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Distinguishing Between the Supervisor and Manager Role

written by: N. Plowman•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 8/14/2011

Have you ever wondered what makes a business run smoothly? What enables a business to function and succeed? The key is proper alignment and management of job roles and responsibilities. This article describes and contrasts two of these main roles – supervisor vs. manager.

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    Typical Organizational Hierarchy

    Who does what within a company? There are many different positions, and many have overlapping responsibilities and degrees of complexity. Therefore, many people find themselves asking what the difference is between the different roles – lead vs. supervisor, supervisor vs. manager and manager vs. executive.

    Generally speaking, there are six overarching levels of responsibility within an organization. Listed in order of increasing level of experience and accountability, these include junior employee, employee, lead employee, supervisor, manager, senior manager and executive.

    Employees usually have the least amount of control over the entire organization’s success, but added together, they are cumulatively responsible for the main operations and production, which makes the general employee population critical success factors for a business. For this reason, companies appoint leads, supervisors, managers and executives to oversee the day-to-day operations and high-level functions of a business.

    There are significant differences between the different levels of supervisorial/management positions, but this article focuses specifically on explaining the differences between supervisors and managers.

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    What is a Supervisor?

    A supervisor is responsible for the day-to-day operations of a business group to ensure employees are working toward a common goal, remaining productive, and avoiding conflict and negative competition. The group of employees can be distinguished by similar job roles (department supervisor) or similar shift patterns (day shift supervisor or graveyard supervisor).

    A supervisor is generally promoted from within, rather than hired externally. A supervisor probably started as a general employee and was promoted to a lead position before being appointed supervisor. The reason for this is that a supervisor needs to have experience in what the group does in order to effectively guide and direct the employees he or she oversees.

    Although a supervisor oversees a group of employees, the supervisor does not have authority to make significant decisions as they relate to the workforce. A supervisor can assign work tasks, realign tasks within a department, or take corrective actions to resolve employee disputes and productivity issues. However, a supervisor cannot hire, fire, or promote employees without consulting with a manager who is privy to higher-level organizational issues and concerns.

    Sample job titles for supervisors include:

    • Customer Service Supervisor
    • Night Shift Supervisor
    • Accounting Supervisor
    • Production Supervisor
    • Delivery Supervisor
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    What is a Manager?

    A manager is responsible for the high-level success of a business group or unit. A manager is less concerned with the day-to-day activities of individual employees and more concerned about the overall success and productivity of the group as a whole. A manager is responsible for planning department goals and directing employees to achieve certain end products and results.

    A manager can be hired from within; however, it is more common for a company to hire externally. While a manager needs to understand the general business goals and positions within the department, a manager’s critical responsibility is to provide guidance and direction to ensure overall departmental success. For this reason, a manager needs to have specialized training in business operations, people management or human resources, project management, and cost-benefit analysis.

    Generally, a manager can hire, fire, and promote employees within one’s department without consulting with senior management or executives. However, a manager cannot make significant changes to the department’s goals or direction without consulting with senior management and executive leadership.

    Sample job titles for managers include:

    • Customer Service Manager
    • Quality Assurance Manager
    • Shift Manager
    • Finance Manager
    • Production Manager
    • Human Resources Manager
    • Client Services Manager
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    What is the Difference?

    This article already identified the roles and responsibilities of supervisors and managers, but it hasn’t yet compared the two roles. Although there are subtle similarities between the two positions, there are key differences that distinguish a supervisor from a manager. These distinctions can be used to better classify and identify roles within an organization. The following list identifies the critical differences between supervisors and managers.

    • A supervisor is responsible for the day-to-day operations of employees within a department, and a manager is responsible for the high-level success of the department as a whole.
    • A supervisor is responsible for directing the work and goals of individual employees, and a manager is responsible for directing the work and goals of a department.
    • A supervisor assigns tasks to individual employees and realigns tasks among employees, and a manager realigns official job descriptions and organizational structures within a department.
    • A supervisor is promoted from within and has extensive knowledge about the positions he or she is overseeing, and a manager is hired externally for his or her people skills and project management abilities.
    • A supervisor cannot hire, fire, or promote, but a manager can make these decisions for the betterment of the business unit.


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