When we problematize something, we make it a matter of thoughtful consideration. In so doing, we revitalize its meaning, significance, and practical relevance. Today, I problematize the practice of supervision, a role that we expect many to realize more frequently than they do.
A Simple Definition
Supervision is a developmental relationship characterized by an attentive attitude, an ethic of care, and active efforts to help others learn and grow personally and professionally. It may focus on practical task-oriented skills or on the so-called “softer” competencies that promote interpersonal effectiveness. And we may supervise adaptive development at the individual level or with groups and teams.
A Clarification: Job titles ≠ roles
In any organization there is a social structure with roles of oversight. As an enterprise, it has a purpose, a mission, and stakeholders whose interests it serves, so there are expectations of fiduciary duty. To fulfill this duty and coordinate organizational performance, roles, job titles, and a governance hierarchy are created.
Those in positions such as CEO, Vice President, Director, Manager, and Supervisor, are expected to exercise oversight, to coordinate the work of others in the service of the organization’s strategic aims and performance goals. We refer to people in these positions as leaders or members of management in the general sense of the word, i.e., they are to provide guidance to others.
There are two specific kinds of guidance we expect of those in these positions: Management is the role of ensuring timely and efficient execution. Supervision is the role of enhancing the productive capacity of people to do their work – technical, tactical, and interpersonal.
This role focuses primarily on the operational system of an enterprise, efficient execution of its purpose and goals. We have so-called “dashboards” that represent the status of key operating parameters. But there’s more to it than analyzing and reporting data. We also coordinate action and perform timely and adaptive problem solving to sustain performance.
Management is aptly characterized as “keeping the trains running on time.” But the train tracks need to be maintained. And we must respond to new and different kinds and quantities of demand, and many other “backroom” functions. Having said that, if we were to characterize which gets the most attention in business today, managing would easily prevail over supervising.
Because of this bias, I focus on the role of supervision. As we’ll see, the complexity of the supervision role is fundamentally different than the complexity of the management role. The former requires a person-orientation while the latter relies on a thing-orientation.
At the top of this article, I defined supervision as a relationship. And in the title, I broke the word down into two component root word. I did this because the practice of supervising others requires that see a supervisee as a person first. And we must come to know them to fully see the meaning of their actions.
Persons are more than interchangeable functionaries. Unlike machines, they each have a subjective center the nucleus of their capacity to act as free and rational agents. And prior to the rational plan of action there are often less articulate intuitions, feelings, or concerns that shape attitude and action.
Much of what differentiates us, indeed defines us, as persons are our value commitments, what we truly care about, what gives meaning to our lives. These and qualities of personality and interpersonal style play a role in differentiating the intuitive ore felt meaning that we discern in our field of action.
To muddy the waters further, there are cultural and ethnic differences in how our value commitments are formed, and how they are expressed. Gender differences, too, play a role. To really see the person and appreciate his or her approach to action we must seek to understand these shaping influences.
When we do this as supervisors, and when we reflect an appreciation who they are and how they function, they feel understood. And beyond that empathic connection, we are better positioned to help them by adapting our guidance to their individual differences while linking them to the firm’s mission.
That’s what I consider the super quality of vision that enables effective supervision. And when it’s well done, it makes management of process and performance so much easier. Not only do we quicken the pace of learning, we’re able to more quickly identify and resolve issue.
 For what it’s worth, the lack of adequate supervision, feedback and coaching from management has been a constant theme in McKinsey annual surveys on organizational effectiveness.