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What is Supervision? How Do I Supervise?

Comprehensive, practical book by Carter McNamara
Leadership and Supervision in Business - Book Cover

Supervision is the st of activities carried out by a person in order to oversee the productivity and progress of employees who report directly to that person in an organization. For example, chief executive officers supervise those who report directly to the chief executives, middle-managers supervise first-level supervisors, and first-level supervisors supervise entry-level employees. Supervision is a management activity and supervisors typically are considered to have a management role, particularly a leadership role, in the organization.

The guidelines and resources in this topic are not sufficient to develop strong competencies in supervision. Those competencies come from extensive experience in applying that information.

Sections of This Topic Include

To Truly Understand Supervision, Be Acquainted With Its Broad Content
--- Know How Organizations Are Typically Structured and Operate
--- Know Major Functions in Management in Organizations
--- Know Which Leadership Approach to Use and When in Organizations

Typical Roles in Supervision
--- Advocate
--- Boss
--- Coach
--- Facilitator
--- Mentor
--- Trainer

Suggested Core Competencies to Supervise in Any Situation

Typical Responsibilities of a Supervisor
--- Designing Job Roles
--- Hiring Employees
--- Training Employees
--- Employee Performance Management
--- Leading Employees
--- Organizing Teams
--- Leading Teams
--- Ensuring Conformance to Personnel Policies

Getting Started in Supervision
--- Typical Experience of First-Time Supervisor
--- Realities of Supervision

--- Make Sure You Supervise Yourself

--- How Can You Develop Your Supervisory Skills?

Evaluation of Human Resource Management and Supervision Practices

Free Basic Guide to Leadership and Supervision

Also consider
Related Library Topics

Learn More in the Library's Blogs Related to Supervision

In addition to the articles on this current page, also see the following blogs that have posts related to Supervision. Scan down the blog's page to see various posts. Also see the section "Recent Blog Posts" in the sidebar of the blog or click on "next" near the bottom of a post in the blog. The blog also links to numerous free related resources.

Library's Human Resources Blog
Library's Leadership Blog
Library's Supervision Blog
Library's Team Performance Blog

To Truly Understand Supervision, Be Acquainted With Its Broader Context

Know How Organizations Are Typically Structured and Operate

Without knowing about organizations in general, your role as a supervisor will be extremely limited. For example, perhaps the greatest affect on how you work and the success of your department is the culture of the organization. Also, the expectations, resources and influences to do your job usually come from other parts of the organization, whether it comes from the management levels above you or other departments that you serve. Collaboration between other departments in the organization is often one of the most effective ways for the departments to do their job. Your employees' questions are often about other parts of the organization, as well. The likelihood of your promotion depends on how well you understand the rest of the organization. See
Organizational Structures and Design

Know Major Functions in Management in Organizations

Traditionally, management is interpreted as be an integration of planning, organizing, leading and coordinating resources. The role of supervision is essentially a management role. For example, you are planning your department's goals, how to reach those goals, the resources that you will need, and who will doing what and by when to achieve those goals. You will be organizing resources, including jobs, people, funding and facilities. You will be leading individuals and teams in your department. You will be continually coordinating your department's activities to make sure that activities are being conducted as planned. You will take measures to get things back on track when needed. Therefore, it is very important that you understand best practices in management. Those practices are often quite similar across the organization, but just of a different scope and impact. See
What is Management? How Do I Manage?

Know Which Leadership Approach to Use and When in Organizations

Simply put, leadership is the set of activities to clarify direction and priorities, and influence people toward those. Leadership is a strong component in a supervisor's overall activities of management. You are responsible for leading other individuals, teams and your department and -- perhaps most important -- leading yourself. Especially for first-time supervisors, the role can be quite stressful because they are now faced with responsibilities they have never had before -- they are leading people, not just activities that usually have clear-cut and routine tasks. Therefore, it is extremely important for supervisors -- especially first-time supervisors -- to understand principles and various styles of leadership, including which style to use and when. See
What is Leadership? How Do I Lead?

Typical Roles in Supervision

The job of a supervisor is a very dynamic one, depending on the culture of the organization, complexity of the department's goals, access to sufficient resources and expertise of the people in the department. A supervisor might play different roles even in the same day.


The supervisor is often responsible to represent the employee's requests and to management, along with also representing the employee's case for deserving a reward. For example, if an employee deserves a promotion, the supervisor often must justify the case for promotion to the supervisor's supervisor, as well. If the employee has a rather unique personal situation that warrants special consideration by the rest of management, the supervisor must explain this situation and how it can be handled. It's not unusual for employees to sometimes see the supervisor as part of "management" while at other times seeing the supervisor as a personal friend.


There are many different names for leaders in organizations and how they are viewed. However, the most conventional term and the most widely understood is that of boss. The supervisor is deemed to be the boss when people in the department are ultimately looking for direction and guidance in their jobs. The ways that a supervisor carries out that role can vary from strong direction, advice and deadlines to consensus-based decisions, thoughtful questioning and adaptive deadlines.
Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For
Good Boss! Bad Boss! Which Are You?


The term coach has taken on an entirely new meaning with the recent growth of the field of personal and professional coaching. Coaches in that field are experts at supporting others to bring out and apply their own wisdom. Often, they pose thoughtful questions to help that happen. Still, supervisors might guide their employees to increased performance and satisfaction in a variety of ways ranging from useful advice and feedback to thoughtful questions and support.
How to Avoid Toxic Coaching
All About Personal and Professional Coaching


The job of a facilitator is to support a group of people to clarify their desired results and achieve their results by working with each other. The nature of how facilitators do their job ranges from rather directive advice (especially when the group is getting started) to thoughtful questions, paraphrasing and summarizing. Thus, with an established team, a facilitator works much like a coach.
Core Interpersonal Skills for Facilitators
Core Group Skills for Facilitators


A mentor is a person who helps another (a mentee) to develop in their job and career. The mentor may have officially accepted that role, for example, as part of an overall mentoring program, or informally accepted the role based on a mutual relationship. The mentee sees themselves as being able to count on the mentor for help. The mentor might use a variety of methods to help the mentee ranging from advice and materials to thoughtful questions and guidelines.


The supervisor is often the first person who is considered when a new employee needs to learn the job or when an employee is struggling to improve performance in the job. The supervisor is responsible to ensure that training occurs, and might do the training themselves or arrange it through a subject matter expert. Training could be done in a variety of ways ranging from ongoing on-the-job advice to participating in a formal, systematic training program.

Employee Training and Development: Reasons and Benefits
Job Training

Suggested Core Competencies to Supervise in Any Situation

Various experts would disagree on what skills and practices should be required for supervisors. Various roles and skills are listed throughout the next sections in this topic. However, it would be difficult to undertake them without having the following core skills.

Decision Making
Planning -- Basic Process
Problem Solving
Meeting Management

Also consider
Suggested Core Competencies to Lead in Any Situation

Typical Responsibilities of a Supervisor

Designing Job Roles

There are several occasions when a job role needs to be created or updated. For example, supervisors would be designing a new role when there is sufficient evidence that enough new tasks that a new role was required. Another occasion would be if a current job needed to be updated. Ideally, planning for a new role is done during strategic planning or when a new product or service is added to the organization.
How to Know What Positions and Jobs Are Needed

Hiring Employees

Hiring employees involves a variety of tasks, any of which if not done effectively, could result in a mismatch between the needs of the department and that of the new hire. Thus, one of the most important tasks of a supervisor is hiring highly suitable employees. That includes going to as many sources as possible for finding good candidates, screening the candidates' resumes and conducting interviews, and then coordinating the activities to making -- and accepting -- a formal offer for employment.
How to Find and Recruit Best Job Candidates
How to Screen Job Candidates
Selecting (Hiring) New Employees

Training Employees

Effective training includes clarifying the goals that are to be achieved by the employee, assessing the gap between the employee's current capabilities and those needed to achieve the goals, and then ensuring suitable training to close those gap. High-quality training also ensures that gap has been closed over time. The supervisor might conduct the training or arrange it to come from another source. Training could range from on-the-job advice to more formal training programs.
Job Training

Employee Performance Management

Employee performance management includes the activities to ensure that all employees are effectively and efficiently working toward the departmental goals that are assigned to them. That means assigning appropriate goals to the employee, ensuring the employee is sufficiently equipped to achieve the goal, monitoring and measuring the employee's activities and accomplishments, and rewarding the employee for accomplishments or addressing situations where goals are not being achieved in a high-quality and timely manner.
Setting Goals
Supporting Employee Motivation
Observing and Giving Feedback
Addressing Performance Problems
Conducting Performance Appraisals/Reviews
Firing Employees

Leading Employees

Supervisors provide ongoing guidance and support to their employees in a variety of ways to suit the nature and needs of both the supervisor and employees. Good leadership involves providing the right context for each employee to motivate themselves. Delegation involves clarifying the result desired by the supervisor and encouraging the employee to decide how best to achieve the result. Coaching might be used to bring out the employee's own wisdom to address a current situation. Mentoring involves ongoing advice and coaching to help an employee to develop in their jobs and careers.
Helping People to Motivate Themselves and Others
How to Delegate to Employees
All About Personal and Professional Coaching

Organizing Teams

High-quality teams need strong and trusting relationships between members. However, they also need a firm foundation of structures, including a clear purpose and goals, sufficient resource, adaptable guidelines for assigning and changing leadership, reliable means to sustain continual communications among members and the organization, and means to make group decisions and solve problems.
All About Team Building

Leading Teams

After a team has been built, it needs ongoing direction, guidance and support from upper management for the team to continue to be successful in achieving its goals. Help from the supervisor can range from strong involvement with ongoing directives to a more indirect and supportive role.
Group Decision-Making and Problem Solving
All About Facilitation

Ensuring Conformance to Personnel Policies

The activities of supervision should always be respectful, fair and equitable and should always conform to relevant laws, rules and regulations. The best way to make sure that those conditions will continue to exist is to work from up-to-date personnel policies. Supervisors should be acquainted with all of the relevant policies as well as to make sure that the employees are, as well.
Developing Personnel Policies
Developing an Employee Manual
Sample List of Personnel Policies

Getting Started in Supervision

Typical Experience of First-Time Supervisor

The job of supervisor, especially for new supervisors, can be one of the most confusing, frustrating and stressful jobs in an organization. Many times, a person is promoted to a supervisor role, not because the person has already shown strong skills in supervising people, but because the employee continued to do a high-quality job that was much more technical in nature than leading people. Thus, after the person is promoted, it can be an entirely new situation for the employee. There are several more reasons for this, including:

  • Supervisors often do not have adequate training about their new roles, responsibilities and ways to lead people. They might be used to doing very well in a technical job, but now are faced with diverse and challenging tasks they have never done before.
  • Supervisors are often intimidated when faced with enforcing a wide range of policies and procedures, many of which seems highly technical and legal in nature. Even if they do not understand the policies, they still are responsible for all of them.
  • Supervisors rarely have enough time to monitor and measure the progress of their department, while cultivating working relationships with a diversity of people who are to be guided and supported by the supervisor.
  • Supervisors often feel very alone in their jobs. This is especially true if they were promoted over people who used to be their peers. Supervisors are responsible to meet the needs of their bosses above them, and yet do the same with those below them.
  • Supervisors can often feel overwhelmed and stressed out. It can take a lot of courage to admit this, especially to the supervisors' bosses who already are expecting a lot from them.

Realities of Supervision

By Marcia Zidle

Here are insights from years of working with managers, teams, and new leaders on the realities of supervision. For some of you it may be “old hat”; for others an “ah’ha”. In either case, know that the moment you start taking things for granted, you stop being effective. So what can you learn from these seven supervisory principles.

1. There is no routine to management work. Changes are that your old job came with a familiar routine. You performed the tasks assigned to you and you did them in a prescribed order. Some things had to be done by noon, while others had to be completed before you left for the day. As a rule, when the day’s work was done, your day was over. But for managers, there’s no such thing as “the day’s work,” so bid a fond farewell to routine.

2. People and issues arrive un-prioritized. As a manager, you now have more people and issues to deal with. It’s your job to filter them for urgency and importance, and help employees stay focused by doing the same.

3. People start acting differently towards you. You’re still the same person, but you’re in a different role. Some people withdraw from you; others want to get closer. Ultimately, your employees are dealing with managerial change in their own way and trying to figure out what kind of manager you really are.

4. You have to give up your old job. You have a new job so don’t hang on to your old one. This can be hard. After all, it’s because of your previous success that you’ve been promoted. But failure to let go of your old job causes more problems for first-time managers than anything else.

5. Guard against the perception that certain people are your favorites. Yesterday you had co-workers; today you have employees. While it’s only natural to like some individuals more than others you no longer have that luxury as manager. Employees are keenly aware of who has direct access to you. In the past, you had coffee or lunch with the same people every day, but if you keep this up, your employees will earmark these people as “your favorites.”

6. Employees want their manager to manage them. Friendly behavior is great, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for good managing. Your employees expect you to deal with poor performers at work. You need to demonstrate that you won’t tolerate poor performance. If you’re fair and decisive, your good performers will give you their hard-earned respect and best effort.

7. Don’t hold on to information, rather communicate, communicate, communicate. When you’re on an airplane and it encounters turbulence or the flight is delayed, you want to know what’s happening. Not knowing makes you nervous. Employees also want to know what’s happening — what’s causing the bumpy ride. If people don’t understand, then anxiety mounts, trust declines and rumors fly. The next thing you see is morale plummeting and work not getting done. That’s why ongoing communication is so important.

Management Success Tip

Understand your role had changed. You are now in charge tasked with getting work done through others. You must move from doing to delegating; from being liked to being respected; from holding on to letting go; from knowing all the answers to getting input from others.

Make Sure You Supervise Yourself

The job can be stressful and it can be tempting to continue to focus on the job and your employees. However, there is an old saying that you can't effectively lead others, unless you can first effectively lead yourself. That means:

  • Monitor your work hours -- If it gets to be an average of 55 hours per week or more, than start finding other activities outside of work that are at least as rewarding. No one on their death bed says, "I wish I had worked harder."
  • Recognize your own signs of stress -- Are they increasing irritability? Fatigue? Drinking alcohol? Confusion and frustration? Aches and pains? Warnings from friends and colleagues?
  • Get a mentor or coach -- They can be invaluable when you consider that your health is priceless. It doesn't matter how much your boss compliments you if your family and body are paying the price.
  • Learn to delegate -- That is one of the most important skills for any supervisor. Effective delegate decreases your workload while expanding the opportunities for learning among your employees.
  • Communicate as much as reasonable -- That is one of the best antidotes to loneliness and fatigue. Be honest with your friends and family about how you are feeling and what you want.
  • Know what's important versus what's urgent -- If you take care of the important things, then the urgent ones go away. For example, attend to proactive planning about the future rather than reactive responses to surprise and crises.
  • Recognize accomplishments -- That can be one of the biggest satisfactions and motivators, not only for yourself, but for the employees who work for you.

Stress and Time Management
Getting a Mentor
Getting Coached
How to Delegate to Employees
Basics in Internal Organizational Communications

How Can You Develop Your Supervisory Skills?

You can improve your skills in a rather informal approach or in a carefully designed and systematic approach. The latter is often referred to as a supervisor development program. Here are guidelines for either approach.

How to Design Your Supervisor Development Program

Free Basic Guide to Leadership and Supervision

Here is a link to a complete, well-organized set of guidelines for the basic functions in supervision. The guidelines comprise a basic guidebook, which can be printed.

Free Basic Guide to Leadership and Supervision (html format)

For the Category of Supervision:

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