Sunday, May 22, 2011

Is the Supervisory Role Dead (as we know it)?

“In the popular management literature, the ‘death of the supervisor’ is confidently pronounced and not much mourned. From the 1980s onwards, there has been an insistence that traditional forms of direct supervisory control are inappropriate for new forms of management and organization. This assertion takes its cue from the more general management discourse of ‘turbulence’, ‘flexibility’ and entrepreneurship’ in which radical changes in managerial work are predicated on an equally radical shift in organizational forms from bureaucratic hierarchies to post-bureaucratic networks, a shift that, in turn, is necessitated by increasingly unstable organizational environments,” (Hales, 2005, p.476).

The ‘typical’ supervisor could be described as the non-commissioned officer or ‘sergeant’; someone with years of practical experience who had no interest in ‘formal’ old fashioned management, and would be the link between the work-force and the management; someone who was often well respected by all levels of the organisation.

As Colin Hales mentions “it is argued, the traditional ‘manager’, individually responsible and accountable for planning, co-ordinating and controlling a clearly defined area of work within constraints set by procedure and regulation, is being superseded by the performance-driven leader, ‘conductor’ or ‘coach’ charged with the fuzzy, unregulated task of facilitating and co-ordinating the performance of a variegated network of actors both inside and outside the organization. The implication is that managerial work shifts from narrowly-defined routine administration to more wide-ranging, non-routine ‘leadership’, whilst the managerial gaze switches from the vertical to the lateral,” (p.477).

Part of the logic behind the ‘death of the supervisor’ is the belief that much of the managerial theory is actually put into practice, which may be disputed by those at the coal-face. For example it’s said that, “with the spread of self-managing teams, through which there has been a transfer of responsibility for day-to-day planning and monitoring of work operations from managers to team members, front line managers (FLM’s) have either disappeared or lost their supervisory function and acquired the residual function of facilitating, co-ordinating, mentoring, coaching and leading teams that otherwise supervise themselves. The FLM’s tasks are, therefore, to build the team; give technical assistance and advice; train, develop and coach team members; brief teams and communicate business objectives; inspire and motivate team members; co-ordinate people, processes, materials and equipment and liaise with other teams,” (p.477-478).

Secondly, “that instead of, or as well as, losing their routine supervisory functions downwards to work teams, FLM’s are acquiring broader managerial functions from above. As the result of a conscious devolution of managerial responsibility as part of market-driven decentralization to smaller business units, FLM’s have acquired erstwhile middle management functions and become ‘minigeneral managers’ of an area of work designated as a cost- or profit-centre,” (p.478).

The research by Colin Hales, was developed from a comprehensive survey of 135 organisations in the UK that examined how the FLM role is presently constituted and how far and in what ways it has changed; and hence should be taken seriously.

Colin Hales found that “on the one hand, the well-documented task and authority characteristics of the traditional supervisory role appear to have changed very little. For FLM’s in the great majority of organizations, the core responsibility remains the immediate direction and control of an area of work and day-to-day supervision of those who carry it out, rather than management ‘at a distance’. Their span of control is relatively narrow, their contacts are primarily internal and vertical and their authority, involvement in decision-making and accountability are mainly confined to operational routines.

However, FLM’s are not merely supervisors: in most organizations routine supervision is framed by responsibility for actively monitoring and improving performance. Apart from a few exceptions, ‘performance-oriented supervision’ is at the heart of the FLM role,” (p.495).

One problem facing some organisations is that the FLM is too far removed from their work-force and hence can’t resonate with their needs and concerns; especially if these positions are filled by people who haven’t moved up from the ‘grass routes’ and have been brought in from outside. That was the strength of the ‘old fashioned’ supervisor – the ‘old timer’ who was the conduit between the work-force they ‘parented’ and the management structures above.

Hales concludes that, “developments in the role of FLM have not taken the form of a radical transformation away from supervision and towards team co-ordination or business management. Rather the role exhibits remarkable stability over time and consistency across organizations. Performance-oriented supervision is at the core, surrounded by a penumbra of additional managerial responsibilities relating to stewardship, translating strategy into operations, unit management and, exceptionally, business management. Most FLM’s remain part of a hierarchical system of direct supervision, individual managerial responsibility and vertical accountability. Their authority is usually confined to operating routines, sometimes extends to resourcing and only exceptionally to HR matters and they are more likely to be consulted on routine operational matters than strategy. Yet they are personally accountable for day-to-day operational fluidity and, in some cases, broader performance metrics. Where responsibilities, authority and accountability are shared, it is upwards with more senior managers or specialists not downwards with members of the work team. Changes to the FLM role have been as much a strengthening of the supervisory core as a broadening of the role into business management responsibilities,” (p.501-502).

Hopefully the role of the FLM will not be diluted over time as this still remains the critical link between employees and management. This one position is often more aware, than any other, of the problems and concerns facing the organisation; are able to accurately gauge the commitment and motivation of the work-force; and through their role have a significant impact on customer service and organisational performance. Understanding the importance of this position is critical to optimum organisation design and performance.


Hales, C. (2005). Rooted in Supervision, Branching into Management: Continuity and Change in the Role of First-Line Manager. Journal of Management Studies; Vol. 42 Issue 3, p.471-506.

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