power dynamic at work that’s very obvious from the outset, and from a lifetime of conditioning around the boss/worker archetype. However, managers have responsibilities, and so do team members to make the relationship work.