Why It's Easier to Manage 4 People Than It Is to Manage 1 Person

It’s easier to manage 4 people than it is to manage one person. The primary reason for this is the inherent over-reliance in the relationship between a manager and a single report. Let’s dive deeper.

It’s not uncommon for a first-time manager to get a single direct report. Try it out. See how it goes. Here’s what this ends up looking like:

  • The new manager is over-reliant on making sure their single report likes them and is doing well. If they give feedback that their manager stinks, that’s 100% bad feedback from your reports. If the report doesn’t do well, that’s 100% of your reports that aren’t succeeding.* If the report quits, you just lost your whole team.
  • The manager’s over-reliance on the direct report’s success and happiness leads to risk-averse behavior, like not giving critical feedback or overcompensating. It also regularly leads to micromanagement.
  • The single report is isolated. They don’t have any peers on the team to reach out to for help. If their manager is bad, they don’t have any corroborating voices. Anything that goes wrong is a they-said I-said debate. Any debate inside of the team is a faceoff with your manager.
  • No one in this relationship has the ability to get context. With more reports, a manager gets clearer signals when they’re wrong. A report could look to teammates to corroborate or dissuade their ideas. With one report, disagreements have little additional evidence, so people have to either approach the situation with a supreme lack of ego, or they can just assume it’s the other person’s fault. Guess which option happens most.

To further the problematic conditions, the single report will often be a very junior hire. This compounds the issue. Straight-from-college hires don’t have great context for what it means to be in industry, to have a manager, to work a job with no end-of-semester in sight. And hires aren’t expected to have as much autonomy in their formative early years. With these variables, the requirements on the manager are higher than average.

It’s not uncommon for these relationships to turn sour. The manager makes mistakes as they always do. The report makes mistakes as they always do. Fingers are pointed. Times are dire. If you ever hear someone call their manager a “first-time manager”, you know the relationship has reached a special level of hell.

To avoid this situation, consider doing the following:

  • Avoid having first time managers have a team of 1 individual contributor for a prolonged amount of time. That team size is an anti-pattern for more reasons than just this one.
  • Try and make sure the manager of a team with 1 individual contributor is also an expert in the domain area. Sometimes managers are explicitly not the domain expert by design, but when you have 1 report, a lack of domain expertise is one of the sure-fire ways to make mistakes and a sure-fire way for your report to get the idea that you’re no good.
  • Avoid at all costs the combination of: new manager, 1 report, report is new-to-industry, manager is not a subject-matter expert.

* Note: mangers should be very invested in their report’s success. But when the manager is over-invested it leads to all sorts of unsavory things, some of which are called out above. Another example is when a report is doing well-enough, but because the manager is over-reliant on their performance, they try to push the report beyond what they can or want to do.