How Can You Help First-Line Managers Be Prepared to Develop Others?

By Jessica Johnson | April 8, 2024

Key Takeaways: 

  • First-line managers should focus on aligning team goals with organizational objectives and mastering feedback for performance improvement.
  • Managers should approach feedback constructively, creating a safe space for dialogue, actively listening, asking questions, and fostering ownership of improvement by employees.
  • Managers must solicit and accept feedback to build trust and openness within their teams, fostering continuous learning and development.

This is a second article in a series on helping those managing on the front lines of your business be ready to develop others.

Six months ago, you promoted a high-performing individual contributor to a first-line managerial role. For years they have contributed great value to your organization through their subject matter expertise. Yet, they have not yet found their footing in this new role of manager. A couple of their direct reports have left the organization; they are very involved in the details of the work; and you worry if you’ve made a serious mistake.

It shouldn’t be surprising. Gallup has found that only 10% of working people have the natural inclination to be a great manager. So, what about the rest of us? The good news is that more can become very effective managers with the right coaching and development.  

But where should that development be focused?

Compelling research published by RBL in January shared what we’ve found are the new, post-pandemic expectations of first-line leaders. Leslie Kawai, Erin Burns, and Dave Ulrich advanced the most recent research on what first-line leadership behaviors have the strongest impact on organizational value in today’s world. One of the findings from this research is that high-performing first-line leaders excel at focusing and motivating their teams on the right priorities.  

We’ve discussed how to help front-line managers get team members aligned on the right organizational and individual goals. Hand-in-hand with goal setting is the critical skill of giving and receiving feedback.

If managers want to keep performance goals on track, they need to offer timely feedback. If they want to create a high-performing team, those same managers need to get comfortable frequently asking for and welcoming feedback.

Developing the Skill Set of Giving Feedback 

Building on what Dave Ulrich has previously shared about accountability, every feedback conversation can be a positive conversation. Unfortunately, the word feedback has a negative connotation. David Rock from the NeuroLeadership Institute says the question, “Can I offer you some feedback?” generates a similar response to hearing fast footsteps behind you at night. The fight or flight response that induces rarely leaves people in a place where they’re ready to hear and act on the feedback shared.

Instead, the key to positive conversations is for a manager to go into the feedback chat expecting to learn something. Allowing the direct report to give feedback on their own performance is the best way to begin. To do this, managers need to:

  • Prepare for the conversation – make sure your intent is in the right place: to help this individual grow, develop, and not repeat mistakes; not to punish, shame, or show your own superior expertise.
  • Invite sharing in a safe environment – ask permission to discuss the topic together, and consider where and when the conversation will happen. 
  • Be a focused listener – limit distractions (both physical and mental), try to understand the situation from their point of view.
  • Ask follow-up questions – be curious, assume you don’t have the whole story and genuinely desire to understand.
  • Summarize to ensure you’ve heard correctly – replay to the direct report what you’ve heard and check for alignment.

All of this is done prior to sharing the data the manager has collected. When aligned understanding is achieved between manager and direct report, then a plan for improvement can be created where the direct report takes ownership.

I was dreading a feedback conversation that needed to be shared with a colleague that was in a volunteer position—I didn’t have performance management responsibility for this individual. Knowing this model, I started with a few minutes of preparation to consider what questions I could ask about the issue that happened, what environment might be most comfortable to have the conversation, and how to share my intent to help.

My colleague and I decided to go on a walk together and in the course of conversation, I was able to bring up the issue and ask the individual for their facts and recollection of the incident. As I listened, I learned more of what went on that I wasn’t aware of before.  I was curious about a few things, so I asked some questions to better understand. In the end, the colleague had already taken some steps to remedy the incident and I could support and add a few data points of my own to the conversation.

Opening the Door to Receiving Feedback 

Even more difficult than learning how to give feedback is for first-line managers to ask for it and receive it. Many have moved from an individual contributor role where, if promoted from within, they now have their peers reporting to them. There’s a natural desire to be seen as credible and with the appropriate authority for the role. What’s difficult for new managers to understand is that teams do not coalesce around a leader who’s up on a pedestal and does no wrong. Instead, the opposite is true…if I leader can share their challenges, mistakes, and be open to receiving feedback—true psychological safety can be fostered.

But how is that accomplished?

The first step is opening the door.  Maybe a first-line manager shares something they’re struggling with or an area where they’re personally trying to improve. This can be done in a team setting or in one-on-one conversations. Opening the door if you’re a manager looks like:

  • Asking for behavioral suggestions around how you could work on a certain improvement area—Marshall Goldsmith has a coaching methodology for this called Stakeholder Centered Coaching, and it can be done by having the humility to ask a few individuals you trust for their ideas.
  • Getting specific around soliciting feedback from direct reports—asking questions that elicit more specific than general responses including:
    • How can I best support your career development right now?
    • What have I done in the last week that helped or hindered the work you’re trying to accomplish?
    • I didn’t feel like I “stuck the landing” in that last meeting.  What do you think I could have done differently?
  • Showing gratitude when feedback is shared—you need to appreciate that there is a cost to sharing feedback with a superior. Verbally acknowledging the feedback with thankfulness and taking action on what’s heard will encourage more feedback in the future.

Overcoming Barriers to Receiving Feedback 

RBL has recently worked with the faculty and staff of a university that is known for their culture of “niceness.” Because of this culture, no one was comfortable sharing constructive feedback with others—whether they were peers, direct reports, or supervisors. They were too concerned about how they would be viewed instead of considering the opportunities available to help others grow and develop with helpful feedback. 

In an early focus group conversation, we learned that having a leader ask for feedback was rarely initiated. And even if they did, no one was going to tell them anything that wasn’t positive. As we dug in, we learned the issue stemmed from a lack of trust, and an unhealthy hierarchy—problems which are not uncommon in many organizational settings.

We started with pockets of the university where trust was established—or already under focused development—and worked with those in leadership positions to begin the process of asking for feedback more regularly with their direct reports. Those leaders reported that it was difficult at first to get anything out of their employees, but over time and by asking specific questions, the culture of feedback started to change in those pockets. Leaders became aware of roadblocks that were thwarting success and impacting student experiences. Once they knew, they could do something about it.

It's still early in the process, but we hope that the practice of asking for feedback and building trust will spread across that institution of higher learning.


First-line managers experience a critical transition when going from the role of an individual contributor to now leading a group of people. The longer they go in this transition without focused training, the poorer habits they will pick-up and/or perpetuate. In this article and previously, we’ve discussed a couple of areas where investment in the development of first-line managers is critical to the success of organizations today—setting goals that will help retain employees and deliver results, and how to give and receive feedback.

Having a plan for focused feedback conversations is critical in helping first-line managers develop into successful leaders. RBL can help you create development experiences for those first-line managers to help them provide the highest value to the organization. Contact us to be connected with our leadership experts.

Jessica Johnson is a Principal with The RBL Group. She has worked with organizations around the world as an executive coach, teacher, and facilitator and has published widely on the topics of leadership, HR, and talent management. 

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