The challenge of promotion: the expanded scope of the supervisory role


WASHINGTON, December 12, 2013 – Each time a person is promoted, he or she is challenged. There are hundreds of books on leadership and promotion, but one key to understanding the experience is knowing that the visual scope of a non-supervisory employee is much narrower than the scope of personnel positioned at higher levels above.

This week, for example, a group of fire department lieutenants simulated the job of captain (the next higher rank). The most noticeable discovery in the simulation was that current lieutenants did not realize that the scope from which they view the world is much narrower than the captain’s scope. As such, the simulation was challenging for them. The increasing range of vision that becomes necessary as part of a person’s promotion process can prove somewhat daunting.

At the lowest level, an employee sees his world very narrowly. He will, correctly, worry that he performs his daily assignments accurately. He will worry that he comes to work on time. He will worry that his contribution accomplishes the goals that have been set for him.

When this employee is first promoted and supervises others, his span of influence and the degree to which his input has direct consequences will both expand rapidly. No longer can he view his task performance as right or wrong only. He must now assign tasks to others and evaluate his employees’ task performance. This is very challenging for two reasons.

First, the new supervisor had recently been a coworker (or equal) to those she now supervises. When this supervisor was simply a coworker or equal, a different relationship existed among the individuals in this division. They related to one another in helpful interactions, in some cases competitive interactions. But oftentimes these associations led to close work relationships and even close friendships.

When the new supervisor is promoted from the ranks, she must put her new job—to give assignments and make evaluations of performance—before her interpersonal relationships. This means that if her subordinates—her former colleagues—do not respond appropriately to her assignments, she must correct them. In the extreme, she may have to discipline or fire them.

Adjusting to these new types of relationships is very difficult, but it is only half the problem. The other half of the adjustment is learning to broaden one’s scope of vision. In other words, the work environment is no longer about one employee and his job performance. It now encompasses the employees who work him with and their job performance as well.

In turn, this becomes more about how everyone contributes to the team, the organization, and the customer. Further, management is viewing your performance as a new supervisor in light of your subordinates’ performance.  If your subordinates perform well, your own performance will be enhanced.

New supervisors must broaden their perspective. In effect, they must enlarge the magnification focusing on their view of their company.

Consequences of good or poor performance at lower levels have much to do with the single employee.  Consequences of good or poor performance at higher levels have much more to do with how lower level employees are supervised and motivated.

This also has much more to do with company performance and customer satisfaction, and upon promotion, it usually the first time that the supervisor and higher-level managers can see the big picture of this dynamic interaction.

In the fire example described earlier, the younger firefighters were close friends before promotion. They worked together for 24 hours at a time and they depended on each other for their lives.

Once one or more of them are promoted, however, all must ensure that their subordinate firefighters work safely, save citizens, and even perform mundane and expected tasks like arriving to work on time. It is often difficult to be a friend when you are responsible for another employee. It is similar to being a parent. And, as many of us know too well, parents cannot always be friends to their child.

In addition, the job of supervising firefighters is drastically different from actually being a firefighter on the front line. A firefighter will take a hose line into a burning building. She will see fire and smoke, and she will feel heat in that role. As she is promoted up the career ladder, however, she will rarely encounter that heat and smoke. She will instead direct others to do so and she will rely on them to communicate with her about their status and needs so she can address them in a timely manner. She must also trust them to carry out the tasks she herself used to complete. That is hard.

Next time you have an opportunity, ask a new supervisor what it is like to be a supervisor. New supervisors will surely tell you it’s much different from what they were formerly used to, and that they now have new goals and requirements. This can be expressed in two simple phrases: Supervising is about changing relationships and broadening perspective.

Knowing in advance what you face as you advance up that career ladder will help you to decide if you are ready to transition. If you are, you will find yourself able to adjust to your next move much more quickly.


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Dr. Cassi Fields has provided expert opinion on career and workplace issues for nationally recognized media outlets including Forbes, TheStreet TV,, FOX News Live, US News & World Report,, WUSA9, News Channel 8,, and more. Dr. Fields, who received her Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from George Washington University, lives in Maryland and Florida with her husband and two children.