Direct Reports are People, Too, Aren't They?

"Direct report" can be a shorthand way of talking about the employees who the boss personally evaluates and to whom he or she provides direct guidance

Businesses will use the term “direct reports” to denote the positions and employees who report directly to a boss on the organizational chart and to differentiate between those employees and indirect reports (who work for the boss somewhere in the chain but are supervised by someone else). So, a director may have five “direct reports” with 100 people who report indirectly to her. “Direct report” can be a shorthand way of talking about the employees who the boss personally evaluates and provides direct guidance to on a daily basis. It’s a shorthand approach – but what are the downstream impacts of adopting such an approach?

We say words matter – and it’s important to remember they do. Our words carry connotations beyond just the utterances themselves. I recall the first time I heard the term referring to a person’s employees. I was working at a large telecommunications company and was shocked when I first heard someone reference their direct report … it struck me then even as it still does now.

In the Air Force, I would never have used the term direct reports to talk about my trusted inner circle in the command structure. They weren’t that; they were valued team members who operated as flight commanders, first sergeants and senior enlisted advisors to the commander, helping carry out the mission of the unit. They were people, not a position on an org chart. I hope that aspect of corporate terminology hasn’t seeped into military culture.

How about just saying the people who report directly to someone?

The terminology either intentionally or inadvertently removes the people part from the equation. “I had to let two direct reports go,” has a different connotation than, “I had to let two people who worked directly with me go,.”

What’s wrong with taking the extra time to say, “My team members who report directly to me,” instead of “direct reports?”

Doesn’t it convey a different feeling and isn’t that crucial to a human-centered organization?

Design Thinking is about adopting a human-centered approach to tackling challenges.

Can you really adopt a human-centered approach if your terminology removes people from a discussion about who reports to whom?

In Adaptive Leadership, we talk about the differences between leadership and authority (where authority provides direction, protection and order).

Day-to-day supervision and evaluation are definitely functions of authority – but there’s still a people-centered aspect, especially if you want those individuals to exhibit leadership at some point.

By using terminology that removes people one step from the discussion, it’s a small, insidious step on the slippery slope of viewing everything from an authoritarian perspective and overlooking the tangible, human elements.

There may have been five positions on the org chart that showed a reporting line to me, but I did not have direct reports. I had five valued team members – people – who occupied those positions.

What other terminology do we use in our daily lives that pushes people one step further away? What would it say about our underlying culture if we kept people (employees, team members, customers, end users) at the center instead?

Joe "Hark" Herold is the CEO of DesignThinkingDenver. He served 28 years in the United States Air Force and now works with organizations of all types to help them achieve their mission and vision … better. This is part of a series Herold is putting together on Design Thinking for ColoradoBiz.

Categories: Management & Leadership