Knowing the difference between first-line supervisors and managers

Graph from Contemporary Management
Graph from Contemporary Management

WASHINGTON, July 28, 2014 – The mindset of a first-line supervisor is aggressive. He wanted the job and generally competed against more than one person to obtain it. He is usually younger and perhaps of the millennial generation meaning he is highly reliant on technology, he does not possess the degree of respect for authority that those who preceded him did, and he prefers home life to work life.

He comes from the mentality of his previous peers so he is more likely to find fault with senior managers, he may procrastinate more in his assignments, and he may initially complain about work quantity.

On the other hand, more senior leaders have a highly focused task-orientation. They define the task(s) at hand, want to get the work done, and they want to get it completed efficiently and quickly. Overtime, first-line supervisors learn the tricks to completing the work without procrastinating, without complaining, and as quickly as possible because they learn that the reward for more work does not necessarily include more money or more time off; instead, they likely receive more work.

A senior manager loses some of her immediate gratification needs. Instead, she knows that her hard work may payoff in the long term.  She may obtain promotions and may join the executive leadership team, but she knows that excelling at mid- to senior-management levels will only be one step to achieving higher levels of success.

Some clear distinctions between first-level supervisors and senior managers are that managers learn the overall goals, precisely define the tasks that must be performed within those goals, and then clearly define their own role within those tasks.

The first-line supervisor is forced into a world that he is rarely prepared to handle. If he had a good mentor, he might have developed some of the needed skills. If he did not have a good mentor, he has a long road to hoe. Very few first-line supervisors are trained for their role.

In fact, in today’s economy, those training funds have virtually dried up.

A first-line supervisor is going to confront new challenges that are extremely difficult. In particular, she will need to learn to separate work from friendship, learn to directly confront employees about their performance be it poor, moderate or excellent, and must learn to juggle her own task performance with that of her subordinates.  She will feel pressure from below and from above.

She develop new relationships with her peers.

A clear distinction between first-line supervisors and senior managers is that first-line supervisors tend to perform their jobs using the old “whack a mole” strategy.

In other words, as one task appears on their desk, they perform it, and then the next task appears, they perform it, and so on. They do this until they gain enough experience to see the big picture and make a better plan for task accomplishment recognizing the need for overall goal accomplishment.

The first step to patiently interacting with your first-line supervisors and your managers is being aware of these differences.

This week’s prescription: Be aware of the difference in managing or working for first-line supervisors and senior managers. Stay tuned for next week’s example of how they handle an assignment differently.

READ ALSO: First-line supervisors v. managers – Part two

Note to Readers: Every characteristic of a supervisor and higher level managers provided in this article will be a generalization so these characteristics will not fit in every circumstance.  However, you will find them useful when you are working with supervisors and managers whether as a subordinate or as a supervisor.  This discussion will help you treat and evaluate both groups of managers more appropriately and accurately.

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  • Hal Burton

    As with liberty, the benefits of democratic processes are revealed over the long term.