What is Supervision? How Do I Supervise?

Sections of this topic

    A comprehensive, practical book by Carter McNamara

    Leadership and Supervision in Business - Book Cover

    The guidelines and resources on 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

    • What is Supervision?
    • 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
    • Staffing (Human Resource Management)
      • Ensuring Conformance to Personnel Policies
      • Designing Job Roles
      • Ensuring Diversity and Inclusion
      • Deciding Compensation and Benefits
      • Recruiting Good Candidates
      • Screening Job Candidates
      • Hiring Employees
      • Orienting Employees
      • Retaining Employees
      • Rewarding Employees
    • Employee Performance Management
      • Setting Goals
      • Training Employees
      • Leading Employees (Delegating, Coaching, Mentoring, etc.)
      • Motivating Employees
      • Sharing Feedback
      • Performance Reviews
      • Addressing Performance Problems
      • Terminating Employees
    • Team Performance Management
      • Team Building
      • Leading Teams
      • Team Performance Planning
      • Team Performance Reviews
      • Team Improvement Planning

    Getting Started in Supervision

    • 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?

    Additional Resources

    Also, consider
    Related Library Topics

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    What is Supervision?

    Supervision is a widely misunderstood term. Many people believe it applies only to people who oversee the productivity and development of entry-level workers. That’s not true.

    The term “supervisor” typically refers to one’s immediate superior in the workplace, that is, the person to whom you report directly in the organization. For example, a middle manager’s supervisor typically
    would be a top manager. A first-line manager’s supervisor would be a middle manager. A worker’s supervisor typically would be a first-line manager.

    Supervisors typically are responsible for their direct reports’ progress and productivity in the organization. Supervision often includes conducting basic management skills (decision-making, problem-solving, planning, delegation, and meeting management), organizing teams, noticing the need for and designing
    new job roles in the group, hiring new employees, training new employees, employee performance management (setting goals, observing and giving feedback, addressing performance issues, firing employees, etc.) and ensuring conformance to personnel policies and other internal regulations. Supervisors typically have a strong working knowledge of the activities in their group, e.g., how to develop their product, carry out their service, etc.

    NOTE: Many people also use the term “supervisor” to designate the managerial position that is responsible for a major function in the organization, for example, Supervisor of Customer Service. This topic in the Library does not address that context of supervision but rather addresses the context described in the above paragraphs.

    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 effect on how you work and the success of your department is the culture of the organization. Supervisors should fully understand the mission and strategic goals 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 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 do 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, the complexity of the department’s goals, access to sufficient resources and expertise of the people in the department, and especially on the supervisor’s ability to successfully delegate to their direct reports. A supervisor might play different roles even on the same day.


    The supervisor is often responsible to represent the employee’s requests 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.

    The supervisor is also responsible to advocate for upper management when it wants all employees to understand and embrace a major management decision. 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 convenient term and the most widely understood is that of the 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 a strong direction, advice, and deadlines to consensus-based decisions, thoughtful questioning, and adaptive deadlines.


    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.


    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.


    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. Employees also often turn to the supervisor to ask about personnel policies. Progressive employees might ask about the organization’s culture.

    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

    Suggested Core Competencies to Supervise in Any Situation

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

    Also, consider
    Suggested Core Competencies to Lead in Any Situation

    Staffing (Human Resource Management)

    NOTE: Many of the following staffing activities are designed by a Human Resource Department (HR) if an organization has that type of department. Still, the activities are best carried out in collaboration with the supervisor who brings a strong knowledge of the needed skills in the department. Organizations without an HR Department usually rely on the supervisor to conduct the activities, hopefully in accordance with up-to-date personnel policies.

    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. Thus, staffing activities usually start by ensuring the personnel policies are up to date. Supervisors should be acquainted with all of the relevant policies as well as make sure that the employees are, as well.

    Ensuring Diversity and Inclusion

    Especially in today’s highly diverse organizations, the ability to work with people having diverse values and cultures is extremely important. An organization’s culture is driven by the values throughout that organization. Employees need to feel included — that their values are being recognized, understood, and respected.

    They need to feel that their ideas and concerns are being heard. Those conditions create strong motivation and momentum for strong satisfaction and performance in their jobs. Personnel policies should include guidelines to ensure a workforce is diverse and inclusive.
    Diversity and Inclusion

    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.

    Deciding Compensation and Benefits

    When designing a new job role, it should be associated with a suitable salary range that ensures sufficient compensation and benefits for the types of responsibilities needed in the role.

    Compensation includes topics in regard to wage and/or salary programs and structures, for example, salary ranges for job descriptions, merit-based programs, bonus-based programs, commission-based programs, etc. Employee benefits typically refer to retirement plans, health life insurance, life insurance, disability insurance, vacation, employee stock ownership plans, etc.
    Employee Benefits and Compensation (Employee Pay)

    Recruiting Good Candidates

    After the job role has been specified and approved by management, the supervisor is ready to recruit job candidates who might fill the job role. There are a wide variety of ways to recruit job candidates. The best methods are those that are most likely to reach out to the most suitable candidates.
    How to Find and Recruit the Best Job Candidates

    Screening Job Candidates

    The thoroughness and professionalism you use to interview candidates can make a strong, positive impression on candidates. It also conveys to them that you expect the same from them if they are hired by your organization.

    In an effort to mitigate the risk of a bad hiring decision, companies can use multiple tools in their hiring strategy. One of those, background screening, can help identify if your candidate is included in the 56% of applicants that provide false information on their resume.

    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 make — and accept — a formal offer for employment.

    Orienting Employees

    A new employee should be sufficiently oriented to the organization and its employees so that the employee feels familiar enough to begin doing a good job in the role. Planning an orientation for employees should be as carefully done as planning a systematic approach to training. For example, there should be overall goals that you want to accomplish with the orientation. There should be carefully chosen activities and materials used in the orientation to achieve the goals.
    Employee Orientation

    Retaining Employees

    One of the most expensive labor costs is the replacement of employees. Fortunately, there are many things a supervisor can do to increase the likelihood that good employees will remain. The supervisor can ensure the employee understands the job, is fully oriented and trained to do it, has suitable compensation, is effectively led, has a job design that helps the employee to be motivated, shares useful
    feedback, and supports the employee’s career development.
    How to Retain Your
    Best Employees

    Rewarding Employees

    There are a variety of ways for a supervisor to reward employees for the quality
    of the work, they do in the workplace. For example, rewards can be in the form
    of money, benefits, time off from work, acknowledgment for work well done,
    affiliation with other workers or a sense of accomplishment from finishing a
    major task.
    Rewarding Employee Performance

    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, rewarding the employee for accomplishments, or addressing situations where goals are not being achieved in a high-quality and timely manner.
    How to Ensure Strong Employee Performance Management

    There are a variety of different styles for implementing a performance management process.
    Performance Management: Traditional and Progressive Approaches

    Setting Goals

    Goals can be established for a variety of reasons, for example, to overcome performance problems, qualify for future jobs and roles, take advantage of sudden opportunities that arise, and/or give direction to training plans. Goals provide clear direction to both supervisor and employee. They form a common frame of reference around which the supervisor and employee can effectively communicate.

    They clearly indicate success and can facilitate a strong sense of fulfillment for employee and supervisors. Also, they help clarify the roles of the supervisor and employee.
    Goal Setting With 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 gaps. High-quality training also ensures that the 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.

    Leading Employees (Delegating, Coaching, Mentoring, etc.)

    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 develop in their jobs and careers.

    Motivating Employees

    A major function of supervisors is to support the motivation of their employees. Different people can have quite different motivators, for example, more money, more recognition, time off from work, promotions, opportunities for learning, or opportunities for socializing and relationships. Therefore, when attempting to help motivate people, it’s important to identify what motivates each of them. Ultimately, though, long-term motivation comes from people motivating themselves.
    Helping People to Motivate Themselves and Others

    Sharing Feedback

    The “life’s blood” of successful supervision is the continued and effective feedback between the supervisor and the employee. Feedback to employees is information regarding their performance and also is information they can act on. Feedback must be shared in a manner that is understandable to them and is perceived by them as being provided in a highly respectful manner. Sharing feedback involves skills in effective listening, verbal and non-verbal communication, and working in multicultural environments.
    How to Give Useful Feedback and Advice

    Conducting Performance Reviews

    Regular performance reviews are critical. Performance reviews help supervisors feel more honest in their relationships with their employees and feel better about themselves in their supervisorial roles. Employees are assured a clear understanding of what’s expected from them, their own personal strengths and areas for development, and a solid sense of their relationship with their supervisor.
    Conducting Performance Appraisals/Reviews

    Addressing Performance Problems

    Supervisors should promptly respond to occasions where an employee’s performance is not acceptable. Performance issues on the actual behaviors of the employee, whether they were insufficient for the job or inappropriate in the workplace. Any special circumstances that caused those behaviors should be understood. The supervisor should carefully document the notification in the employee’s file.
    How to Address Employee Performance Problems

    Terminating Employees

    As with the other activities in staffing and employee performance management, the termination of an employee should be done in accordance with the procedure described in the personnel policies. The policies might specify, for example, that the supervisor first issues a verbal warning to the employee and then a written warning before the formal action to terminate an employee.
    How to Effectively Fire an Employee

    Team Performance Management

    The activities in team performance management are very similar to those of employee performance management, as listed above. Team performance management refers to the cycle of activities to enhance the performance of a team. The activities to first develop the team are often referred to as team building.
    The activities to manage each meeting are about meeting management. The activities to guide and support the members’ activities during a meeting are referred to as facilitation.

    Team Building

    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 resources, 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.

    Team Performance Planning

    This is the initial phase in team performance management where the supervisor works with the team to specify the goals to be accomplished by the team and by when. The supervisor explains how the goals are directly aligned with achieving the strategic goals of the organization. The supervisor and team might associate specific and measurable milestones toward those team goals. They document the results of their planning into an overall team performance plan.
    Team Performance Management: Performance Planning Phase

    In a progressive approach, this phase could be done in a highly collaborative approach between the supervisor and members of the team.
    Performance Management: Traditional and Progressive Approaches

    Team Performance Reviews

    During this phase, the supervisor conducts ongoing observations and monitoring to assess how well the team goals are being achieved. The supervisor decides if the quality of the team’s performance has exceeded or met expectations and decides how to reward the team accordingly. This phase could be done in a highly collaborative manner between the supervisor and members of the team.
    Team Performance Management: Performance Appraisal / Evaluation Phase

    Team Improvement Planning

    During this phase, a plan is developed for how the team could improve its performance to more effectively achieve or exceed the team goals. The plan might suggest further training, providing more resources, or adjusting the goals to be more realistic.
    Team Performance Management: Development (Improvement) Planning Phase

    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 seem 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 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 a 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 management. 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 and 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, then start finding other activities outside of work that are at least as rewarding. No one on their deathbed 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 delegation 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 surprises 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.

    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 of 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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