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The Changing Role of Supervisors

The Changing Role of Supervisors

"If we botched up in one area, that was it." That was the response to OPM's survey question, "Did you train your supervisors on their changing role when you moved to self-directed teams?"

In an informal survey of Federal self-directed teams recently conducted by an OPM support team, many agencies report that transitioning supervisors either into team leader roles or into oversight and mentoring positions was difficult. "We did some training, but we should have done a lot more," another respondent observed. "Things may have gone a lot smoother."

Traditional Role of the Supervisor

The traditional role of the supervisor has been to plan, direct, and control the work done by subordinates. Because of delayering, many Federal organizations are moving to team structures as a way of adjusting to higher subordinate/supervisor ratios. In many types of teams that still function as traditional work units (with low levels of employee empowerment in the decision making process), the traditional role of the supervisor still fits. However, in situations where teams are given more authority over how work gets done for instance in semiautonomous or self-directed teams the traditional role of the supervisor will actually hinder the development of the team. That is why it is important to the success of any team initiative to train delayered supervisors.

New Roles

According to the OPM survey, some agencies have moved their delayered supervisors to team leader or team member roles. Others have organized their former supervisors into expert teams that give technical and administrative guidance and support to other teams. Still other agencies use delayered supervisors as mentors, who foster the development of two or three teams while working on the "bigger picture" issues of the agency. Finally, many supervisors have left Federal agencies due to buyouts and early retirements.

The most difficult change seems to be transitioning from the supervisor role to the team leader or team member role, especially in a semi-autonomous or self-directed team. Not all supervisors make good team leaders. Many supervisors are used to planning, directing, and controlling the work. They may not know how to lead group consensus decision making processes or facilitate group problem-solving exercises. Team leaders need skills in group dynamics, facilitation, and coaching skills that traditional supervisors may or may not have. Additionally, some supervisors may not want to give up their authority and decision-making power. They like having control over what happens. As a result, there have been some situations where the transition just didn't work and the former supervisor was removed from the team and placed elsewhere.

Whether a delayered supervisor becomes a team leader or assumes some other leadership role in a team environment, that employee needs training, coaching, and mentoring from higher level managers. Agencies would be wise to focus attention on the training and development needs of delayered supervisors; sometimes it is this group that can make or break an organization's team efforts.

In addition to ensuring that the delayered supervisor's management style fits an empowered environment, agencies need to keep another factor in mind if they want to transition supervisors to team leaders successfully. Do the former supervisor's job duties and responsibilities (minus the supervisory responsibilities) support the person's current grade? If not, the move from supervisor to team leader may mean a loss of grade for the employee. For agencies doing everything they can to sustain the grades of these highly valuable people, this option is extremely distasteful but is sometimes unavoidable. The only mitigating factor to downgrading the position is that the employee will retain grade for two years and then retain pay. Under pay retention rules, their rate of pay will gradually decline until it falls within the pay range of the new grade.

In his book Leading Self-Directed Work Teams, Kimball Fisher illustrates the role differences between the traditional supervisor and the team leader by relating a story about sheep. As he grew up in a small town in Utah, he observed the traditional Western style of herding sheep, with the sheep dogs nipping at the heels of the sheep to keep them together and moving in the right direction. While visiting in the Middle East, however, he was surprised to see shepherds turn their backs to their sheep and walk away. Expecting the sheep to scatter, he found that they were actually following, that the shepherds were leading and guiding their flocks to water and safety. This was a very different approach than he'd seen before. Fisher goes on to compare shepherding to team leading. Even though his observations address self-directed teams specifically, the following quote illustrates the new skills that delayered supervisors will need in most team environments: "Although excellent supervisors have often managed in nontraditional ways in traditional work systems, most supervisors have been trained and reinforced for acting more like sheep herders than shepherds. [Self directed work teams] need their leaders to be shepherds, people who lead, take risks, and develop other shepherds, not sheep herders who drive sheep with work rules and procedures."

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